Many toddlers and preschoolers are used to spending every minute of the day with their family. When it comes time for young children to enroll in childcare programs and preschools, they may struggle with separation anxiety, which can make the transition difficult and stressful.
Try these tips to help children transition into your early childhood education program with less stress for them, their parents, and yourself.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is feeling nervous about being separated from a loved one or caregiver.
Around seven months old, infants develop object permanence and understand that their parents don’t disappear when they leave the room.
By the time they are 18 months old, young toddlers begin to wonder where their parents are and why they have gone away. This new awareness can cause separation anxiety.
You can help children in your childcare center cope with their separation anxiety by encouraging them to create a nurturing bond with an educator, helping them regulate their emotions, and reminding them that their parents or caregivers will return for them each day.
Separation anxiety in toddlers (12 months to three years)
Toddlers experiencing separation anxiety may cling to their parents during drop-offs, refuse to take naps, or cry and yell when their parents leave. Other signs of separation anxiety in toddlers may include resisting attention or support from teachers or caregivers and throwing a tantrum.
How teachers can help toddlers ease their separation anxiety
1. Invite families to visit your center before the first day
New places can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing for toddlers. You can help them feel more comfortable in your center by inviting families to an open house before the first day.
An open house helps new families become familiar with your center. At your open house, spend time getting to know the children. Share what they can expect when they attend your center and show them that your center is a fun, inviting place with adults who care about them.
Invite the children to participate in fun activities that separate them from their parents for short periods. These activities may help them feel less anxious about being in your center and away from their parents on the first day.
Separation anxiety affects parents as well as their children. During your open house, acknowledge parents' feelings about enrolling their child in a childcare program. Answer any questions they may have about your program, procedures, and health and safety policies to help ease their anxiety.
Let families know that they will have access to daily reports sharing pertinent information about their child's day. To strengthen the family-teacher relationship, you can download our free toddler daily sheet to record the children's daily activities, providing families a window into their child's day.
2. Greet each child and parent during drop-off
Every morning, greet each child and their parents during drop-off. Tell the children and their parents about the day's activities for a few minutes.
Create "goodbye and hello" routines that children and their parents can participate in during drop-off and pick-up. Routines like short songs or dances will help children transition from their time with their parents to their time with teachers.
3. Let children bring in a comfort item
Items that remind children of their home can help them self-soothe and relieve their anxiety. Allow children to bring comfort items like a blanket or stuffed animal.
4. Create a family photo wall
Ask parents to bring a photo of their family to display in your center. Hang the photos where the children can see them easily. Seeing their family members' familiar faces may help children feel more comfortable in the unfamiliar childcare setting.
You can use the photo wall to prompt children to talk about their family members and to remind them that their parents will return at the end of the day.
Separation anxiety in preschoolers (three years to five years)
Preschoolers with separation anxiety may engage in similar behaviors as toddlers (i.e., crying, clinging to family, and throwing a tantrum). Other signs of separation anxiety in preschoolers may include regressing in potty training and other skills and refusing to take naps.
How teachers can help preschoolers ease their separation anxiety
Preschoolers would benefit from all the strategies shared to ease anxieties in toddlers. However, since they are older, they could also learn additional coping skills that allow them to take charge of their feelings and learn to become independent in self-regulation during challenging separations. Teachers can help preschoolers with separation anxiety by teaching them calming strategies when they feel anxious.
1. Encourage children to practice breathing exercises
Breathing exercises reduce stress and anxiety, lower the heart rate, relax the body, and increase the body's oxygen levels.
Guide preschoolers through simple breathing activities after drop-off each day to help them calm down and alleviate their separation anxiety.
Belly breathing is an easy breathing exercise for young children. To practice belly breathing with your children:
Instruct the children to sit upright or lay on their backs.
1. Instruct the children to sit upright or lay on their backs.
2. Have them breathe normally with one hand on their bellies and the other on their chests.
3. Ask them to pay attention to their breathing. How does their breathing feel? Which hand moves more as they breathe? Is the hand on their belly moving up and down?
4. Have them breathe in for four seconds until they feel their chest fill with air, and the air travels down to their belly.
5. Have the children hold their breath for four seconds.
6. Have them exhale slowly. If they find it difficult to exhale slowly, have them try exhaling through a straw or pursed lips to slow down their exhale.
7. Have the children continue breathing this way until they feel relaxed.
8. Ask the children how their bodies feel. Ask them if they notice a difference between how they felt before the breathing exercise and how they feel after.
2. Create a calming center with stuffed animals and art supplies
In addition to the activity centers in your preschool, create a calming center with coloring pages, crayons, paper/envelopes, play dough, and stuffed animals. Encourage children to create pictures and sculptures, or write letters (with teacher support to write the words as needed) to give to their parents at the end of the day.
3. Stick to a routine
Teaching the children your preschool's daily schedule will help them feel more secure. Post a visual schedule in your center where the children can easily see it. Associate an image with each activity for the day so the children can understand the order of events.
Ask parents when they plan to pick up their children and use the daily schedule to help the children understand when their parents will arrive. For example, if a parent intends to pick up their child at 12:30 pm, you can show a child the schedule and tell them that their parents will return for them after lunchtime but before nap time.
A planned pick-up time and daily visual schedule can help children feel less anxious about whether their parents will return for them.
4. Read reassuring books about separation to the children
There are many children's books that you can read to the children in your preschool to teach them about separation anxiety, including:
- The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
- The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
Help the children in your center overcome their separation anxiety
Separation anxiety affects every child differently. You can help the toddlers and preschoolers in your center feel secure after drop-off by giving them individual attention, helping them calm themselves, and comforting them with items and photos from home.
Remember to validate the children's feelings. Let them know that you understand how they feel and that it’s okay for them to be sad. Reassure them that they are safe and their parents will return for them.
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