Starting nursery school is a big step for both children and their parents. For many it will be the first time they have regular and substantial separation from each other and in addition it marks the beginning of the child’s path towards increasing independence.
This often gives rise to mixed feelings in both: children have the task of learning to cope without their primary carer, albeit for a short time, but also get to experience new triumphs in new surroundings. Parents on the other hand have to manage both feelings of loss (of the baby stages left behind) but also often great pride and anticipation for the future. To manage this big transition smoothly therefore requires a bit of thinking, planning and preparing.
Many if not most young children find separating from their parent at nursery or school difficult in the beginning at least some of the time. This is completely normal, especially when you consider the following:
- Young children do not understand the concept of time and don’t really know how long they are going to be left. They only learn this once they have had numerous experiences of an event.
- They are used to relying on primary carers to meet (and often anticipate) their needs, which means they may find the prospect of fending for themselves very daunting at first.
- The new environment/routine takes a while to become familiar. Nurseries are often quite structured (which helps children settle more quickly) but this in itself is obviously different to most of their previous experiences.
- Read some stories about nursery (for example “Going to Nursery” by Catherine Anholt & Laurence Anholt) with your child well before they begin, to start familiarizing them with the concept.
- Visit the nursery with your child, showing them all the things they can spend their time doing there. Make sure you don’t leave your child there alone on this first visit.
- Most nurseries then have a period of settling whereby your child spends increasing amounts of time there without you, adjusting gradually to the full session-time.
- Find out as much as you can about the structure of your child’s day at nursery so that you can talk them through it in advance of each day and remind them of all the fun things they will do.
- Once they start, some children like to have the whole day mapped out for them and discussed each morning. Nurseries are usually structured enough to allow for this: eg coat-on-peg, free-play, story-time, snack-time, outdoor play, songs, home-time.
- Remind them of the teachers/children and the environment so that they can re-familiarise themselves before going in.
- Acknowledge that separating is difficult but tell them that they will be OK, and that you (or another carer) will always come back for them at home-time. Tell them how you will be spending your time if they ask.
- Think about keeping something small and familiar from home on their peg that they can go to if they are missing you. Even children who don’t have a favourite toy/object respond well to this idea.
- Never leave them without saying goodbye, even if they are engrossed in playing, let them know quietly and calmly (but confidently) that you are going and will be back at home-time (or tell them who will collect them and when they will see you).
- Make sure you are on-time for collection, this is a time of high anxiety for most children.
- If your child was upset when you left, talk about it with them later in the day, reminding them that they were OK and that you came back and will again next time.
Even children who have been well settled at nursery for some time can suddenly become unsettled and require extra support to get back on track. Many of the following can cause temporary set-backs and require revisiting the strategies above:
- A break from attending nursery (holidays, half-terms, or even weekends for some children!).
- Familiar/favourite children/teacher not being there.
- Changes in the environment (eg moving to a new room at nursery, new equipment).
- Changes in the family (new baby, divorce, au-pair, nanny, parent returning to work, moving house, illness or death).
Finally, good nursery staff are very experienced in helping children (and parents) with the settling process. Do let them guide you, whilst also sharing with them your child’s specific preferences. If, despite this and the strategies above, you still find it difficult to confidently leave your child, double check that you are truly happy with the nursery setting you have chosen.
Dr Natalie Cheatle and Dr Annika Clark at http://www.theparentspace.co.uk