Over the many years I have worked in early childhood programs, I have witnessed the parting of parents and children hundreds of times. It can be difficult for both parties, but it is especially hard for a parent. While the child reacts to the moment of parting, the parent may feel guilt and sadness for the rest of the day.
Most of the time, a child cries when the parent leaves. Because children live in the moment, they feel the sadness of parting as a pure emotion, unaffected by logic. Crying for five minutes means the transition is hard for the child but manageable; however, crying all morning may mean the child needs more preparation for the experience.
Like most things in life, making the transition from home to school requires some practice. An infant does not understand that the parent will be back until they experience it.
The first time your child attends a new program, take some time to explore the room together. Then leave together. The next day, do a practice run and leave your child for 15 or 20 minutes. Increase the time a bit every day and by the end of the week, the child may be ready to stay for the entire morning.
For all children, a certain amount of routine can be comforting. It is helpful to have a ritual in making the transition from home to child care or preschool. Some effective strategies include waving goodbye to mom at the window, watching dad walk to his car, or “one more kiss and then you go with your teacher.” Making the parting predictable can relieve a lot of anxiety for the child.
As tempting as it may be to sneak out so your child doesn’t cry, it is not a recommended practice. Children need to be able to trust their parents and caregivers, and a definite and predictable leaving and returning routine is a key component in learning to trust.
I often recommend parents make a book about going to child care. That way, the child can have time to process feelings and feel more confident about the experience. The book can be as simple as:
David goes to child care three times a week.
His teacher is Jenny, and she’s happy to see him in the morning.
When it’s time for dad to go, he says, “Bye David, have a good day.” Then Jenny and David go to the window so they can wave and blow a kiss. When dad leaves, David can choose a book or go to the art table.
You can make the book with line drawings, pictures off the computer, magazine cutouts, or photographs. Most children love stories about themselves and the quality of the pictures is less important than the message that life can be predictable.
Transitions are hard for children whether they’re coming or going. After all your thought and preparation for the transition to child care, however, don’t be surprised if the child you left crying in the morning will be reluctant to leave when it’s time to go home.
Jane Wagner is an early childhood special educator with Early Childhood CARES, which provides early intervention and early childhood special education services to Lane County children ages birth to 5. Call 541-346-2578 or 800-925-8694 to schedule a free screening in English or Spanish. Parenting Now! is a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening families through parent support and education.