Separation anxiety is common in many children, and teachers all over the country deal with it every year. Sonja Walker, Founder of Kids First Children’s Services shares her successful strategies for supporting both children and parents.
It’s the first week of the year and you’ve spent a lot of time working out how to make your new students and their parents feel welcome in your classroom.
Name tags are prepared, games set up and help is on hand to ensure that children transition easily… and then the child with separation anxiety arrives.
This little person, despite your welcoming smile and all of the interesting activities you have to offer, simply is not going to let mummy or daddy leave without a fight.
Their quiet whimpering and tendency to cling like a limpet to mummy’s leg might escalate to a screaming, kicking, lying on the floor tantrum within minutes, and because you don’t know this child very well, it can be tricky to know what to do to turn the situation around.
[pullquote]Separation anxiety is common in many children, and teachers all over the country deal with it every year. [/pullquote]It is a normal part of early childhood development, and while it tends to subside as children reach the age of four and develop a more confident sense of self, stressful situations such as being left in a new place with new people can cause sensitive children to feel intense separation distress.
As teachers, it’s important to understand that, while you are very familiar with the environment in which you work, most of your new students and their parents are not.
It’s understandable for them to feel a bit uncertain during the first days and weeks of the year, and so finding ways to support them through this period is an important part of developing their trust and confidence in you.
3 strategies for supporting separation anxiety
As experienced educators, you and your colleagues probably have lots of tools in your ‘separation anxiety toolkit’, but here’s three more that could be helpful as you being the year with the children in your care.
Find out as much as you can
Use your information gathering process during orientation to find out if any of your new students have a history of separation anxiety. If a child has struggled in other settings, it is helpful to know about this so that you can plan for their introduction to your classroom. It may be that you can adopt some of the strategies that other carers or teachers have successfully used in the past, so in your introductory questionnaire or parent survey, ask ‘Does your child struggle with separation anxiety? If so, what past strategies have been helpful in managing this?’ You may find that the parents of anxious children will seek contact with you before the first day. If it is possible to meet or talk with them, this is always helpful, as the insights they share will mean that you can plan more effectively.
In the heat of the moment, when parents are embarrassed by their child’s behaviour and you are trying to get the day underway for the rest of the group, it can be tempting to tell a tantrum-prone child to stop being silly. The reality is that a child who experiences separation anxiety genuinely feels afraid during these moments of transition, and so responding to their fear with judgement and raised voices is rarely helpful. Their behaviour is their way of communicating their distress. They are young, and so they might not have the words to articulate their fear that mummy or daddy might forget to come back for them at the end of the day. They don’t know you, and so you might be a bit scary too, especially if you stand over them and try to pull them away from the parent they love.
A child who is in a heightened state of emotion is not going to register much of what you say, however in these stressful situations, the tone you use and your body language will do your communicating for you. Try not to add to the volume and attention the scene is receiving by raising your voice over the crying or screaming. Instead, use a quiet, low tone and acknowledge the emotions the child is likely to be feeling, but unable to articulate.
“I know, it’s hard to say goodbye to mummy. She is going to miss you too” and “You don’t want daddy to go, I know” are the kinds of statements that show children that you recognise how they are feeling. Often this recognition is the first step to calming a child’s desperate attempts to make grown-ups understand, and by modelling this to parents, you are giving them strategies to use at home and at the playground gate too.
Respect parents’ feelings
Research shows that anxiety is a highly hereditable character trait. Just as children might inherit their father’s blue eyes or their mother’s slim build, it may be that anxiety runs in the family. Parents of anxious children have possibly been struggling with their child’s separation anxiety for a long time. It’s quite possible that they have been dreading these early days of the year because they are worried about how their sensitive child is going to cope. Because you don’t yet know this family well, you will not be aware of the circumstances of their life, or the history that they bring to your classroom. As much as possible, try to understand that the parent of a child with separation anxiety may also be struggling with the change that they and their child are experiencing.
Many teachers tell the parents of anxious children ‘She’ll be okay as soon as you leave” or “I’ll get him involved in a game and in five minutes this will all be over.” You and I know that this is often the case, but for an anxious parent who have never gone through this experience before, you will need to do a little more to gain their trust. The best way to support a parent in this situation is to make a promise to call them if their child is not coping, and to keep it. When you say something like “It might take a little while for her to get her bearings, but I promise, if things haven’t settled down by 10.30am, we will call you” you show that you understand their worry and are on their side. Giving parents a time frame and making sure that you honour your promise is a vital part in building their confidence in you.
Build positive relationships
Your student’s separation anxiety might be a momentary thing that is overcome quickly with a few fun games and an introduction to like-minded peers, however, for some children, separation anxiety is an on-going issue.
Should you feel that your student’s continuing struggles are impacting on their well-being, always seek advice. It is not in a child’s best interest for intense and prolonged separation anxiety to be ignored or regarded as something that they will grow out of. An experienced colleague, school counsellor or local psychologist may be able to support you and the child’s family with information and resilience-building strategies so that your student is able to feel safe, confident and in control in your classroom.
About the Author
Sonja Walker is the best-selling author of School Ready: A practical and supportive guide for parents with sensitive kids. She is also an experienced teacher, speaker, mum and the founder of Kids First Children’s Services, an award-winning pediatric health and education practice in Sydney where she leads a highly experienced team of child psychologists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and teachers. Sonja’s mission is to help kids to thrive, not just ‘cope’ by supporting their parents and teachers with practical solutions and easy ideas that make life happier at home, preschool and school. Sonja presents keynote speeches and workshops in preschools, schools and corporate settings and is a sought after media commentator on topics related to children’s learning and development. To contact Sonja, please visit www.kids-first.com.au