Starting preschool and understanding the separation process

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Starting preschool and the separation process can be hard on everyone. When parents give over the care of their children to a pre-school, day-care center or kindergarten teacher, no matter how attractive the facility, it is an emotionally difficult time for child and parents alike.

Parents tend to stifle these feelings with bravado, telling their child, “There will be a lot of other children for you to play with;” “Look at all the toys and things to do;” “Your teacher will help you learn all sorts of new things.” But when the reality of the parents’ leaving comes, this encouragement usually cannot make up for the abandonment the child feels.

Out of sight, out of mind?

The personnel of some schools and centers believe that the best way to handle this difficult time for the child is to encourage her to “forget” Mommy and Daddy while there. They may try to divert the child’s missing feelings with activities and materials.

Children asked to “sit on” these feelings often react in a variety of negative or debilitating ways.

In more forward-looking schools, the teachers and caregivers know that asking young children to give up thinking about Mommy and Daddy is like asking them to give up a piece of themselves.

They help a child find ways to keep those closest to her consciously in mind to serve as a source of strength and comfort even when they are not with her.

Providing reinforcements

Take a picture of you (parent or parents) with your child for her to keep in her backpack or cubby at school.  During times of stress, the child can use the picture to comfort herself and to remind her that Mommy and Daddy are missing her, too.

Along with the picture could be a short note (perhaps a new one every few days) telling the child that Mommy and Daddy are thinking of her. They will be so proud when they hear about all of the things she did while at school/the center that day. Teachers can very effectively use these notes when the child’s missing feelings cause her to be disinterested in an activity or prevent her from finishing one.

For the very young child, personal items belonging to the parents may be even better than a picture. These can stand in for the parents’ physical presence and remind her of their love. Just knowing that Mom’s or Dad’s handkerchief, old billfold, scarf, old piece of jewelry, etc., is in her backpack, coat pocket or cubby to be checked on or touched occasionally (not played with) can be a tangible comfort. Infants and toddlers often prefer Mom’s unwashed T-shirt because the scent is a more intimate, direct reminder of her.

In the early days when a child is starting preschool and the separation process, a beloved security blanket or stuffed toy can help her feel less abandoned and alone.

Some parents write out a list of tasks they perform during their day whether at a workplace or at home. If the teacher notices the child’s attention, interest or self-control is waning, the schedule can be referred to so that the child can picture her parents doing their work as she does hers.

Short visits and/or phone calls

Short planned visits by one or both parents to the school during the early “settling-in” time may be very helpful. It could be that the visit would be to have lunch with the child, or to do one or two activities with her.

Having lunch, doing a puzzle, building a Lego or block construction together puts Mom’s or Dad’s “seal-of-approval” on their child’s new world. It will also provide a feeling memory of togetherness the next time the child engages in these activities without Mom or Dad.

If the early separation time is particularly difficult for a child, or if she is experiencing more stress from things going on in her home life, a planned phone call can help with anxious feelings. This should be talked over and planned with the teacher ahead of time. Initially, the sound of a parent’s voice on the phone may cause tears. This is all part of the process of being able to separate in spite of having huge feelings of being left.

In his writings,  Dr. Robert Furman, former director of the Hanna Perkins Center, identified these feelings as caused by:

  • Anxiety: “Will I be safe?”
  • Sadness: “I’ll miss you.”
  • Anger: “How could you leave me to do something without me?” 

With supportive help and reassurances from parents and teachers, the child will come to realize that she can manage these overwhelming feelings and not let them get in the way (and not let them get so big). When she no longer needs reinforcements of visits or phone calls, her mastery of her anxious feelings can be a source of pride for her – a sign of becoming a “big girl.”

Discussing the day

When parents talk over the child’s day when they are reunited, they can make a plan for what the child can do the next day when she feels lonely, angry, sad or frustrated. They can preface the plan by saying, “If that happens again…,” or “If you feel that way again…” – and end it by saying “…then you’ll be able to do it for yourself.”

This is encouraging the “growing-up” side of the child – giving her a method, by using thoughts of Mom’s and Dad’s words for support, to feel less helpless, to take charge of herself and move on. If the caregiver or teacher is aware of this plan, he or she can use it to advantage, reminding the child: “What would Mom or Dad say or do when such-and-such happens?”

When the child feels that her parents and her teacher are partners on her behalf, and that her parents like and respect the teacher, it paves the way for the teacher to become someone who helps her learn new things. The child will be better able to enjoy learning and develop new friendships when allowed to feel that thinking about her parents is OK and restorative.

Explore our kindergarten and preschool programs. For younger children, our parent/toddler program provides developmentally minded fun.


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