You've heard the saying, timing is everything. That is certainly true at the end of the school day. When children are not picked up at the time agreed upon, the delay causes difficulty for everyone involved — for the child who worries about where the parent is; for the parent who is anxious about being late; and for the staff, who have staffing ratios and schedules to maintain.

The staff person who is present when a child is picked up late is usually the one to initiate a conversation with the parent or family member. It is left to that staff member to find out why the parent is late and if there is a problem with the anticipated pick-up time. This conversation can be especially difficult for both the teaching staff and the parent at the end of a long day.

Parents usually initiate this conversation with words of apology and explanation, and this is usually an isolated incident. The conversation becomes more difficult when children are consistently picked up later than anticipated. Parents who arrive late not only affect the program schedule, but also the underlying trust of their children. Even very young children anticipate the arrival of their parents at the close of the day. There is a sense of abandonment, however brief, when a parent is late.

Every program needs to have a policy regarding late pickup. The third time children are picked up late within a four-week period usually indicates that a meeting should be arranged. Topics to discuss include pick-up time policies, how to reassure a child when a parent is late, and how to find a solution that can work for everyone.
Parents of a child who are consistently late may not communicate well with each other about pick-up time. To ensure that the needs of everyone involved are considered, all family members who participate in pick up should be present at the meeting.

Sometimes the problem for parents involves difficulty leaving work on time. They may be reluctant to discuss this with teaching staff, fearing that they will be asked to leave the school. Caught between the needs of their job and their children, they may feel helpless and defensive. Teaching staff can work with them to arrange a solution that fits both their needs.

Some issues that might arise include:

1. The program's hours of operation. These may not accommodate parents' work/travel time needs. Parents may be frequently delayed by their boss or co-workers. They may need encouragement to be firm about their departure time from work. Parents who know they will be late on a specific day each week might need to identify another person to regularly pick up their children on that day.

2. Keeping track of time. Some people do not do this well. They are just not attentive to "time" as an important factor in their lives. Just talking about possible solutions together can solve the problem. A parent might set their watch to beep at a certain time everyday or have a timed message on their computer to suggest that they wrap up at work and leave on time.

3. Meeting family needs. Parents may need to stop and pick up dinner, milk, or diapers. They may have unreliable transportation or a myriad of reasons for being late. Parents often need teaching staff to encourage them to discuss their family needs so that a solution can be found. Problem solving together creates a plan that meets everyone's needs — children, families, and staff.

Strong school-home relationships open staff to families and families to staff, allowing us to model problem-solving strategies for our children. These are among the fundamental life lessons they will build on as they grow.

Charlotte Politis, MARE, MPH, has spent over 30 years working in childcare and education. She has recently retired as Coordinator of the Family Resource Center at the Linden Street School, Plainville CT.