Positive Relationships

How You Can Give Clingy Children Confidence at Drop-off Time

Clingy children are common to all early years settings, but there are ways we can help them to adjust to time without mum or dad, says Sue Cowley…

Some children adapt easily to life in an early years setting. They settle in quickly and do not seem overly concerned about being separated from their parents or carers. Other children really struggle with that initial separation, so much so that it becomes a source of anxiety for both child and mum/dad. Practitioners should take steps to make the transition from the home to early years setting as smooth as possible, especially for those children who find the separation process distressing.

The scenario

Scarlett is a three-year-old who started at your preschool a few weeks ago. From her first day in the setting, it was clear that she was going to struggle to be separated from her mum. Every time her mum tried to move away from her, she ran across, grabbed hold of her leg and wailed loudly. This behaviour shows no signs of abating. Scarlett is the classic ‘cling-on’. She is an only child, with no family living locally, and her mum and dad recently separated. You suspect that Scarlett has not spent much time with other adults in the past. The policy at your setting is that parents can stay as long as they want to settle their children. However, staff have said that Scarlett’s mum will still be attending sessions with her daughter in a year’s time if you don’t do something to resolve the issue…

The issue

When they are tiny, children often cry when their mum or dad leaves the room. They do not yet understand that people are still there, even when we cannot see them. With time, they begin to understand this concept, but for some children it is still very difficult to be separated from their parents. This can be especially so for children from disrupted home backgrounds, for instance, where there has been a marital breakdown. Sometimes, parental concerns transmit themselves to the child. When the parent feels nervous about the separation, this can increase the child’s anxiety levels too.

Dealing with the behaviour

When children really struggle to settle, it is traumatic for both them and their parents – often, it is as hard for the parent as it is for the child. To deal with separation anxiety:

1. Focus on keeping both parent and child calm and relaxed. Don’t put pressure on them to separate if they are not comfortable doing so.

2. A home visit for new starters is a great way to deal with any concerns or questions, and to reassure parents and children before they join your setting.

3. Be clear with parents about your policy. Some settings prefer a ‘clean break’ early on, while others will accommodate parents who wish to stay with their child until they are ready to leave.

4. Let parents know that while their children might appear upset as they leave the setting, they typically settle quickly once the parent has gone.

5. Be clear that you would always call the parents if a child continued to be distraught, a long time after they had gone.

6. Distractions can work very well for young children who are upset. Comfort children to calm them down, but then take their mind off the separation by offering them an exciting toy to play with.

Finding solutions

To help Scarlett become less of a ‘clingon’, and to encourage her to separate more easily from her mum:

● Ensure that Scarlett’s key person is available when she arrives at the setting. This practitioner could lead her straight to an exciting game or resource, and then sit down to play with her.

● As a first step, encourage Scarlett’s mum to move away from her daughter and play with other children, while they are both in the setting.

● If Scarlett reacts to this, encourage mum to ignore her, rather than to engage with her or pay her attention. Ask Scarlett’s key person to step in and help settle Scarlett, so that she gets used to receiving emotional support from another adult.

● Encourage Scarlett to bring in a ‘show and tell’ toy, or a favourite cuddly, as a link to her home environment while she is at your setting.

● When Scarlett’s mum is ready, ask her to leave Scarlett alone at the setting, perhaps just for half an hour at first. She should tell Scarlett that she is leaving, and that she will be back soon, but once she has done this, she should exit decisively to make a clean break.

Sue Cowley is an educational author and helps to run an ‘outstanding’ preschool. Visit www.suecowley.co.uk or follow @Sue_Cowley