On Separation

by Jane Nolan

I have so enjoyed the days I have been able to welcome children into school at arrival. So many familiar little faces and so many new ones. Some children are able to come into school escorted by an assisting parent, teacher, or me. Other children need the security of having a family member or sitter bring them into school. Both of these comfort levels are appropriate and familiar to staff and returning parents.

During your time here at Park West you will often hear the phrase ‘process not product’. Usually this phrase is associated with our approach to art and other kinds of activities we offer to children. Our focus is on how children use materials, not if they produce a recognizable representation. But it is also a suitable phrase for the separation process. In other words, we weren’t trying to hurry you or your child through the process to get to the end result – having children fly solo (with teachers support), coming to understand school is for children and an assisting parent.

The separation process is really about the child and parent’s ability to feel that school is a safe place to be, that the teachers at school will notice and take care of children, and that children are able to go to a teacher for help and support. This can take a while and can be quite different for individual children.

When parents were still in the classroom, teachers noticed which children needed to have their parents near them, which children looked up from play to make sure their parent was still in the room, which children could be engaged in play by teachers or classmates. It was from these observations that teachers made those individual plans with parents on how to begin weaning parents from the classroom.

All parents have been able to separate and children are able to be at school with teachers and the assisting parent, or third teacher in JK. But that doesn’t mean that the separation process is over. It is a process and not a one-time event. For some children there may be a delayed separation reaction. Wait my mom really is gone! As children get more used to school, the idea of being without Mom or Dad could lose a bit of its appeal. Some children are really just beginning to notice and take more in, or thinking it through a bit differently. Sometimes after a vacation or illness children may again feel a bit shaky about being without a parent at school. If your child has delayed separation, let your teachers know. They will try to guide you and help make a plan that is appropriate for your child. They can share with you what happens for your child once you’ve left and class begins. And you can share your ideas of why your child might need some extra support.

Sometimes at the moment of separation and also during the build up to the actual moment, children will express their anxiety by clinging to the parent, protesting a parent’s plan to leave, or begin to cry. Though all of these can be difficult, they are not truly signs of distress. They are signs of displeasure and anxiety. When we tell parents we try to make the separation process as stress free as possible, we understand that separation is stressful. We can’t make it not so. But we can work with families to give it time and help make it less stressful. Our goal is to support families through this emotional time.

What can parents do to help children make that transition from home to school? There are many ways that you can help. One way is to help your child think about school and her/his schedule at school. In a subtle way at a quiet moment during bath or bedtime or perhaps at dinnertime if your family shares their day at dinner, you could talk with your child about the order of their time at school. First you wash your hands in the bathroom with a teacher, then the children play, then clean up, then you sing songs at group time, wash your hand and have snack, then fun running and riding in the gym, then a story and then we meet outside. Remember to tailor this for what your child’s schedule may be. This can be more of a narrative or a give and take conversation, though I’ve made it sound more like a laundry list for brevity. You know your child and if s/he likes to tell the story or have someone tell her/him a story. Remembering the schedule at school can be reassuring for many children. They can feel more confident if they know what is coming next. For many children the anxiety rises as they go from one activity to the next.

You might also just talk about what your child enjoys doing at school, but realize it can be difficult for children to recount their day. So much has happened in a few hours, it may be hard for them to sort through it all or they may only remember the one snag of their day. If you ask a specific question you may have the most success. But think about your goal. Is it to get information or to help them think about their time at school and be comfortable with this new environment?

Another way to help your child is to make a plan with your teachers and then really follow through on the plan. Be brave and don’t shirk from the plan. If you’re uncomfortable with the plan or think it needs to be revised have a phone conference with your teachers, but don’t change the plan on the spot. When you do say goodbye to leave, really leave. Try not to do what I call the 12-step goodbye: a kiss, a hug, a butterfly kiss, one more kiss, one more hug, etc. This does not help your child, though s/he may want the overly long goodbye to put off the coming separation. A protracted goodbye is much more painful because the pain is often in the anticipation of the separation and creating an intricate goodbye makes the anticipation more acute. So keep your goodbyes short and be unwavering in your decision to go. Though children may cry and seem desolate the vast majority recover in minutes, while the sadness can stay with parents until dismissal time. If you leave your child and are worried they may be unhappy when you are gone, you are always welcome to call school and ask one of us in the office to check in the classroom for you. Many times I have called a parent who left school a bit teary to reassure them that their child was happily playing minutes after the parent left.

Another way to help your child is to speak with confidence and enthusiasm about school. If you seem anxious your child will pick up on it. S/he may begin to think s/he was right to be worried because Mom or Dad is worried. So exhibit confidence in teachers and in your child’s ability to have a good time at school. As always, acknowledge your child’s feelings but follow up with a statement of confidence. “I know you miss me when we’re not together. I miss you too, but I know you will be fine and have fun with Joseph and Melinda (or Chris and Ali or Anita and Kerstin).”

So even though parents no longer need to be in the classrooms for separation, children may continue to need some emotional support and may have delayed or re-occurring separation later in the school year. Separation can really loom large for children – and parents. As our dear Isaac Rice of the 3am class told his Mom when he was going to be with just the teachers in class, “I’m going to cry so hard that I would surf home. The cars would be submarines and Mom would be a mermaid.” But Isaac has made the transition to school and he is currently playing happily with his teachers and classmates.

Quotes from Our Park West Family

"When I meet prospective parents, I always say how life changing the school is."

—Susan K., former parent