How to Approach Separation Anxiety
as We Reopen Child Care

What you can do to help the little ones return to their old routines.
  • As we reopen child care settings, it’s natural for children to be a little on edge. But if that lasts for more than two weeks, it’s time to start thinking about how we can help them manage their anxiety.
  • For the children experiencing separation anxiety, the best thing we can do is work on strengthening personal relationships, building consistent daily routines, and helping them learn resilience.
  • Supporting children means supporting parents, too. Give families resources to help children manage their emotions when they’re at home.

Right now, child care settings across the world are cautiously opening their doors again. Us grown-ups are probably a little on edge, and understandably so. But how are the children going to handle all this?

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 three months ago.

“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 children are going to be overjoyed to see their friends and teachers again, and others are going to be apprehensive. Both are okay. But right now, the little ones that are having a tough time just need a bit more help.

With that said, let’s dive in.

What does anxiety look like?

Depending on the age of the children in your care, they may not yet be able to recognise and share the emotions they’re feeling. That is to say, the way they communicate their feelings is going to vary a lot. In these times, it’s natural for all of us to feel a bit more stressed and anxious — but what’s “normal” anxious, and what’s a 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 everyone’s going to be a bit more on edge as we come back. But if we see after a week, or two weeks, that a child’s behaviour has not changed at all, then it’s time we start looking at ways to address their anxiety,” Neal says.

With each child, ask yourself: Who is this child, temperamentally speaking? What were they like before all this, what did they like to do or not like to do?

In these first few weeks, parents and caregivers should keep an eye out for these potential indicators of stress and anxiety in children.

  • Trouble controlling temper
  • Regressive behaviour
  • 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 three Rs — relationships, routine, and resilience

Even setting the coronavirus aside for a second, there’s a lot going on in the world right now. It’s pretty easy for us grown-ups to get anxious, and it would be naive to think we don’t pass those anxieties on to our children.

Whether we’re trying to make our return to child care more comfortable, or create a more stable environment at home, we can think of our work in terms of building up the 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 sure to explain how your daily practices might change with social distancing rules — more hand-washing, certain toys put on the shelf, a bit more distance at playtime. Remind children of your daily schedule, and put a schedule up on the wall so they can structure their expectations about what’s next.
  3. Resilience — Children need our help to learn resilience. Right now, that means helping children identify difficult feelings they might experience, and showing them where they can go for support.
Re-entering the outside world

In some cases, going back to “normal life” isn’t so simple. As Neal explains, these next few weeks could be a pretty radical change for children, which can cause serious stress.

“You’re going to see children who are very fearful, because they’ve spent the past three months being told to not go near people,” Neal says. “Parents have drilled their children to stay away from others to protect themselves, and now we’re saying alright, go run around and be near people. It’s mixed messaging, and that can be confusing.”

Before children feel comfortable coming back to your child care setting, they need to feel comfortable leaving the house again. Reach out to parents at home, and help everyone prepare for the return. Parents should sit down with children and explain the new guidelines for safe conduct, and why they believe it’s alright to start getting out and about again.

Then, take things in small steps. This means giving anxious children small moments of exposure that allow them to be brave, and realise things aren’t as bad as they feared. This might mean just walking to the mailbox to collect the mail, or coming along for a grocery run. Especially now, remaining diligent about hand-washing and social distancing can help comfort children who are uneasy about coming back into the world again.

Working with the parents

Supporting children means supporting parents, too. It’s worth being aware that parents can be just as stressed and anxious about returning to child care as their children, and 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 parents at your setting. Here are some ways you can reach out to parents to get them more involved with your reopening process.

  • Hold family check-ins — Neal recommends scheduling family meetings as a sort of post-corona 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 behaviour was at home. It’s also worth checking in more than once, to see if they’ve noticed any changes in behaviour during this transition.
  • 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, so parents can stay informed and on top of this. Our guide to supporting children’s wellbeing at home, or this resource from the Child Mind Institute, are both good places to start.
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 parents and your children could all use a bit of slack. After all, this is an incredibly weird and hectic time we’re in.

But in this transition, as Neal points out, there’s room for growth. Sure, it’s great to get back (or a little closer) to normal — but we shouldn’t overlook the resilience we’ve all shown these past few months.

“Rather than focus on how hard this has been, we should also think about the resilience of our families, children and providers,” Neil says. “Parents have spent much more time learning how to support their children’s development, and providers have had an opportunity to learn new ways to connect more around social-emotional development and wellness. I hope we see both of these continue as we go back to our regular lives.”

Learn more about Famly

Find out below how Famly helped Tenderlinks in recording child development, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.

“Famly’s strengthening our parent partnerships as staff can quickly note down meaningful observations and then come back to them later ensuring they can stay focused on the children.” – Vicky-Leigh, Manager, Tenderlinks Nursery
“Famly’s strengthening our parent partnerships as staff can quickly note down meaningful observations and then come back to them later ensuring they can stay focused on the children.” – Vicky-Leigh, Manager, Tenderlinks Nursery

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