There is not one answer. For sure we must acknowledge the child's feelings of being left with strangers. The feelings range from being sad to being mad. We do not try to placate or redirect. Again, we acknowledge her feelings the best way we can. That may be verbal or non-verbal. I tend toward the non-verbal.
We know we are nurturing, but how do we convey that to a child who is upset about her mother or father leaving? Since we have eight different classes and over 100 children in a week, we got a lot of practice this past week. Here are some of the things we tried.
- Connect with the parent and child as they arrive.
- Give a clear message that a parent is welcome to stay in the room as long as she wants and will always be welcome in the room. The parent must trust us if she is to willingly leave her child in our care. The children will pick up on the parent's trust.
- Ask the parent how does she comfort the child when she is upset.
- Ask the parent to say goodbye quickly.
- If the parent thinks the child will cry when she leaves, we ask the parent to physically hand the child to a staff person. That is important because the non-verbal communication of handing a child to a staff person tells the child that the parent trusts the staff.
- Not all children like to be held, so we pay attention to her non-verbal cues. If she does not want to be held, we put her down. We will usually stay near letting her know someone is there for her.
- After acknowledging her feelings either verbally or non-verbally, we will begin to play with a toy. Often times, other children gather around and they take over the play. We continue to find new things to play with. If the child is on a lap, she will often join the play. For those who are a little more reluctant, we will play with a toy and then set it near the reluctant child. This works 95% of the time.
- This year I also tried something completely new with a child who was particularly distraught about his mother leaving. I took him over to the water table. (Imagine that, me taking a child over to the water table.) That did not settle him down. There were several children busy around the table but he was having none of it. While he was still crying, I began to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Instead of singing "like a diamond in the sky," I would substitute a silly word for diamond. For instance, I would sing: "like a tomato in the sky." The children around the table laughed. That was actually enough to halt the distraught child's crying. As I kept singing and substituting other words for diamond, the laughter and silliness grew to encompass the reluctant child. The child ended up leaving my lap to fully engage with the materials and others in the room. I chalk it up to humor. Remember, though, not all children appreciate humor; some just need comfort.
There was one notable exception to our welcoming efforts this past week. We had a mother break down. She was terribly conflicted about leaving her children in our care. Every time she would try to talk about leaving, the children would cry with their puppy-dog eyes full of tears. It was too much for the mother. What to do? I asked the mother to stay for the two-hour class period. With her as a reference point, the children moved out and explored and had a good time. The children even started to make important connections with other staff. Next week we will try again.
Learning to belong is a process that is really a life skill. When we as adults enter into a new situation, we, too, try to figure out how to belong. For some people it comes easy; for others it is very hard. No matter the disposition, we have to find ways to make the parents and children feel welcome.
Did you notice that I did not use the word separation? If we only talk about separation, we forget about the welcoming part. Only after a parent and child feel welcome in the classroom will separation feel like a normal thing.
Now that school has started, how did you make your families feel welcome?