Mrs. Johnson arrives at your program looking less than her usual well-groomed and composed self. She has dark circles under her eyes, her hair looks windblown, and there is a look of worry in her eyes. When she drops off her child, he cries, clings, whines. Mrs. Johnson looks toward the door in desperation. You hear, "No, Mommy! I don't want to stay! I hate school!"

What is really going on here? Is this a separation issue, or has something happened in the classroom to cause this reaction?

Addressing the Issue

After settling the child in the classroom, and before calling Mrs. Johnson, you need to do some preparation work. To get to the root of the problem, try the following:

  • Get the child to verbalize why he said he hates school. Be nonconfrontational, be reflective, and listen carefully to the child's answers. Young children may lack the vocabulary they need to express what is really bothering them.
  • Observe the child in the classroom. Watch how he interacts with other children. Be honest in your assessment of the classroom and whether the activities are challenging and interesting. This child may have been the target of some child's attempt to make the classroom more interesting by teasing or being disruptive. Or is this a strong-willed child objecting to classroom rules and the restrictions put on activity choices? Do other children reject this child when he approaches them to play?
  • Check the child's anecdotal records and other classroom observations. How long has this been a problem? Separation issues can periodically reemerge throughout childhood. Three-and-a-half-year-olds often go through a developmental stage that includes feelings of high anxiety.
  • Consider changes in the child's life. Has the family moved, divorced, or experienced the death of a family member or pet? Have career obligations increased the time the mother or father have had to be away from home? In the classroom, have any new children been added? Young children, like all of us, have certain needs when making adjustments to change. Even good changes can cause anxiety.

Working With Fears

Everything seems new and so much out of a child's control as he begins school that fears can range from using the toilet at school to worrying that Mom or Dad won't come back at the end of the day.

As you discuss the specific fears and the issue at large with the child's parent, remember to be empathic and to include ways to address both the symptoms, including difficulties at drop-off, and the cause. Is there something in the home situation that may be worrying her and her child? Is she comfortable with having her child at the program? Some parents are ambivalent about their choice and this can be unconsciously communicated to children. Help her to develop a simple but clear routine, such as putting away her coat, piecing together a puzzle, and then giving her child a good-bye hug and kiss and leaving. Encourage the parent to call you during a mutually convenient time to see how her child is doing.

Once you understand the possible causes of this behavior, you, other staff members, and the family can plan strategies to help both parent and child.