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::: separation anxiety – tips for teachers

Even though the new year of teaching here in Australia has not yet begun there’s nothing like being prepared for what might come!

Separation anxiety is a normal stage in children’s development where they experience anxiety when they are separated from their primary caregiver. It can take parents totally by surprise so you really do need to be prepared for anything!  Separation anxiety behaviors are wide-ranging and can be expressed in as simple a behavior as crying when a parent leaves and can be as severe as a child becoming physically sick.

Not only can this be distressing for the child but naturally parents, staff and other children can be affected by this behaviour. After all you’re a good teacher – a kind, caring and compassionate person … why doesn’t the child see that?!

The symptoms can last for as short as a few minutes or can last for as long as the parent is away. Some of the behaviors that children may exhibit are – crying and clinging at drop off time as well as transition times throughout the day, such as moving onto a new activity, venturing outside or snack time. Some children may not display extreme emotions when they experience separation anxiety instead trying to cope with the situations inwardly until Mum/Dad return sometimes crying at pick up time because it reminds them of how they felt when they were dropped off. It is not uncommon for parents to observe some anger or distance from their children after they return, as if to punish them for leaving them!

Here are a few tips and strategies that we’ve found helpful over the years!

Respect the Child’s Feelings. Teachers must respect the child’s feelings when she is missing Mum/Dad. Allow the child to feel this way, her emotions are real. Teachers should never criticize the child’s feelings or label them as babyish or wrong. Also, bribing the child in order to make them happy is not good practice. It is not a good choice to offer a reward or punishment in return for the child’s behavior during separation. Their fears and concerns are real and a natural part of  the child’s development.

Engage the Child in Activities. Sometimes one staff member is better at dealing with ‘chaos’ than another. Sometimes a child simply relates better to one of the staff. In any case it is a good idea to establish a routine and have the the same staff member engage with the same child each day until the child gains her confidence. It’s a good way to ensure the child knows what is going to happen. Once the parents have left, engage the child in an attempt to redirect their attention.  Offer to read the child a story, or sit with them at the playdough or sensory table. Better still offer to take them outside. In our own experience, children often feel more comfortable and relaxed in the freedom of the outdoor space.

Don’t force the child to participate. Sometimes a child experiencing separation anxiety simply needs to be left alone for a few minutes. If your attempts to engage the child don’t work, don’t manhandle them or attempt to be picking them up. Clearly if your attempts are rejected the child is letting you know that they want to be left alone. Sometimes a child will simply plonk themselves on the floor right where Mum/Dad left them to deal with their grief. As long as they are safe and out of harm’s way it is often best to leave them for a few minutes to have their cry and settle down. Once they realize Mum/Dad have left and are no longer around to react to their tears they will usually settle down in a couple of minutes which is the time for you to step back in and attempt to engage them again.

Comfort the Child. Give the child a safe place to come to if they feel overwhelmed. Reassure them it is okay to cry or feel upset.  Let them know where you will be if they need you. Assure them that time will pass more quickly when they are playing and that Mum/Dad will return (for instance) after they have had a play inside and outside and following the group story time at the end of the session.

Establish a routine. While parents may feel guilty about leaving a crying child, the best advice to give parents is to have a set goodbye routine and leave. Teachers should help determine the place and time for the routine. If you leave this up to the parents they may never leave! Perhaps when the child arrives and puts her belongings away Mum/Dad  might read her ONE story in the library corner after which they say their goodbyes ONCE and Mum/ Dad leave. It is important the child (and Mum/Dad) knows the routine. This will to help them to become adjusted and comfortable within their environment. Again, consistency is critical. Once you establish what works for any particular child be sure to use the same strategies each time the child arrives. Plan ahead and be prepared and then before long the child’s self help skills will kick in and she will automatically take herself off without the need of her parents and simply get on with being a pre-schooler!

Communication is the key. Once Mum/Dad have left and after the child has settled down telephone Mum/Dad and let them know how things are going. Remember when Mum/Dad left their child she was crying and distressed. Naturally parents feel guilty leaving an unhappy child as it is heart breaking stuff! You know their child has settled into play but  their imaginations have probably lead them to picture their child curled up in the fetal position rocking themselves back and forth. A quick phone call will help to establish a trusting relationship between yourself and the parents as it will reassure them of your compassion. AND be honest! If Junior is happily playing with the other children interacting in conversation and the like tell them that is what’s happening but if she has simply stopped the crying and half an hour on is simply sitting on the floor watching what is going on around her tell them THAT! Pretending things are going along fine when they aren’t is not good practice. You want the family to trust you so honesty is always the best policy.

Talk to the parents. Teachers should find out how long the separation problem has existed, how many places the child has been left, and how many caretakers they have had. In addition, it is important to know if there have been any recent changes in the child’s life and if any siblings have had similar issues. This will help teachers to get a better sense of the issue.

