As the end of summer starts to feel closer, anxiety often sets in for parents of young children starting school or nursery for the first time. Are your feelings of fear about your child’s first days warranted? Is this transition truly as enormous as it feels?
Quite simply, separation anxiety is a healthy and normal part of early childhood development, particularly for children aged between six months and three years. Your child is dependent on you, their primary care-giver, for their safety and care. Most young children with healthy secure attachments and loving bonds will resist this separation, and may express the anxiety and displeasure they are feeling with emotional outbursts. Of course, it is not only your child experiencing these big feelings; separation anxiety is something often felt by parents too (although hopefully expressed a little differently). That anxious need to comfort your child when they cry out is something you are programmed to feel.
Of course, there are things you can do to ease this transition, and once your child has developed trust and comfort with caregivers and teachers at nursery or school, you will likely find the gains for them are worth it. We spoke to the UAE’s early childhood experts to collate the advice you need for navigating this milestone successfully. Get ready parents, no one ever said this would be easy…
Starting school or nursery for the first time is a huge step for a child. To have the resilience they need to take on this challenge, it is important that the rest of their world is routine and stable. New baby in the family? Moving house? Visitors just arrived or just left? Returned from a long holiday? These changes at home can be tough on our little ones and can create feelings of insecurity. Try to ensure your child's world is stable around the time they are starting school or nursery; this gives them the best chance to take on this emotional whirlwind.
Lysiane Ruf, Academic Director, Future International Nursery, added that maintaining healthy routines at home is key:
"It is important to put in place a sleep routine that will enable the child to join the nursery at the right time, with a good night sleep. A key factor in preparing a child for the first day, is to ensure the child will have slept well. A child who is sleep deprived will find it more difficult to cope emotionally."
With pandemic restrictions now eased, it will likely be possible for you to visit the setting with your child before they start. We spoke to Janet Ghanem, Director at Redwood Center of Excellence ELC:
“Make a visit with your child before he/she begins school or nursery. This will help your child become familiar with the teachers and the environment before attending without you.”
Depending on your child’s age, a visit to the setting in advance may also provide your child with some excitement. There will likely be certain activities that you don't often do at home, and perhaps exciting playground equipment or items of interests. Some schools and nurseries even have pets, that can support children to feel connected to the setting and provide a talking point for you and your child.
There is no reason why starting nursery or school needs to be a shock to your child. There are many age-appropriate ways that you can help your child to understand what is happening to ease their feelings of distress. Keep in mind that young children feel a greater sense of agency and security when they understand what is coming next. Helping your child to understand what they can expect from nursery or school will take away some of the fear of the unknown.
Lysiane Ruf, Academic Director at Future International Nursery, shared her advice:
"It is important to prepare your child for separation, discussing about goodbyes and what could make it easier for them. There are some children’s books that address the first days at the nursery and staying connected. Role playing with them can also be a good idea: when children practise saying bye and leaving, during play, they are better equipped when the big day arrives."
It may also be helpful to do some fun nursery/school activities at home that your child will enjoy e.g. painting, craft activities, playdough, reading stories together, and tell your child that they’ll be able to do these activities with their teacher at nursery/school too. Taking your child shopping for items they will need for school/nursery, such as a bag, lunch box and water bottle, can support this understanding also.
We spoke to Ami Maclennan, Nursery Director and Head of FS1 at GEMS Wellington Academy Silicon Oasis, who explained that the needs of each individual child need to be considered during this transition:
“Children adapt to new situations in different ways. It is so important to know and accept that what works for one child may not work for another. We need to give children time and space and we need to support their individual needs.
It is important that nursery staff get to know each child individually, which is why we spend so much time during our induction meetings asking personal questions like, ‘What makes them most happy? What is their favourite activity? What do they like to sing or watch? What foods do they like to eat?’ ‘Who are the special people in their life?”
Good early years settings will provide you with these opportunities to meet your child’s teacher before they start. Your child should not be required to fit into a standard process of settling in, but rather the adults supporting them (teacher, caregivers, parents) should work together to meet their needs through this period.
Entrusting another adult with your child is a major task, particularly one whom you’ve spent very little time with prior. Your emotions may well be running high, and it is important not to create distance between you and your child with insincerity. At the same time, any demonstration of distrust for the teacher will likely contribute considerably to feelings of fear in your child when they are left in the new adult’s care.
Diana Zeidan, Area Director of Odyssey Nurseries Dubai, shared her insights:
“Let your child see on your face that they are safe and there is nothing for them to worry about. The way young children assess the safety of a situation is by reading their parent’s body language and expressions. If you look like you are scared or about to cry, it will not convey that the situation is safe and will amplify your child’s anxiety."
Ami Maclennan, Nursery Director and Head of FS1 at GEMS Wellington Academy Silicon Oasis expressed a similar sentiment :
“Be positive when talking about nursery with your child and show you are excited and motivated. Children will feed off the example set by their parents. If you’re excited, then your child will get the same feeling; if you show you’re anxious, this can rub off, too.”
Rishika Malhotra, Principal at Raffles Early Childhood Centres, added that a secure base at home is also important during this period :
“Children need to feel secure, safe and loved, particularly during periods of change. Lots of cuddles, hugs and reading stories cultivate a sense of security for them, prior to starting nursery. Having their needs met through touch, sleep, play, bathing and communicating can help to nurture their confidence.”
More than ever before, your child needs to trust you, and your communication, or lack of it, will make a huge impact on your child during this period. Janet Ghanem shared her advice to parents:
"The sadness and worry a child feels when separating from their parent is very real, and it is important that they are allowed to express these feelings. Show understanding and support for your child’s feelings, assure them that you will return soon, with a hug and a confident smile."
Diana Zeidan, Area Director at Odyssey Nurseries Dubai, provided added some practical advice on this:
“Do not sneak out of the room when your child isn’t looking. Doing so is an easy way to avoid dealing with your own emotional turmoil, but it doesn’t help your child. Your child may be experiencing fear of abandonment, and when they look up to see their parent has left stealthily, that fear is reinforced. Instead, give them a hug and a kiss goodbye and tell your child you love them, you know they will have fun, and that you’ll be back later.”