In the early years of a child’s development, it’s super common for them to experience separation anxiety when they’re away from their parents or caregivers.
Humble classroom doors everywhere have borne witness to countless crying children, (understandably) distressed by their impending separation from their beloved parent.
Experiences of Separation Anxiety as a Graduate Classroom Teacher
As a newly-minted teacher, I was prepared for a handful of my brand new prep students to shed a tear on the first day of school. After all, some of the four- and five-year-old children I was to teach had never experienced a learning environment outside of the home. Others were uncertain about the transition from their familiar kindergarten setting to a ‘big school’ with uniforms, bells, and hundreds of kids.
Most of these children were calmed with a warm smile, some soothing words, and a hearty dose of distraction.
Except for one. Several weeks into the term I felt completely out of my depth because this little one was still highly distressed every morning when her mum brought her to my door. It was heartbreaking for all of us. Teacher training hadn’t prepared me for this!
I needed to upskill on separation anxiety, and quickly. Many of the articles I could find online related to strategies for parents to use at home with their own child. There wasn’t a lot of literature for teachers of early years students available.
Thankfully, I had a wonderful school guidance officer who brought me up to speed with some great strategies. So in saying that, my first tip for teachers of students with separation anxiety is to have a chat with your school guidance officer, an admin, or an experienced senior teacher at your school – because their knowledge will be invaluable.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is defined as a child’s “common and normal fear of being away from their parents or carers” by The Raising Children Network.
Separation anxiety can start from eight months of age, which is when babies start to grasp the concept of object permanence (the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they can’t be seen or heard). This can present problems for parents who must leave their babies or toddlers with carers.
In pre-school-aged children (0-4 years), separation anxiety is considered a normal part of childhood development, and in most cases will resolve over time.
Separation anxiety in lower primary students may present as crying, tantrums, or clinginess, and these are all healthy reactions for a child to have when separating from a loved one. As teachers, it’s a good idea to have a bag of tricks to help our students settle into our classrooms so that they can have productive and enjoyable learning experiences.
Strategies for Supporting Students with Separation Anxiety
With some simple strategies, parents and teachers can work together to help children overcome separation anxiety.
Be the Primary Point of Contact
Your anxious student needs to develop a sense of trust and feeling of safety with you. Try to make sure that you, the classroom teacher, are consistently the person who greets any anxious little ones in your class. This will also help you get to know the parents and establish a routine and rhythm for the handover.
This may be hard, particularly if you don’t have an aide or assistant allocated to your class. If this is the case, perhaps request additional staffing from your administrators at the beginning of the day for a few days or weeks.
Acknowledge the Student’s Feelings
Get down to the student’s level and make eye contact, and let them know that it’s okay for them to feel upset. Remind the child that they are in a safe and secure place, with kind and caring people (children and adults).
Acknowledge the Parents’ Feelings
Try to step into the parents’ shoes for a moment, because as a mum, dad, or carer, watching your child become distressed and then having to leave (often to face a day of work) is tremendously upsetting.
Assure parents that you will help their child to settle in and that their little one isn’t the first to have difficulty separating from them. Build rapport with the parents and this will help the child to develop trust with you, too.
Let Parents Know that You’ll Communicate
Sometimes parents find it very hard to leave their child while they are still crying. Reasssure the parent that you’ll be in touch to update them (by email or phone call) during the break on the first day. Then establish a communication method that works for both of you moving forward (a Keep-In-Touch book or email works well).
Minimise Morning Rush
Set up a routine that is calm and quiet for the first session of the day. I used to find reading a story was a great way to get the children settled before roll call. For older students, individual desktop reading, drawing, or writing could be a calming option. Play some gentle music to encourage students to slow down. The morning rush to get to school can, in itself, be overwhelming, and arriving at a peaceful space will be calming.
Normalise the Feelings Associated with Separation Anxiety
As a whole class, read or view The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, and facilitate discussion about the special people children are separated from, and the reasons why we may become separated from loved ones.
Offer the Student Options
Once the student is in the door, show them options for different types of activities they may wish to do before the morning routine commences. This will help the child to focus on the mental task of decision-making, and may break them from their loop of anxious thoughts. Be sure to offer quiet or alone time as well, as some children will prefer to observe and adjust at their own pace.
Give the Student a Special Role
Offer your worried student a very special helping role, like handing out glue sticks, setting out worksheets, dusting the board, or being the “login” helper at the computers.
Create a Visual Timetable for the Student
This could be a whole-class activity, or an individual task with your anxious student/s. Having a visual timetable helps students with anxiety anticipate and plan for transitions and routines throughout their day.
Older Children and Separation Anxiety
What about children who are still experiencing anxiety at the prospect of being away from their parents well into their school years? Well, while a little worry about leaving mum or dad when older is totally normal (like when they’re going on school camp), intense fear which keeps a child from experiencing and enjoying normal activities may be categorised as Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD).
While the signs of SAD are similar to those of separation anxiety, they are more extreme and prolonged and may include:
- Excessive tiredness due to lack of sleep/nightmares about being alone.
- Being worried when away from home or family (ie at school, care, or extra-curricular clubs).
- Anxious about the safety of a particular family member.
- Fear of becoming lost.
- Refusing to go to school.
- Fearful of being alone, even in safe environments (eg in a library aisle, in a bathroom stall).
- Frequent tummy aches, headaches, or other physical complaints.
- Excessive worry about personal safety.
- Panic resulting in temper tantrums, crying, or lashing out at times of separation from parents.
Separation Anxiety Disorder may require professional support through health services. If you suspect that one of your students has signs of SAD, please refer them to your school guidance officer or special needs committee for additional support.