Toddler separation anxiety is totally normal — who wouldn’t feel nervous about the unfamiliarity of a new setting with many unfamiliar faces? Separating from your child can be just as stressful for you as it is for him.
We keep to five solid techniques within our gentle separation classes (for ages 2 ½ to 3 ½) to help our students feel empowered in the classroom.
(1) Acknowledge the Child’s Anxiety
Toddler separation anxiety can exhibit itself in a whole range of behaviors. Your child might demonstrate his dislike for separation through tantrums, screaming, and hitting. She may seem to shut down by not talking, not participating, or even pretending to sleep. He might seek an act of comfort over and over: holding a favorite sippy cup, asking to use the bathroom several times, wanting to check on the room where the caretaker is staying. All of these behaviors are normal. All of these behaviors are manageable. All of these behaviors are your child’s way of communicating stress.
It’s our job as teachers and caregivers to acknowledge this stress and then forge ahead. Here is language we might use to calm a child down, or help him emerge from his shell:
- Acknowledge that she is feeling sad and focus on a new activity. “I know you’re feeling sad, and that’s ok. Mommy will be coming back very soon. Did you see Sally and Jim playing with those dinosaurs? Do you like dinosaurs?”
- Shift the focus from the stress to something calming. “Let’s take a deep breath together. Can you help me find the tissues?”
- Divert his attention by engaging with him on a new subject. Often we ask questions that may seem completely arbitrary, like, “What did you have for breakfast?” or “Tell me about what color Mommy’s eyes are.” However, it’s amazing to watch the child stop focusing all of his attention on being upset, and shift his attention to answering a surprising question.
(2) Establish a Routine
Each morning I make sure my classroom is set up in way that the children can see the whole room upon first entrance. He sees three distinct areas for playing – two marked out with soft blankets, and one area for climbing and jumping made with our climbers. He sees the table and yellow chairs where he’ll later make an art project and eat snack while listening to a story. He sees the large yellow and green “spots” on the ground where we will soon gather for circle time.
From week to week, I may change the types of toys he and the other students can play with. Every week we make different art projects, and circle time is full of new activities — however, your child will eventually be able to predict the order of events. By establishing a routine, we eliminate a fear of change, a great ingredient of toddler separation anxiety.
We encourage families to practice certain elements of class, like circle time or art projects, at home.
The more practice your child gets, the more confident he will feel upon entering the classroom again. If he feels an ownership over the structure, he will be less anxious over all.
(3) Stay Positive
Your little one is looking to you for reassurance and guidance. If you are feeling stressed out, he will feel stressed out. Model the behavior you wish to see in your child.
It may feel difficult or insincere to keep a smile on your face and calmness in your voice, but these cues help soothe toddler separation anxiety. Remember that it’s ok for your child to feel sad or worried. He may have a very difficult first few classes, so it is important to help your child remember all the things that were successful.
Talk about all the great things they did. “See how brave you were! You helped clean up those toys all by yourself!”
(4) Be Patient
Remember that separation can be a lengthy process. Your child may feel comfortable separating on the first day of class, or it may take him multiple months before he’s fully comfortable. What’s most important is to know that you and your child WILL be successful.
Just by enrolling your child in a gentle separation program, you’re helping your child take steps toward more independence, social growth, and a greater sense of confidence – and all of those things take time. Don’t feel discouraged if your child is separating more slowly than other students. Allow your child to take his time, and give yourself the permission to breathe.
(5) Trust Your Gut and Be Brave
You’ve done the hard work. You’ve found a program that you believe in. You trust the teachers and caregivers surrounding your child.
You’ve prepared your child with coping skills, laid out a routine, acknowledged his anxiety, and have surrounded him with love and positivity.
You get to step back now and let the separation process begin. By removing yourself in a quick and calm way, you’re helping aid your little one on this difficult and rewarding journey to more independence.
One of my favorite separation stories was about six months in the making. I watched one child struggle through several sessions of Bubble Step. The teachers and I tried everything — cuddling, reasoning and explaining the class routine, having the caretaker stay in the room and leave part way through – nothing seemed to be working. The child was smart, sweet and full of personality, but as soon as the caretaker left the room the child was inconsolable. I wondered if it was possible that this child just wasn’t ready.
The whole team kept at it – the child, the caretaker, the teachers and assistants — we watched as the child slowly slowly began to break out of his shell. Pretty soon the caretaker only needed to be in the room half the time, then for a few minutes, and then one day, the child walked into the room, beaming, and began to play.
The end goal of all of this is to give your child the freedom and confidence to walk into a room and decide that he can play.
And the best part of all is that at the end of class, your child will completely light up at the sight of you.
Got toddler separation anxiety on the mind? Big changes come fall? Share your experiences and questions below @BubblesAcademy.
Lina Chambers teaches all four of our preschool preparation classes at Bubbles Academy. She hails from Idaho, having earned her bachelor of arts in theater from Boise State University and served as a member of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival team. She performed in two education tours, teaching workshops to young children on imagination and character creation. Her passion for children and creative exploration has informed much of her career.