Jamie was deeply engrossed in making "hamburgers" when her mother walked over to say goodbye. Suddenly, the 3-year-old began to cry. "I'll pick you up early today," Mrs. Stevens said, hugging her daughter and telling me she'd call from work at lunchtime before anxiously turning to leave.
The door had barely closed when Jamie brightened, rushing back to her classmates. I wondered about these tearful farewells when the child is apparently thriving. And there is no mistaking Jamie's delight with school! She is as eager to try finger painting as she is to scramble up the climber or bang a tambourine. Everything intrigues this curious child, who enjoys her new friends and seems completely at home.
Like most newcomers, Jamie had wanted her mother close by during the first days of school. It was fine with me. I encourage parents to stay until their children are ready to separate, as I think Jamie is now. But I know that Mrs. Stevens is concerned about Jamie's crying. How can I help Jamie's mother understand how quickly her daughter gets over these moments of sadness?
The Parent's Story
The teacher thinks that my daughter is ready to be in school without me. Although I trust her judgement, I wonder why Jamie still cries when I leave. Everything seemed to be going so well when I stayed in the room.
Jamie loved playing with her new pals, and I could tell she already liked Ms. Washington, who is very kind. I followed the teacher's suggestion that I pull back a little, and, sure enough, Jamie soon learned to ask her for help. Sometimes Jamie even seemed to forget I was there, until the teacher and I decided it was time for me to go to work. Judging by her tears, Jamie didn't agree. I'm not sure what to do now. I don't want my little girl to feel sad.
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
It is not unusual for a child who thoroughly enjoys school to still find parting from a parent upsetting for a while. Her teacher correctly assessed the fleeting nature of Jamie's tears as those of a 3-year-old who has begun to manage very well on her own. If Jamie had been truly overcome by sadness, her recovery would not have been so rapid. Yet the parent's concern is very understandable. She doesn't know what happens when she leaves, or how common her child's response is.
What the Teacher Can Do
Jamie's teacher wisely recognized how important it was to time the separation according to the child's needs. However, it is also vital to be supportive of the parent. The teacher might invite Jamie's mom to peek through a window after parting to see her daughter quickly feeling better and enjoying school. Jamie's mom would be reassured to learn that her little girl is doing splendidly.
The teacher should also acknowledge the parent's devotion to her daughter's healthy development, which has allowed Jamie's curiosity and independence to blossom. Considering the warm feelings between mother and child, it's no wonder that a tear or two will be shed when they part. If the tears were to continue dailyand for more than 10 minutes regularlythe parent and teacher should consider a longer transition period.
What the Parent Can Do
Mrs. Stevens was wise to take the teacher's advice to stay in the room unobtrusively until Jamie felt comfortable in school. Now she can help Jamie again by not becoming upset at the sight of those tears. Reminding Jamie that pals are waiting in the dramatic-play area could focus her attention on classroom activities.
It's important for the parent to keep her promise about coming early at the end of the day. For her own sake, Jamie's mother should be encouraged to peek through an open door after leaving and to stay in touch with the teacher.
Working together, the teacher and parent can foster Jamie's pride in her growing independence.
When to Wonder:
- If parent and child begin to cling to each other, thereby increasing one another's anxiety about being separated.
- If the child's crying and overall sadness becomes more lasting and prominent, interfering with the child's capacity to participate and enjoy school.
- If the child shows signs of anxiety about the absence of her mother at least intermittently throughout most school days.
Every child is unique, and no two who are starting school go through the experience of separating in precisely the same way. This particular story is about a child who quickly mastered the challenge with a minimum of anxiety. But many other children experience considerable separation anxiety, which is not so readily overcome. When teachers are faced with that situation, there are helpful things she can do:
- Work out an arrangement for a parent or another adult who is close to the child to remain in the classroom, allowing for gradual separation in sync with the child's growing level of comfort.
- Develop a deepening trust through a respectful, yet warm relationship with the child. Without hovering, be alert and sensitive to the child's needs, interests, and moods. Provide one-on-one play opportunities with yourself or another reliable, responsive adult.
- During free play, guide the child toward a carefully chosen classmate who you think would be engaging and supportive, as well as lots of fun.
- Carefully time the introduction of other children to a game the child is participating in, keeping the group small enough for the child in question to remain engaged and at ease.
- Stay tuned in. Be responsive and alert to intermittent signs of sadness or loneliness. You can expect these episodes to gradually diminish in frequency and duration, as the child's comfort level grows.
- Allowing her to peek into the classroom after saying goodbye, seeing for herself that her child is doing fine.
- Inviting her to phone the school later in the day to inquire about how her child is managing.
- Making yourself available for a chat or a more formal conference, as needed.
- Reassuring the parent that her child's pace of adapting is very normal.
Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant, and author.