Monday, December 5, 2011

Separation Anxiety?

As we get ready to wrap up parent conferences this semester and prepare for some new children to start after winter break, parents are front and center in my mind. It seems a year can't go by without hearing someone complain about parents. I have heard teachers at different levels say, more than once, that their job would be easier if they didn't have to deal with parents. And while every teacher or child care provider has had their share of difficult parents, we need to remember that without parents, we wouldn't have these amazing children to look after and care for.

The biggest complaint that I tend to hear from child care providers is that some parents hang around too long at drop off time in the morning. These providers would prefer that most parents just drop and go. Their reasons vary. Some feel nervous that parents are watching and waiting for them to do something wrong. Others complain that the child is too clingy to whiny or won't get off the parents' lap as long as they are there. Rarely do they ask themselves why the parents like to hang around. For most parents, this is the only time they see what happens in child care. For others, they may still be adjusting to having their child in full day care or in a new classroom. Sometimes it's a simple case of personalities clashing. We have to remember that we are human and while we may not want to be friends with everyone we meet, we do need to treat them all with the same respect.

We put a lot of time, thought and effort into helping children adjust to child care or a new classroom. We acknowledge that it is a process but that children will learn to trust their caregivers and develop a sense of security when they are well-cared for. We rarely put that same effort into helping parents adjust. For some parents, just as with children, the transition is quick and relatively easy. For others, it takes a little more time. The parents we serve are as unique as their children and we need to remember that when are helping a new family. A great provider will think of the family as a whole and not simply focus on the needs of the child.

There are simple ways to help parents acclimate to the child care center:
  1. Have the children visit several times with their parents before their first day. This is as beneficial for the parents as it is for the children. This is the time parents can ask their questions and see the children and staff in action. Knowing how the caregivers respond to individual children does a lot to help new families feel their children will get the attention and care they need.
  2. Acknowledge that it will likely be harder for the parents than the child. Children have shorter memories and likely won't remember their first day of preschool, except in extreme circumstances. The parents, however, will carry that feeling with them to work or school for the rest of the day and longer. And that's okay.  Encourage them to call to check up on their child if they feel the need.
  3. Establish a drop off routine. Having a routine lets children know what to expect, which lessens their stress at this time.  By involving the children in the routine, such as having them hang their coat up or put their lunch box in their cubby, children feel more invested.  
  4. Encourage the parents to stay for a bit and not rush off. While it may be easier for some providers to send parents on their way quickly, if we let them stay until they are ready, the separation ritual will become easier. I always tell new families to let me know when they are ready to say good-bye rather than trying to force my schedule on them. I have found that once parents are more comfortable or once the child is more comfortable, they tend to shorten the routine. After a few weeks, I am willing to bet that the child who clings to mom or dad or prefers to sit on their lap while the others play will start to venture out and explore. Eventually, the child will even let the parent know when they are ready to say good-bye. And while it may  be more trying for the caregivers in the short-term, in the long-term , it benefits the family immensely. More often than not, the subsequent transitions become easier and and easier.
  5. Say good-bye and leave.  This may be the hardest but most important part. Yes, the child is probably going to cry. Mom or dad coming back will stop the cry for the time being but once they do leave, there will be crying. Let the child know you understand they miss their parents and accept their feelings.  You may spend the whole day acknowledging those same feelings and reminding the child when they will be reunited. But that won't last forever. They will learn the routine and realize that their parent will pick them up at roughly the same time each day.
There will always be families that we have trouble getting along with or that we just don't understand. But those are the exceptions, not the norm, for most of us. When we start thinking about the needs and realities of the families, and not just the child, we are truly providing the best care possible.

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