The Child

How to Approach Separation Anxiety as We Reopen Child Care

July 15, 2022

What you can do to help the little ones return to their old routines.

What you can do to help the little ones return to their old routines.
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • This story looks at how young children express separation anxiety, and why the back-to-school season is a high point for this form of stress.
  • You shouldn't overanalyze one moment for symptoms of separation anxiety. Instead, pay attention to how individual children's behavior changes over the first few weeks back.
  • It's also helpful to work with children's family members, to understand how their behavior or anxieties might change when they're at home.

Back to school season can bring as much stress as it does excitement. For some young children, it’s the very first time where they regularly leave the familiar comforts of their home. Others might struggle with adjusting to new routines, after a summer spent playing by different rules.

For early educators, then, this is the season to be extra aware of separation anxiety among little ones.

What should we expect from young children as they come back to child care?

According to Neal Horen, Director of the Early Childhood Division at Georgetown University, one thing’s for certain: The first few days aren’t going to be just like we left off before the summer.

“I think you’re going to see a wide range of behaviour and reactions. Some children will have a great deal of anxiety about coming back, and they can communicate those feelings in a lot of different ways,” Neal says. “Teachers in early education need to be ready for it — the question is how we do that.”

Neal’s background is in clinical psychology, and for the past 20 years he has specialized in mental health and emotional development during early childhood. I called him up with some questions about separation anxiety, and how we can best support the children who are struggling with getting back to their old routines.

Before we get into this, it’s worth reiterating that what we’re talking about won’t apply to every child. Some are going to be overjoyed to see their friends and teachers again, and other children are going to be apprehensive. Both are okay. 

But right now, the little ones that are having a tough time with separation anxiety need a bit more of our help.

With that said, let’s dive in.

What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?

Depending on the age of the children in your care, they may not yet be able to recognize and share the emotions they’re feeling. That is to say, the way they communicate their feelings is going to vary a lot. Especially as children return to child care after a summer away (or for the very first time), it’s normal to feel anxious.

But what’s “normal” anxious, and when does a child's anxiety become cause for concern?

According to Neal, one good way to evaluate children’s behaviour is not to overanalyze specific outbursts, but to look at how things change over time.

“I think it’s reasonable to expect that children could be a bit more on edge as we come back. But if we see after a week, or two weeks, that a child’s behavior has not changed at all, then it’s time we start looking at ways to address their anxiety,” Neal says.

If you’ve cared for individual children in the past, it’s worth asking yourself: Who is this child, temperamentally speaking? How does their behavior in this back-to-school period compare to what I’ve seen before? What did they like to do or not like to do?

In these first few weeks, your team (as well as parents and caregivers) should keep an eye out for these potential symptoms of separation anxiety in children.

  • Trouble controlling temper
  • Regressive behavior
  • Depressive sadness, or a lack of interest in favourite activities
  • Changes in sleep schedule or appetite
  • Self-isolating, or withdrawing from social circumstances
  • Abnormal clinginess toward a particular parent or caregiver

The big ideas

The three Rs — relationships, routine, and resilience

Dealing with children’s separation anxiety isn’t just an in-the moment fix. It’s an ongoing process — we’ve got to plan ahead to make the transition away from one’s home environment as gradual and gentle as can be.

So what does that mean for your work as an early educator? Well, Neal suggests that we might think of this in terms of three Rs: relationships, routine and resilience.

Let’s break them down one by one.

  1. Relationships — When children feel more secure in their personal relationships, it gives them a safe base to explore the rest of their world. Hold personal check-ins with families, just to see how everyone’s been doing. If certain children appear to be struggling, make room for some one-on-one activity time with a favourite staff member. If you’re still connecting with families remotely, be sure to still hold virtual activity time to keep those relationships strong.
  2. Routines — Keeping routines helps your child care setting feel more familiar, safer and reliable. As children return, make extra time to go over classroom rules together, and talk about the big ways where life in your classroom might be different than life at home. Remind children of your daily schedule, and put a schedule up on the wall so they can structure their expectations about what’s coming next.
  3. Resilience — Children need our help to learn resilience. In early education, resilience means helping children identify difficult feelings they might experience, teaching them coping skills, and showing them where they can go for support. You might know this as co-regulation. To read about what that looks like in practice, we’ve got a whole article on that right here.

Working with parents or a primary caregiver

Supporting children means supporting parents, too. And it’s likely parents are dealing with anxieties of their own. 

That might stem from a few years’ worth of pandemic stress, or just the usual unknowns of sending their little one off into a new school year. In any case, it’s worth being aware of parents’ stress, and knowing that children will naturally reflect their parents’ emotions. 

In the first few weeks, make sure to set aside more time than usual to keep in touch with the family members at your setting. Here are some ways you can reach out to parents to get them more involved with the transition to your early education setting.

  • Hold family check-ins — Neal recommends scheduling family meetings as a sort of post-summer debriefer. It’s important that you ask parents what went on at home on a daily basis, so you can get an idea of what sort of home environment the child is transitioning from. Ask about what went really well, what was challenging, and how children’s behavior was at home, so you can best help them adjust.
  • Give parents resources to use at home — Make sure parents are equipped with the resources they need to support themselves and their children when they’re at home. Consider sending along some reading about separation anxiety, so parents can stay informed and on top of this. If you want some more tips and inspiration on how to make this happen, you should check out our free guide on parent partnerships.

Top tips to ease a child's separation anxiety

As you prepare your back-to-school playbook, here are some ideas to keep in mind to help prevent or relieve children’s separation anxiety.

  • Allow children to bring a comfort object from home. A stuffed toy, personal blanket, or even a family photo can be powerful sources of comfort for young children. It helps them feel like they’re bringing the comfort of home along with them, even in your classroom.
  • Arrange for families to visit your program outside of care hours. It can be especially helpful for new families to visit your child care center in a calm, uncrowded context. You can help parents and children get a feel for your setting, and help children become comfortable with this new environment. You could also arrange this as a video tour, if that’s more practical.
  • Let parents stay for a long goodbye. Sometimes, it can be helpful for anxious children to have their parent or caregiver stay with them for the first half hour of the day or so. But be sure the child knows how long their parent can stay, and stick to that deadline, so that children can adjust their own expectations.
  • Focus on having consistent, engaging routines in the morning. Routines are especially important in the morning, right after a potentially emotional drop-off. It’s good to keep children engaged in familiar routines, to keep their mind off a tough goodbye.

Practicing patience all around

As we get used to our old routines and habits, it’s important we take the time to show a little extra patience all around. You, your team, your children, and your children’s parents could all use a bit of slack, as we settle into new routines and demands.

So, if there’s one key ingredient for your back-to-school preparations, it’s patience. As Neal explains, it might take a moment to get back into the swing of things.

“It could be a slow transition back. When you show up on day one, it’s not going to be exactly the way we were when we left some months ago,” he says. “We’ll have to spend some time reestablishing our routines, reminding children what we’re allowed to do and not allowed to do, and making plans for how we’ll deal with the children who are having difficulty saying goodbye to their parents.”

Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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