When children come into your setting each day, you are likely to see a wide range of different ways that children cope with separating from their main carer. Whilst some children will leave their parent happily, others will really struggle and experience a lot of anxiety. This is hardly surprising – they are somewhere different; with people they don’t know, they don’t know when or if they are going to get fed and they don’t know when or if they are going to go home. We need to reassure and teach each child what happens in our setting, that their needs will be met and that they will have a good time.
Now, throw in the strange year that we have had to the above scenario. Even the most confident child will not have left their parents for weeks at a time whilst the country has been on lockdown, so they won’t have ‘practised’ being away from their carer. We’re going to need to be prepared to support children in the best possible way as they return to our settings.
Here are some other things you can do to support a child with separation anxiety in your setting:
Use the keyworker relationship as much as possible. A child’s keyworker plays a significant role in helping a child settle. They need to form an attachment early on so that the child can feel more at ease when the parent leaves. Encourage settling in sessions where the child gets to know that key adult, perhaps with the parent for the first couple of times. If you are a keyworker, tell the child all about you so that they know lots about you and begin to form a bond.
Be calm and confident when greeting the child. Show them, and their carer, that everything is ok.
Help parents develop a quick goodbye ritual for when they leave their child. It might be that the child waves at the window or it might be that they leave them at a particular activity. Encourage the parents to make it the same everyday so that the child knows what to expect.
Pick the time carefully. Try to get parents to drop off at a time that the child is not particularly tired or hungry – the child needs to be at their best to cope with the challenging emotions that separation can bring.
Bring the children into a quiet/calm area, if possible, before moving them to more noise and chaos. It’s really hard for a nervous child to settle in a busy/noisy room, especially if they come from a quiet household.
Play music as the child arrives. This gives the child something to focus on and makes the setting seem an inviting, happy place.
Build a special job into their routine. You’re bound to use routine anyway – it gives the children control because they know what Is going to happen in their day. Now, how about adding a special job into that routine that is just for that child when they first arrive? Imagine the boost a child will feel if you say “I’m so glad you’re here, I need your help to feed the fish!”. This makes them feel important, gives them ownership and control and focuses their attention away from leaving their carer.
Use a visual timetable – this allows the child to see what is going to be happening in their day and when they are going home. Giving them this knowledge helps them feel in control and therefore calmer.
Allow comfort toys. They bridge the gap between home and your setting and just give that child the extra bit of support they need. They won’t need it forever.
Remove pressure – don’t expect the child to speak in front of a group or anything like that if they don’t want to. If they are given reasons to feel nervous about coming then this isn’t going to help their separation.
Don’t label the child. If the child hears you describing them as ‘shy’ then they are going to believe it and become what they believe.
Recognise how a child wants to say hello in the morning. I absolutely love those posters that give the child the option of giving a high five, a fist pump, having a hug or just saying hello. You are recognising their personality and respecting what they are comfortable with.
Let the parents know once the child has settled. Just dropping them a message to let them know will reduce their anxiety for the next time they drop off, which will in turn, make the child calmer.
Use circle times. In order for children to deal with strong emotions they need to learn about them. They first need to recognise them in others, before recognising them in themselves and then begin to deal with them. Use your circle times to talk about emotions, then you can gradually begin talking about how we feel when we leave our parents. Highlight the fact that you may feel sad, but that later in the day you feel really happy. You can then remind the child of this next time the parent drops off – yes you feel sad, but you will feel happy soon, just like you did yesterday.
Use empathy. Talk about a time that you felt nervous going somewhere. Show the child that they are not alone in how they feel, but that things do get easier – empathy is an amazing tool that works really well for children.
Many of the things that can make separation easier for a child need to be carried out by the parent or carer, and many of the suggestions above are for the carer’s benefit as much as the child. If the carer is anxious, then the child will be anxious, so we need to support both. Consider giving parents a leaflet or a link to a page on your website that gives them top tips on how best to make separation easier for them and their child. Just showing that you understand the stress that a child’s anxiety can cause parents will be a great start to building a positive relationship with them.
It’s been a strange time and going back to the new normal is going to be met with mixed emotions. Show the children a calm, happy environment, communicate to them what is happening and show them a consistent routine. Hopefully your children will then settle quickly and you can then focus on the amazing fun and learning you will have together.
About the author
Gina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.