As a new school year begins, teachers will immediately observe that there are some children who tend to adjust relatively easily and quickly—they will eagerly explore their new school environment and warm up to the teachers. For other children, however, the adjustment to school is not as smooth.
Behaviors indicating ambivalence, reluctance and anxiety for these children stem from both having to say “good-bye” to their parent or caregiver and having to cope with the new school setting.
These are children who cast uncertain looks at their surroundings, cling to their parent or caregiver, cry hysterically for former to stay with them, or display physical aggression towards the teachers who attempt to calm them down once their parent or caregiver has gone.
While a few months into the school year, most of the children will appear relaxed with their teachers, their peers and the classroom activities, it is not unusual to find at least one child who may still be delaying his or her parent or caregiver’s departure with feelings of unaltered anxiety.
So, how does one handle a child’s anxiety?
That separation is a fundamental human process cannot be overemphasized. It accompanies all growth and development and is therefore impossible to resist. Throughout each stage of life—from birth, to infancy to childhood, to adolescence, to old age and even to death—there is a gradual giving up of the old for the new.
Going to school represents an imposed separation of enormous magnitude for a very small child. Countless new experiences such as having to interact with new and unfamiliar people, having to abide by new rules, having to assimilate into unacquainted groups, entails a great amount of self-control.
Preschool teachers, therefore, are in the best strategic position to assure effective measures culminating in a child’s readiness—it is in the school entrance that a child moves from the enclosed and familiar world he or she knew to a stimulating but uncertain environment. The school is also where the child encounters for the very first time a substitute for his primary caregiver, the teacher.
We cannot discount the fact that children are different and parents and teachers have to be ready, to meet their individual demands as they present themselves. So how can we make one child’s entrance into school relatively easier? More specifically, what can we do to make each child’s first experience in school easier and less stressful?
First, a “parent orientation” prior to the first day of school would be very helpful for all parents. Here are some benefits a parent orientation offers:
It introduces the teachers who will be caring for the children in each level, and allows parents to meet their child’s teachers first hand;
It allows the teachers to present the problems that some of the children may encounter during the first few months of school;
It gives the parents a clear idea of the weaning process and helps reduce the anxiety parents have regarding their child’s adjustment to preschool;
It allows parents to discover that they are not alone in their concerns and that they can gain support through the school and other parents; and,
It prepares many first-time parents who take the idea of separation too lightly and foresee no problems, when things do not go as smoothly or rapidly as they had anticipated.
To lessen the intensity of a child’s anxiety, it is important to develop sufficient trust between the teacher and the child. This trust will eventually allow the child to assume responsibility and independence inside the classroom and later on, beyond the school’s boundaries.
First days are very important—teachers and parents alike should try not to show their anxiety because this is easily transferred to their children. Likewise, when parents show their child that they trust the teachers, the child learns to trust his or her teachers in turn.
This will develop a healthy cycle wherein: the child trusts the parent, the parent trusts the teacher and in turn, the child trusts his or her teacher.
A child’s show of protest from being separated from his or her parent simply indicates that they have formed an attachment, and that they care about that person. Child psychologists consider this as a milestone in a child’s development.
“It’s a developmental step that parents have to work through,” says Susan Sundeen, an early childhood family education instructor in Woodbury, Minnesota. “Your child is, all of a sudden, discovering they are separate from you.”
The sooner that parents are convinced that separation is sad but necessary, children will quickly pick up on their parent’s lead and adjust much quicker to their new school environment.