Dealing with separation anxiety in early learning settings.

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Attending an early learning centre is an important and exciting stage in any child’s personal development. It’s a chance for them to interact with other children and educators in a fun and safe learning environment.

Most children embrace this time with enthusiasm but some feel afraid and anxious. Separation anxiety is normal and usually starts around six months of age and lasts until about two and a half to four years. It can last longer but will generally settle down as your child become more confident in their changing environment.

Behavior to Look Out For

When a child is anxious about their parents or caregiver’s departure they express it in a number of different ways. Signs to be aware of include:  

  • visibly upset and will cry or call out as parent leaves;
  • physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea or tummy aches;
  • appear nervous, restless, clingy, quiet or withdrawn;
  • refuses to go to childcare.

How can you help a child overcome their separation fears?

It’s an emotional issue for both the child and the caregiver. Remember though, all children have to learn to deal with separation at some point.  If their first separations are managed well, it can help them later in life as they learn to cope with challenging separation situations. Here are some helpful tips and advice to consider:

  • Encourage parents to visit the Centre with their child before they start. Keep their first few days short and build up the hours that they go there over time. They need to know that they are being left in a safe place with a trustworthy person. Try keep your staffing consistent at morning drop offs, so children can learn to trust their educators at drop off time – a time when they feel very vulnerable.
  • Be clear about the process, before you attempt it. Communication is important. Parents should tell the child when they are leaving and when they will return. Communicate with the child in a way they understand (“2.30pm” doesn’t mean anything to a child who can’t tell the time)! Tell the child when their parent will come back to collect them in ways that they understand. eg. “after your lunch”. Consistency is also key. If the educator is communicating the same things as the parent, it really helps the little person trust what is being said.
  • Many educators advocate a ‘drop and run’ approach, however this doesn’t need to be done in a clandestine way. Sneaking out when their child is distracted can make things worse. Your child might feel confused or upset when they realise that you are not around, and be more difficult to settle the next time you leave.
  • Have a selection of enticing activities ready in the morning. Activities which don’t require socialisation are useful for shy children who find engaging with their piers confronting. Physical activities are also utterly absorbing for some children and having an assortment will stand you in good stead.
  • Gently encourage your child to separate by giving them some playful practice. Suggest playing Peek-a-Boo and Hide-and-Seek at home. This helps them to learn that you always come back.
  • Let them take something they love from home to make them feel safe, such as a teddy bear, pillow or blanket. These objects can be gradually phased out as they become more settled in their new environment.
  • Parents should keep a relaxed and happy expression when leaving a child. 
  • Encourage parents to speak to you about a child’s anxiety when separating at drop off and anything that they are doing to help them. This ensures that other people in the child’s environment can give consistent support.
  • No matter how frustrated you feel, avoid criticising or being negative about a child’s difficulty with separation. Foster their self-esteem by giving them lots of positive attention and reassurance.
  • Have group discussions, read books or make up stories with children about their separation fears – for example, ‘Once upon a time, there was a little bunny who didn’t want to leave her mummy in the hutch. She was afraid of what she might find outside …’. This helps your child feel that they are not alone in being afraid of separating from their parents.

Further reading:

https://www.kidsmatter.edu.au/families/about-behaviour/being-apart/understanding-and-managing-separation-distress

http://ncac.acecqa.gov.au/educator-resources/pcf-articles/Positive_goodbyes_Dec09.pdf

http://www.today.com/parents/separation-anxiety-19-ways-ease-your-child-s-fears-so-t74826

http://aussiechildcarenetwork.com.au/articles/child-behaviour/separation-anxiety-in-children