Every caregiver has been there. Standing at the classroom door while a child who is being dropped off is screaming, and crying. It doesn’t matter how many times the teacher reminds the family that they will have a great day and it’s normal, families are often left thinking “Are they really going to be okay?”. The short of it, yes! Separation anxiety is a very common emotion in early childhood, and child care providers are experts at supporting children and families during these moments.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety happens at many stages of life and in a variety of ways. When it comes to the early childhood field, according to Anxiety Canada, separation anxiety in young children can present itself “with more physical and observable signs such as complaints about stomachache or general ailments, as well as crying, clinging, refusal to part, and sometimes full-blown tantrums.” Typically, separation anxiety is seen when large changes are happening in a early childhood, such as moving to a new home, changing childcare centers or a new baby in the family. Most children will grow out of separation anxiety, but when it sticks around it can be a sign of other things below the surface. (Kidshealth) A secure attachment and separation anxiety often go hand in hand. According to the Childhood Encyclopedia “Children are considered to be attached if they tend to seek proximity to and contact with a specific caregiver in times of distress, illness, and tiredness..” (Childs Mind Institute)
Over the years, early childhood professional development has had an increasing focus on the emotional health of young children and it is well known that separation anxiety in early childhood is developmentally appropriate. (Childs Mind Institute) It’s very normal for a child to show separation anxiety in the early years as they continue to form loving and caring bonds with their families and child care professional. A key aspect of early childhood development is that children are looking to create a secure attachment with the caregivers around them. As a child grows, secure attachment is created through a variety of ways, from a caregiver attending to a physical need, to emotional support when they’ve fallen and hurt themselves. When a child is then placed in a new space or situation they show separation anxiety to the person who is always there for them. (Childs Mind Institute)
Tips to help with Separation Anxiety
Navigating separation anxiety in young children poses its challenges. By participating in professional development for child care providers and families, both the childcare provider and the family of a young child can concentrate on acquiring essential knowledge and accessing top-notch continuing education. This empowers them to effectively support children during transitional phases in child care and support attachment and learning outcomes.
Be consistent – Do your best to keep routines as consistent as possible. When a child has consistency in their life they can then predict what will come next, which will reduce anxiety. Keeping routines such as pick-up and drop-off, bath time and bedtime consistent and predictable are key during this phase of child development, and will help a child to feel more control over their life. This helps the child and the caregiver to feel like a team as they go through the structure of the day.
Give a child total attention at the time of separation – Taking time to put the phone away, to focus and be completely present as a child works through the emotions that often come with a challenging transition is critical for the child to feel seen in this moment. Having a dedicated child care provider in the classroom who is able to devote time to the children being dropped off can help reduce stress and support the progress of the child as they begin to feel more comfortable and explore the classroom.
Stay calm – Staying calm and showing confidence in a child to work through this transition helps them to feel validated and and in-turn feel confident in themselves. The emotions children express when anxious are a healthy part of child development.
Practice and small steps– Start with a short visit to the center and take time get to know the early childhood professionals in their classroom. This will help both the child and the family feel confident. If you start slowly and with shorter days, it will help a child understand that their family will be back at the end of the day.
Communication- Explain what is happening and why it is happening. For a toddler, it helps to follow a couple of steps of what the day will look like. For example: walking through the classroom schedule. This helps a child predict what is coming next.
Build self-esteem – Educators and families can take time to praise positive and independent actions. Making this a conscious effort is a key part of professional growth for the early childhood workforce and families with young children. Pay attention to how praise is given and make sure you are not giving false praise.
Tools and knowledge – Reading books can help with all areas of child development and building new skills, from language development to cognition and social-emotional skills. When teachers and families pick books a child can relate to then can they start to put themselves in the shoes of the characters in the books.
Encouraging participation in professional development is also a critical way to ensure educators stay up-to-date with best practices, the latest research and deepen their knowledge of what is happening when a child expresses challenging emotions during a transition.
Comfort item – If the childcare center permits, it is advisable to encourage a child to bring a small comfort item into the classroom, promoting not only a sense of security but also supporting early childhood development. This practice can be particularly beneficial, especially during nap time. Once the child no longer needs the comfort item, teachers can gently return it to their belongings.(HeathlinkBC)
Additional resources and learning – Parents and educators wear so many hats, and it can be extremely overwhelming at times when we fail to recognize they need help and support. Make sure that you are not only getting the rest you need but also seeking extra support, online learning, professional development or community groups and training sessions if you are having trouble with your own anxiety.
A final thing to keep in mind, if a parent and child are struggling with separation anxiety, it’s important to have confidence and trust in your childcare providers. They are childcare professionals and capable of handling and supporting a child through this transition.
“Your little one’s unwillingness to leave you is a good sign that healthy attachments have developed between the two of you. Eventually, your child will be able to remember that you always return after you leave, and that will be comfort enough while you’re gone.” (Kidshealth)
At the end of the day teachers and families want to help children know that their feelings are valid, real, and heard. When confidence is shown in them they will feel it, allowing them to thrive and feel capable of taking on whatever the world throws at them.
To support children and families in managing separation anxiety, browse our professional development platform Lillio Academy, for certified training sessions across the North America.