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The Trial and Triumph of Separation
The Trial and Triumph of Separation

Pictured above: a Toddler who has moved into her day, having processed her caregiver's departure.

by Nicole Barba, Toddler Teacher

Many times, joining the Toddler community represents the first time you and your child have been separated. You hope your child goes into the classroom with confidence and ease, and that all the preparation and school visits that occurred beforehand will make this simple.

But here comes the first day of school, or perhaps the fifth day of school, and there is your child, clinging and crying. For you, it may become hard to let go. Not too long ago you had this little being in your arms, completely dependent on you. Separating from parents and/or important caregivers is the "big work" for these toddlers and their separation anxiety is a normal, healthy developmental phase.

Children begin a series of natural separations from birth, with birth being the first major one. Next is weaning, where they start to independently feed themselves, and then crawling, one of the first instances of literally independently moving away from you. The next big separation is walking, which allows the children to freely roam, explore, and separate even further from their caregiver.

It may be difficult for you to allow that separation to happen, because you are still trying to adjust to this person, who in the first year and a half has changed drastically from an infant who was just born to a walking individual. Understandably, you may try to limit your child's world in order to try to protect them, but each toddler has a need to explore in order to learn about self and the world being encountered. Separation is necessary in order for them to have more experiences and build more relationships. We need to be there to guide and encourage, as well as be that "safe spot" the child can fall back on. That is the type of security the child needs, and it helps the child build self-confidence.

In the Toddler community, the importance of the transitional phase-in is to help the child feel secure and supported, both physically and emotionally. Thought processes might include: "I am in an environment set up to help with my needs and I know that I will go back home to a caring adult who supports and loves me." The separation and anxiety that may come with it prompt the development of a comfortable independence, as the child acclimates and realizes that all the adults in their lives, in school and at home, are supporting them.

Many times, I've seen the toddler who went through a lot of crying at the beginning of the school year be the one to help new children adjust when transitioning in later, mentioning that "mommy back later" or "let's get a tissue." The empathy that starts to form from going through these experiences helps with connecting to others.

Having consistency and seeing parents demonstrate trust in the new adult will help the toddler move forward and build trust with the new caregiver. From parents and other caregivers, your display of confidence and reassurance gives the toddler a positive start. Your patience and understanding are the key to helping your child through this process.

Children who have a strong bond with a caring adult also know how to test boundaries. They know that crying affects the adults in their lives and may use it as a tool to prolong the actual separation time. And for you, it is hard to let go. Toddlers are learning to process emotions and need your help to guide them through these feelings.

There are many reasons why some children may have more anxiety, or may regress to develop anxiety. Life changes; for example, new siblings, moving, grandparents visiting, holiday breaks, and snow days may throw off a sense of security and predictability. Keeping patience and making sure you give one-on-one attention during these times will help: you are still there for them. Also, it is important that you are prepared and trust that where you are leaving your child, in our case with the Toddler community, is a safe place with a settled routine. Even if there are cries at arrival and then tears at pick up, remain strong and reassured that there were probably no tears during the morning, that the teacher will guide you in any way possible, and that that teacher's actions are toward your child's best interest.

Here are a few tips to help ease the anxiety:

  1. Have short goodbyes. This shows that you have confidence that the caregiver you left your child with can help your child now and you will be back.
  2. Set up a routine: A predictable routine helps the child trust and deal with the situations in the day. Some ideas include leaving for school each day at the same time with the same person, having all the school gear ready the night before, setting that gear up in the same place consistently, and having breakfast at the same time each morning.
  3. Tell the "story of the day"." The night before or on the way to school, talk about what the child expects to do during the morning. Think of key points, such arriving at the gate, using the toilet, reading a book, eating snack, playing outside, and then getting picked up at the gate. Make sure to keep your promise about who is picking up and when.
  4. Practice being away. Choose short times when you leave your child somewhere else, such as with visiting grandparents or in-house on another floor, and then coming back.
  5. Set up playdates. Have your child interact with fellow classmates outside of school. This also allows for building community and support systems with other parents.

Remember, you are not alone. All families deal with some sort of separation anxiety at some time. Try not to compare yours to another's situation, as each moment is unique. As Toddler teachers, we are here for your family. This is why we generally give more updates during the transitional time, to help you understand what your child is doing, especially since many of them have limited verbal language. These little updates can also be incorporated into your "story of the day." As always, if there is ever a concern or you need a little more help, we are happy to guide and come up with plans based on your particular needs. Ditch the guilt. Shake off your own insecurities. We are in partnership and are all here to help with what is in the best interest of your child. More often than not, your child is enjoying the morning in a room made just for them to explore!