Don’t give up! Things may be going along great and then after a month or so the child may have a day or two when they feel that anxiety all over again. It’s likely to happen after school holidays or an absence through sickness. Teachers should reassure the child that the classroom is still a place where they are safe and cared about. Remember to be consistent in your approach when dealing with separation anxiety. Your aim is to provide a sense of warmth and caring while encouraging independence

Access support networks. Separation anxiety comes in varying degrees. If you feel you are in over your head with any child’s distress you do have avenues of help available to you. If you are struggling to help any child overcome their anxiety there may be deeper underlying problems with the child so you may need to seek some professional help. Here in Victoria you can contact the pre-school field officer in your region. If necessary she can direct you to further help. Other services are also available  by contacting the “The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development ” (DEECD)

Here are some further articles which may be helpful to teachers-

::: Separation Anxiety in Young Children

::: Parenting and Child Health – Separation Anxiety

::: Coping with Separation Anxiety

::: Easing Separation Anxiety

In the words of Winston Churchill – “Never, never, never give up!”


7 Responses to “separation anxiety – tips for teachers”

  1. Scott says:

    I often tell parents (and other teachers) that the separation anxiety develops when a child knows which people “belong” to him. He’s upset when separated from those people. As he feels more comfortable and feels like the teachers and preschool friends “belong” to him, too, the anxiety will ease. Your tips–consistency, comfort, routines–help the child work through that transition process. Thanks for some great tips!

    ::: That’s a really good way of looking at it Scott. I think you’ve summed it up in a nutshell! 🙂 🙂

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  3. Teacher Tom says:

    Great set of guidelines.

    One of the things that works for me that I think falls into the category of respecting the child’s feelings is that if a child is able to express his/her feelings in words (“I want mommy,” or “I want to go home”) is to agree with them. “I want your mommy too,” “I wish you could go home too.” I then follow that up by trying to give them concrete information about when that will happen. “And your mommy will come back when we sing the boom-boom song,” or “You will go home after we read our story.” After a time, they come to understand the arc of the day (which is why I don’t monkey with the schedule at all during a child’s 2-year-old year) and with that comes a sense of comfort and mastery.

    You’re sure right about separation anxiety ebbing a flowing, not just over the course of the school year, but over the course of 3 years. Since the kids come to me at 2, we get most of our separation work done then, but I expect it to recur whenever there are big changes in the child’s household (e.g., a new baby, grandma comes to visit for a couple weeks, etc.). I’ve also noticed that it tends to crop up again as a child starts nearing 5-years-old. I think that has to do with the fact that their parents are starting to prepare them for moving on to kindergarten in another school and there’s anxiety associated with that.

    It’s hard work!

    ::: It is hard work Tom but it looks like you have things well and truly in check! 🙂 🙂

  4. […] ::: separation anxiety – tips for teachers […]

  5. Lisa says:

    I am wondering if you might be able and willing to give me guidance. I live in the USA and don’t know what resources I have in my area to ask, so I’m asking you.
    I have a youngster (3 years old) in my class (3 hours a day, 3 days a week) who just moved here from India about a week ago and speaks very little English. She does seem to understand a bit though. She was never away from her mother until she came to our class last Wed. According to her mother she tends to vomit when she gets really upset which she experienced several times while in our care. She was held pretty much the entire time and held on for dear life when we tried to pass her to another adult in the class or even attempted to put her down (potty break and such). In my opinion, she seemed quite traumatized by the experience. We were comforting towards her speaking softly and holding her as well as telling her mommy would return for her. (Naturally she was asking for her mom often.) What additional measures can we take to help her in this process? I want her to have the benefits of a preschool classroom without going through any sort of trauma. I also feel that it is our place as the professionals in the industry to leaf the family to the best adjustment. Is there any advice you would be willing to share?
    Any help is greatly appreciated!

  6. admin says:

    Lisa … We would suggest you get some professional help from someone who is an expert in this field. You do not want to put this small child under any more distress than she already is. Perhaps your preschool field officer would be better able to advise you than us as this is certainly not our field of expertise.
    Donna and Sherry

  7. Sarah says:

    Lisa, I had a similar experience with a young Chinese girl when I was first starting out in Child Care, her mother worked 5 days a week and needed to put her daughter in care, she spoke no English and cried all day – she too was traumatised. She would not lie down to sleep or play and refused any comfort from staff, she carried all her belongings all day and even toileting was an issue. The best thing we could do was to support her in her choices, to move toys close to her, give her a back rub or a shoulder touch (making sure not to push the boundaries), allowing her to carry (ALL) her bags (including her sleep stuff) as this made her feel secure, put pillows behind her as she fell asleep and respect her need for space and time. We gave her mum comfort as she dropped her off with smiles of encouragement. Slowly after many months she settled into the centre, and after time developed relationships with the staff and then her peers, it was a tough road with her but the rewards once she settled were amazing. Having cultural resources of familiarity in various play spaces can help with a feeling of belonging. Separation Anxiety is such a big thing to little ones and their parents, a gentle hand is always the most receptive response.