A great skill to acquire as a preschool teacher is knowing how and when to take a child from their parent. Confidently insisting to the parent the their child will be fine, waving them off to work and quickly distracting the child with the days activities. That was me. I had it down packed,
"Oh Johnny your here! I need your help with the rabbit cage, come on" as I whisked him away giving Johnny's' Mother the "he'll be fine nod"
Distraction. It worked every time so I never once considered there might be a better alternative, and certainly not one that actually supported the development of a child's emotional regulation.
It wasn't until I became the manager of a preschool did I notice a contributing cause of a child's separation anxiety was in fact their own parents behaviour.
There I was now on the other side of the kiddy fence, at my desk I sat - morning, noon and night observing parents. I witnessed them coming and going. Dropping off and picking up. Popping in and phoning through. Peeping in my office window signalling thumbs up? or thumbs down? Worried that their precious child is overwhelmed, upset and in desperate need of their comfort.
Some would stay way too long, setting themselves up for the dreaded daily repeat of "Mum stay with me a while longer, pleeeease?"
Frazzled mothers talking too much, reassuring and reacting with anxious words and gestures trying to convince their child they will be fine. "Your going to have so much fun with your friends" "You love it here" "I'll buy you a treat" "I'll pick you up early" The overly positive parental sales pitch was dreadfully inconsistent with the 'Your making me late for work' body language. Children were found teary eyed, gripping tightly onto one moving leg of a fathers suit pant, while frowning at the teacher - feeling confused, disconnected and now even more anxious.
So how do you respond to a child who is clearly suffering from separation anxiety?
The best response is L.O.V.E. Listen, Observe, Validate and Empower
Listen: Be calm and look them in the eye to listen, connect for a moment and hear them out.
Observe: Observe your own feelings and behaviour. Breath deeply and slowly and hold a calm positive stance.
Validate: Name the feelings you see, and empathize with them so they feel heard and understood "You feel sad? "Its hard to say good bye" Use describing words to depict how it might be for them. "You really want me to stay, I know, its tough"
Empower: Give two choices "Would you like to go outside or read a book?" then a statement of intent "I love you and Ill be back later"
Then smile and walk away confidently.
This response along with calm, confident body language will send the child the message "I am OK that you are sad, I trust this place and these people, and you are safe"
Remember: If your OK with their big feelings, they will be OK with their big feelings.
Super Nanny Script: "It’s OK if you feel like being sad, I'll be back later to pick you up"