Separation Anxiety in Daycare: Interview with Dr. Shannon Ayers

by Carla on December 25, 2009

Separation anxiety is a stage of development in which children become anxious, nervous, or scared upon separation from a parent and is normal in preschool and daycare.

Children may cry and cling to parents at daycare center drop-off time, need a carry a security item throughout the day, and/or cry at pick up time. Separation anxiety typically peaks between the ages of 12 months and two years.

Our interview with Dr. Shannon Ayers, assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research, discusses the issue of separation anxiety in the daycare and preschool setting.

OwnADaycare: Can you define separation anxiety in preschool aged children and some of its characteristics? At what age range is separation anxiety most common?

Dr. Ayers: Separation anxiety is at its highest intensity between 6 months and 3 years.  It is when the child’s relationship with their caregiver has become more intense and exclusive.   Resistance to separation occurs, but the child should exhibit happiness upon reunion.  With preschool children, they are beginning to understand other persons’ intentions and can often cognitively understand that a parent will return.  It is reassurance that this will occur that is important as the child struggles and that this plan is followed through consistently to build trust.  For example, a parent should not suggest that she will pick the child up after snack and then get held up and not come until after rest time.   A child may feel anxious, nervous, and/or scared about the new environment and fear being alone.  Over time, with appropriate interventions and environment, this fear should become less intense.  However the child may have some relapses such as when he or she is sick, tired, after a vacation, or if there is a big change in the family like a new sibling or a move.

OwnADaycare: What is the difference between separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder?

Dr. Ayers: I see the separation anxiety as a part of normal development for some children (not all children experience separation anxiety and there are varying degrees as well).  I believe that it will decrease in intensity and duration over time with appropriate intervention and environment.  The child should be able to be consoled.  However, depending on age, a disorder is more intense, prolonged, and the child may not be able to be consoled.

OwnADaycare: What are some factors that contribute to separation anxiety? What factors can reduce separation anxiety?

Dr. Ayers: Separation anxiety can be heightened because of a parent’s anxiety and/or reaction to leaving the child at preschool.  A parent should remain positive and upbeat about the experience.  If a parent is expressing anxiety about the situation the teacher should talk with the parent about his or her fears.

Concern for the unknown may also heighten separation anxiety and can be lessened by visiting the school and role playing the routines/schedule at home.   Post pictures of the children’s families in the room and encourage the children to talk about their families so they stay connected.

Young children do not understand time the way adults do so although they may understand that the parent is coming back, when may be a question.  The parent can practice leaving for short times and build up longer intervals so the child begins to feel confident in the return of the parent.  Also see the suggestion below about posting the schedule.

OwnADaycare: Can you provide a few tips to help preschool teachers or daycare providers manage separation anxiety in their students?

Dr. Ayers:

  • Visitation assists children and parents with the unknown.  There should be a day where the child can meet the teacher and get to know the surroundings.  This should be done with the parent and in a relatively short amount of time.
  • Encourage parents to establish a goodbye ritual and stick to it.  It should be something relatively quick like a special hug/kiss combination, secret handshake, or unique/silly exchange of words (i.e. see you later alligator, in a while crocodile).
  • Following a schedule is also helpful.  The teacher should have the schedule posted in pictures and words for the children so they know what is coming next and can see when their parent will be coming to pick them up.  For instance, if a child knows that after lunch she hears a story, takes a rest, has a snack, plays around the room, sings a song and then her mommy comes it makes it much easier to move through the day.
  • Teachers must respect the child’s feelings when he or she is missing the parent.  The teacher does not ever want to criticize the child’s feelings or label them as baby-ish or wrong.  Also, bribing the child is not good practice.  It is not a good choice to offer a reward (or punishment!)  in return for the child’s behavior during separation.
  • Engagement in an activity, project or play scenario is also important for the struggling child.  The teacher should work with the child to enter play with other children, offer to paint together, or go to the dramatic play area where the child can engage in pretend play.  The child may choose to “phone” her mom or dad on the pretend phone and express his or her feelings.
  • Read comforting stories such as The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn to the whole class, small group, or one-on-one.
  • Teachers and parents should be consistent in their approach.  Overall, the teacher wants to provide a sense of warmth and caring while encouraging independence.

OwnADaycare: What are some suggestions for preschool teachers or daycare providers for dealing with anxious parents?

Dr. Ayers: Communication with parents is key.  Parents should be aware of what their child will be doing during the day, what is expected of both them and their child, and should be given written information about the procedures and policies of the school.  Parents should also be invited and encouraged to visit the classroom for various reasons including reading a story, helping with a special snack, and/or sharing a special family or cultural ritual.   An additional support for a particularly anxious parent or the parent of a child that did not separate easily is to phone the parent shortly after the day begins to provide an update.  It is reassuring to hear, “Allison has stopped crying and is busy playing in the blocks.”

About Carla

Carla Snuggs has written 88 post in this blog.

Carla is a freelance writer from Southern California. She has a B.A. in early childhood education and a Master of Library and Information Science degree specializing in public librarianship and youth services.

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