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Early childhood education has been my life for over 40 years. I have taught all age groups from infants to 5-year-olds. I was a director for five years in the 1980s, but I returned to the classroom 22 years ago. My passion is watching the ways children explore and discover their world. In the classroom, everything starts with the reciprocal relationships between adults and children and between the children themselves. With that in mind, I plan and set up activities. But that is just the beginning. What actually happens is a flow that includes my efforts to invite, respond and support children's interface with those activities and with others in the room. Oh yeh, and along the way, the children change the activities to suit their own inventiveness and creativity. Now the processes become reciprocal with the children doing the inviting, responding and supporting. Young children are the best learners and teachers. I am truly fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


The start of school always brings a form of apprehension to all the participants involved.  The teachers wonder how will the children do when the parents leave.  The parents wonder how will their children do when they leave.  The children?  Well, how do they feel?  How do you make a child feel welcome in your classroom for the first time?

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?


  1. Another trick we use is asking the parent/carer to leave something like a cardigan, jacket of theirs. This gives the child a visual cue that the parent/carer will return! Love the article and hope this tip helps. We have found it really successful with those children who find it tricky to settle.

    1. Great idea. I just might have to try it---soon. Another thing we do is to allow and even encourage leaving comfort items---blankies and such.

  2. Those ideas are all so sensitively thought through and honor the integrity and emotional life of the child. In addition, I use books like "You Go Away." by Dorothy Corey. And I make books for the children using their photos and those of family members. I "hide" the family members under "doors" which the children pick up/open. At end of book, child can see themselves with mom or dad. Delights and comforts.

    1. We always used to talk about separation and separation anxiety. We have decided instead to concentrate on making the parents and children feel welcome. Books are often comfort items for children and I like your idea for a personal book. That would be hard for us with over 100 children. But you know what, maybe that is something we can ask the parents to do with their children. That way, they could come to school with the book they helped make and share it with adults or peers. I will talk to the staff about it. We have sometimes sent pictures of the staff home with parents so they can talk about their teachers at home.

    2. Hi Tom - I've just found, and subscribed to, your feed via Child's Play Music. You have helped me understand that I was indeed a 'welcoming' person in all the years that I cared full time for babies and young children, in my home or in a group setting.

      I believe the term 'separation anxiety' is often used in a daycare classroom to absolve the caregivers from doing their share to make a child feel really comfortable. 'Separation anxiety' is something I would hope to see in a child who is well attached to whomever has cared for them for their first few months or years prior to being in daycare. They should be cautious about this new stranger who is in their lives and the place they are being left. Babies who are distressed every day in the care of a regular caregiver are telling us that their environment isn't welcoming and probably they don't like that person! Many caregivers and teachers just fail to listen or adjust their attitude.

      I'm so happy to say that little ones have crawled into my welcoming lap when they are slightly anxious, even after becoming established in the care setting. It is our job NOT to 'break' babies and young children!

    3. Hi Helen and welcome. I like your last comment about it not being our job to 'break' the babies. Separation is a part of life; we do it all the time everyday. If we emphasize the positive---belonging---we always have a good place to go to.