All our lives, we rework the things from our childhood, like feeling good about ourselves, managing our angry feelings, being able to say good-bye to the people we love. –Mister Rogers
I’ve told the story dozens of times, about how all the important women in my life (wife, mother and mother-in-law) were for once unanimous in their opinion that 2-year-old Josephine was too young for preschool. “She is too young to be on her own,” was the main argument. The only way I could get around their objections was enrolling in a cooperative preschool, and only then if I attended with her every time.
The part of the story I tend to leave out is what a relief it was to have had that restriction. Without it I would have stayed with her anyway, but been plagued by fears I was hobbling her social prospects, creating an unnatural attachment, or otherwise generating raw material for future therapy sessions. Instead, I was able to tell myself that I was just abiding by the democratic will of my childrearing inner circle. I could shrug my shoulders when Teacher Sue or another parent asked me about it: “I’m just lucky we get to go to preschool at all.” The implication, of course, being that I, the enlightened caregiver, knew that young children needed to learn about separation, but I had to honor those women I love – even if they’re wrong. It made my part of the “work” of separation a lot easier.
The primary objective of our first year in preschool is to teach the children to trust the larger world beyond the four walls and familiar faces of home. We want our preschool to be a safe, predictable, self-contained “neighborhood” in which children can develop the confidence and skills to do that. And part of doing that is learning that you can still trust it, even when mommy (or daddy) isn’t there with you.
One of the benefits of the cooperative model is that we can let parents and their kids take the process of “separation” at their own pace. Some kids arrive on that first day ready to go. Others can’t stand the thought of even releasing mommy’s hand. Some children seem to start out comfortable, only to have their fears and concerns crop up several weeks or even months into the school year. Some will warm up slowly and steadily. Others will take a roller coaster ride of ups and downs.
This is hard work our young children are doing and the path is not always straight. Many young 2-year-olds are still learning about “object permanence” and they’re not even sure mommy will come back. Talk about anxiety. But then she does come back, again and again, until he understands that mommy will always come back.
Most, however, are fully aware that mommy still exists even when she’s not at preschool and they wail, “I want my mommy!” They run to the door through which she left and beat on it with their tiny hands, wrestling with the child-proofed door knob. It’s heartbreaking, but rarely lasts for more than 5 minutes. Woodland Park has installed one-way mirrors to allow parents to watch how their child handles herself, and most are relieved (and sometimes a little disappointed) when the tears stop and the play begins in a matter of minutes, even seconds in some cases.
As the school year progresses, it’s very common for children in this age group to repeatedly run down the day’s schedule, concluding with, “then daddy comes and gets me.” It’s a plot. It’s creating order from chaos. It soothes the anxiety. As adults, we consciously help them understand this story, making sure they know that it ends when we sing the “Boom Boom Song” (our traditional ending to the day), and they get to see their parent again. That's why it's so important that we adhere strictly to our schedule -- the children depend on it.
Over the past decade, I’ve become fairly adept at helping children through their separation anxiety. In fact, it’s a job I relish. There is nothing that makes me love my job more than the feeling of a child’s tears soaking through the fabric of my shirt and onto my neck and shoulder. I love when they trust me enough to put their head there for comfort.
Figuring out what will sooth a child through their separation anxiety is usually a process of trail and error.
The fall back position, is distraction. Twos have notoriously short attention spans and most of the time all it takes is to point out the blocks or the paints. Last year, we had several boys, who could readily set aside their emotions in the presence of our collection of Hot Wheels. That was a fairly easy one. Many children need less prosaic fetishistic distractions, such as gloves, traffic cones, board game spinners, or pine cones (to name but a few I’ve actually discovered in the past couple years). It may take awhile, but once you’ve found the object or activity, you can rely on it.
The change of pace is another technique I’ve found effective. While many children struggle with transitions, others take the opportunity to snap out of it. Some children just need me to beat the drum for clean up time. And when a child needs a transition when there isn’t a natural reason for one, it needs to be manufactured. Brandon and I found that “taking a nap” under the loft made for a great transition. When we “woke up” it was a whole new day. Ellie and I needed to physically separate ourselves by sitting on our entry way stairs and observing the class from there. Other times we take a walk in our courtyard. Charlie once took me all the way to the gate, crying, before saying, "Mommy gone." After that he was fine. And then there’s the old, reliable standby: reading books. It’s difficult for me to read books in the loft because I tend to draw a crowd. That’s why we have a parent designated as librarian every day. I rely on that parent to help create a quiet temporary oasis for children who need it.
Another method is what I think of as rubbing your child off on another adult. This is a technique that can really only be employed in a co-op, with lots of extra grown-ups in the room. Twos are typically adult focused and many just need to know there’s a trustworthy grown-up friend they can count on. At Woodland Park each child has a “buddy” parent, a special adult who works in the classroom on the day the child’s parent doesn’t work. In the same vein, sometimes a home visit from Teacher Tom is helpful. I’m aware that for many of your children I’m Barney or Thomas the Tank Engine – a celebrity perhaps, but not necessarily a “friend” – and a quiet, personal visit on their home turf helps break down that wall.
Then there is just listening. More verbal twos might just need to talk about it: over and over and over again, through their tears or not. Our job is to hold them if they want to be held, repeat their words to them, agree with them, name their emotions, and assure them that mommy will come back when we sing the “Boom Boom Song.”
And finally we have the baby-steps approach. Some parents have been successful with the technique of leaving the room for longer and longer periods of time over the course of the school day, giving their children multiple examples of mommy coming back again and again and again.
Eventually, separation gets easier for children, but it never gets easier for parents. A few summers ago, when Josephine was only 9, she spent 3 whole weeks away from home at a camp. Our only means of communication were snail mail letters. Believe me, I wished my wife, mother and mother-in-law would have just told me that she had to stay home. I’m already dreading the driver’s license and she’s only 12.
It’s the job of a child to separate. It’s the job of a parent to help them do it. It’s hard work for everyone.