Expert insights: Reducing separation anxiety in children

It’s Daniel’s fifth class at school. He still insists that his parents come in for class. The moment you pull him away he starts creating a fuss – a fuss that disturbs all the other children. What can you do?

First, it’s important to understand that one-size doesn’t fit all. You may have tried various techniques from books such as distraction. Don’t feel discouraged – different children are different, they take to different techniques. For instance, while song-and-dance as a distraction may work with one child, it may not work with another.

Second, techniques alone are not always enough. Distraction techniques often need to be followed through by psychological and/or physical comfort. Before we get to comforting the child, let’s begin with distraction techniques.

How do you find the right technique for your child?

Step 1: Find out what the child likes:

  • Is there a particular song he/she likes? Play that song at the start of class, or better yet, sing it together with your child.

  • Is there a particular cartoon character he/she likes? Print that out for him/her to colour!

  • Is there a particular game he/she likes? If it’s hide-and-seek, then play that at the start of class to warm him/her up.

  • Does he/she love art-and-craft? Do an art-and-craft activity that includes usage of exclusive materials like glitter, feathers, paper plates. These materials are fun to touch and can easily engage the child!

  • Does the child have a particular comforting object? Is the child attached to a particular teddy bear or blanket? Ask the child to bring it in for class for the first few sessions. After some time, you’ll find that the child feels safe enough to leave the object at home.

  • If you don’t know, ask parents for help – most parents are glad to help their child transition to school.

Step 2: When you notice the child is having fun, and feels safe and secure, then you can silently signal parents to leave.

This can be done in various ways, depending on the child.

If the child is less than 2.5 years, it’s best to still have parents in the classroom.

If the child is older:

Have the parents gradually leave the classroom after the second class. For the third class, invite them to stay for 30 minutes and then 15 minutes so and so forth, until gradually, the child can stay on his/her own.

Alternatively, parents can explicitly convey to the child that they are leaving. They can do a small ritual with their child before leaving such as kissing or hugging the child, or saying good-bye. This “signal” will then overtime act as a signal for the child to realise it’s okay for parents to leave.

Step 3: Soothe, comfort and reassure the child

Upon parents, leaving, reassure the child that he/she is brave and give him/her positive feedback.

Use phrases like, “Don’t worry” or “It’s okay”.

When the child asks for the parent, you can say many things including informing them that their parents went to the toilet.

If the child starts crying, he/she seeks physical security. Hug the child/carry the child.

Hum if you can! Humming sooths the child.

You may choose to re-engage in an activity that the child enjoys. This silently signals to the child that you are willing to understand and respect the child’s feelings.

Step 4: Deliver with calmness

Do you feel confident and calm when the child cries? If you are worried, remember that the child can pick up on it. Stay calm no matter what happens.

Step 5: Be patient within limits.

It may take many sessions or classes (at least 7!) before the child can come in on his/her own. Be patient, and show attention and understanding towards the child. Eventually, the child will come to realize that you are willing to respect his/her feelings and needs.

Step 6: Recognize that there are exceptions to the rule.

No matter how hard you try, recognize that some parents may not be willing to separate from their child. On the flip side, some children are overly-attached to their parents. There are many factors at play that determine the child’s attachment – this includes the child’s background, early experiences and so forth. In this case, it’s better to talk to your school’s in-house child expert regarding the child’s background and see what can be done to help ease the child into the schooling setting.

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