I recently had the experience of transitioning my youngest child to preschool and feel compelled to write about what I witnessed and learned during that process. Now, mind you, my child is attending an excellent preschool, handpicked by her psychologist mom. There are many lovely, compassionate, dedicated teachers there and I have no doubt she will thrive in that setting. However, even in this place, there was a clear expectation on the first day that you should bring your child and leave as quickly as possible to allow them to go about the business of adjusting to the new environment.
Having gone through this process before and being much more confident as a parent now, I chose to do things my own way and actually hung around until my child was settled and ready for the separation, about 15-20 minutes later. While in the classroom, I witnessed multiple children screaming at the tops of their lungs, begging parents to come back. I also saw teachers stressed by the demands of caring for a child not wanting to be with them. I noticed the less-distressed children looking a little unsettled as they heard the shrieking of their peers. I spoke with a parent in the hallway and she said it didn’t feel right to leave her child so abruptly, but she didn’t want to upset anyone by staying.
I kept thinking two things: (1) Is it really necessary to do it this way? and (2) Is it really “normal” to expose a child to such high stress in order to make such a transition? I tried to think about things from the child’s perspective, especially a child who is naturally anxious, shy, was adopted or has been largely in the home for the first few years. Imagine going to a new place, being introduced to a complete stranger, and then having your caregiver leave abruptly. Wouldn’t that be disconcerting, at the very least? I also looked at things from a neuroscience perspective. We know chronically high levels of stress are not good for a child’s developing brain.
We live in a culture where we are expected to be comfortable leaving our children with strangers, whether they be caregivers in our homes, at the gym, or at school. We’re told that if we stay, we’re just being protective and are the ones with “the issue.” To be clear, I’m not saying that we need to keep our children with us at all times, but what I am saying is that we need to be sensitive to their experience of the situation. Here are my suggestions for transitions:
1. Whenever possible, leave your child with someone he knows very well and in whom you have complete confidence. This will make separation easier for both of you. If you must use a new caregiver, make sure your child meets this person before the actual day they will be caring for your child. Familiarity breeds comfort. Ideally, the first time you leave your child should be for a very short time. Gradually build up to longer periods as your child acclimates to the caregiver. You DO NOT want your child in a complete panic. Episodes of extreme stress and anxiety are harmful to a child.
2. Plan enough time to help your child transition. Make sure your child has access to a blanket, pacifier, or whatever else brings some comfort. Perhaps leave her with a laminated picture of your family or a personal item she can take care of for you until you return. Ask the caregiver to remind your child that you will be coming back.
3. If your child clings and screams as you try to leave, do take a little time to help him get more regulated. Then, ask the caregiver to hold your child and help him say “goodbye” to you. At this point, it is important to walk out confidently and tell him you will be back soon. Don’t leave without saying, “goodbye.”
4. When you return, your child may ignore you. Don’t take it personally; she’s just been stressed by your absence. Scoop her up and do whatever it takes to help her reconnect with you.
5. Trust yourself. You know your child best. You are most aware of what he can handle. It is your job to advocate for your child, so even if it is uncomfortable, just do it!