A continuing challenge to me professionally has been dealing with the inevitable separation anxiety most preschoolers experience in the first week or two of school. I become frustrated at a child’s inconsolability; I know they will be well cared for and over a short course of time each will inevitably love coming to school every day.
I also developed a deep concern for this topic over the summer, learning of the destructive impact of stress hormones on the brain. With the production and release of cortisol and other hormones in times of stress, the brain is impacted. Gallagher reports, “too much cortisol production over a long period of time is not good and can lead to problems with memory and self-regulation” (p. 15).
Parental-child attachment is a crucial aspect toward optimal development. Gottschall expresses that a healthy parent-child attachment, “is the same attachment that has nurtured the child’s readiness to venture out to school and to learn” (p. 11). How then, can we best respond to the first separation of an attached parent and child?
My first comforting discovery through my research is about differences in cortisol levels, and specifically duration of production and exposure. Harvard reports, “The experience of stress in early childhood can be either growth-promoting or seriously damaging depending on the intensity and duration of the experience” (p. 11). What they term as positive stress, “is an important and necessary aspect of healthy development that occurs in the context of stable and supportive relationships, which help to bring levels of cortisol and other stress hormones back within a normal range and assist the child to develop a sense of mastery and self control” (pp. 9-10). Separation anxiety is included in Harvard’s list of positive stressors. Into every life, a little stress befalls.
Young children separating from their parents for school may benefit from a sensory touchstone. Many children bring a favored blanket, doll, or toy to school which can be touched and smelled to help ease the stress of separation. Preschool children are in the stage of concrete operations, and items which are tangible are especially appropriate. Teachers should show flexibility in allowing items from home in the classroom. Teachers must also be flexible in allowing parents to stay in class for the first few days of school if needed.
Teachers should keep daily routines and procedures as simple and regular as possible. Gottschall also suggests parents and teachers can help ease the stress of separation by talking to them and giving them a glimpse of what to expect at school. She writes, “explaining what to expect to toddlers and preschoolers gives them a sense of predictability and central that eases the separation stress” (p. 12).
However, Gottschall warns against simply using words to try to reason with a child about their overwhelming feelings- young children are pre-logical. Rather, she encourages the use of symbolic play to help ailing children learn about separation. Simple games such as hiding an item under a blanket and revealing it again can help young children understand the concept of object permanence- although their mother cannot presently be seen, she will most certainly return again.
Pedagogical stories and classic literature can also help young children come to terms with separation from a parent. “Fanciful stories in which a small person or animal ventures away from home and triumphs over adversity…speak to children in their own terms of pretend.” (p. 15). Children can also be encouraged to act these stories out. As a teacher of English language learners, I can produce simple puppet-shows illustrating the overcoming of separation to help my children understand these stories’ content and message.
Harvard reports, stressful situations, “…are tolerable when they occur in a time-limited period in which supportive adults protect the child by reducing the stressful experience, thereby giving the brain an opportunity to recover” (p. 9). They therefore conclude, “When circumstances require removal of a child from his or her home, it is especially critical that policies be in place and implemented consistently to make sure that the establishment of a nurturing relationship with a new primary caregiver is given the highest priority”(pp. 9-10).
Ultimately, how children respond to the stress of separating from their parents is very much dependent on the attitude of the teacher. It is incumbent upon us teachers, as a child’s first step from the home, to develop empathy for both the parent and child upon their first significant separation. Utilizing our own understanding, compassion, flexibility, and by harnessing the power of symbolic play, our students’ first exciting and stressful days can promote growth and serve as a foundation for independence and confidence.
Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development: Closing the Gap Between What We Know and What We Do. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/the-science-of-early-childhood-development- closing-the-gap-between-what-we-know-and-what-we-do/
Gottschall, S. (1989). Understanding and Accepting Separation Feelings. Young Children, 44(6), 11-16. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/42726226