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Coping with Separation Anxiety in Children: Tips for Parents and Teachers

Separation anxiety and the behaviors in young children that manifest from it are specific to each child. Educators must honor the differences in each child and the culture of the school or center where they work when partnering with parents to help a child cope with separation anxiety. While the strategy will vary for each child, the goal remains the same: helping him feel safe and secure in the new environment so that he can learn.

The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are informed by what experts at the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Educare Chicago have found to be successful ways of mitigating separation anxiety in the classroom. While there are many opinions on this broad topic, one recurrent theme is the importance of establishing a routine.

Helping children to create routines within their daily life is one of the best ways to teach confidence, self-discipline and cooperation—skills that later lead to the development of strong coping mechanisms. Such skills enable children to more easily navigate unexpected changes and adjust to unfamiliar environments.

"When you're young, you don't have many coping skills, so you don't know how to settle yourself down if you're too feisty, and if you're too shy, you don't know how to make yourself go forward," says Bill McKenzie, senior training manager at the Ounce's office in Springfield, Illinois. It's up to parents and teachers to teach children how to calm themselves down so they can learn about the world around them.

Visit the school or center
Children act out stresses from separation anxiety in a number of different ways. One way to reduce separation anxiety is to introduce them to the school or child care center that they will be going to during the day. If the school or center allows for pre-school year visits, take advantage of these days to get your child and family acclimated to the interior of the space.

It's also helpful to establish the route that you will use to get to the classroom each day and to repeat it a couple of times with whatever mode of transportation you will use. If you can walk to the center, walk the route several times so that that the child becomes familiar with it. Even with infants, repeating this route while they are in their stroller can help them to become familiar with scenery that will eventually signal to them that they are on their way to a safe place.

Establish a goodbye ritual
Goodbye rituals in the classroom at the start of the day play an important role in making a child feel safe, and will lessen the opportunity for nervousness and panic to arise when the parent leaves for the day. When you bring your child to school or child care center, give yourself enough time to pick out a book to read with your child, or sit down with him while he draws a picture. Once it is time to leave, talk to the child in an energetic tone about what's in store for that day. Emphasize that you will be back to pick him or her up in the afternoon, and will be excited to hear about the day at school.

Bring a token from home
Send your child to school with something that connects her to home and family, such as a photograph or a favorite toy. Having this reminder close-at-hand can help to calm children down if they become upset or experience a moment of panic during the day.

Volunteer in the classroom when you can
Spending time in your child's classroom as a volunteer has many advantages. You can learn more about your child's teachers and the learning styles they apply in the classroom and develop a more meaningful relationship with them. A child who sees her parent interacting in her classroom with her peers will feel safe and welcome in that setting. Children are much more likely to feel secure in an environment that they know their parents are safe and welcomed, too.

Practice calming exercises with your child
If children have a particularly difficult time adjusting to their new environment in the first weeks of the year, there are several calming exercises that you can practice with them. This is a great way to teach children how to take control of their own emotions and calm down so that they are ready and prepared to take on the day.

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