Babies younger than 6 months old usually adjust well to being away from their parents. However, around 4 to 7 months old, babies develop object permanence and begin to understand that people and objects exist even when they are out of sight. Thus, when a parent leaves their child's sight, the child understands that the parent went somewhere else. Since they don't yet understand that the parent will return at some point, the child may become anxious. This is called separation anxiety. Many young students entering preschool, kindergarten, and even elementary school, suffer from separation anxiety. It is a difficult time for both students and parents, and presents a challenging time for teachers.
Common Causes and Antecedents of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety usually peaks between 8 and 12 months when toddlers become agitated and upset whenever their parents leave them (Harkness, 2005). Harkness (2005) states that separation anxiety can show itself anytime between 8 months and 3 years of age, and it can be triggered by a new child care situation, a move to a new home, or tension within the home.
Some children never experience separation anxiety, but for many children, being taken to a new educational setting (e.g., preschool or kindergarten) may be the trigger for their first real sensation of being separated from their parents. The degree of anxiety felt by the young child depends on many factors. Some children are more dependent on their parents and have had few experiences being separated from them. Some children have learned that being separated from their parents is not a permanent situation. Thus, the child's previous experiences play a significant role in how a child will deal with separation from his parents.
In rare cases, separation anxiety can last for many years and may be a sign of other problems at home. In other cases, when separation anxiety appears out of the blue, after months of attending school without any problems, the child may be telling his parents and teachers that there is a problem at school and this should be investigated.
Interventions for Separation Anxiety
Time and experience are, for most cases, the best cure for separation anxiety. Once the student learns that his parents always return, he will begin to feel less anxious when his parents leave. In addition, how parents respond to a student who is anxious has a significant impact on the student's behavior. If parents look and act anxious, the student will think that his anxiety is justified. After all, the student may be thinking, "If Mom and Dad are anxious about me being at preschool, this can't be good and I better be anxious, too." However, if Mom and Dad communicate confidence and assurance, the student will understand that the new situation is not a dangerous place.
Reinforcement rules also influence the student's behavior. As Harkness (2005) states, if a parent comes running back to the classroom every time her child cries, the student will soon learn to use crying behavior to manipulate his parent's behavior. If the student learns that by being anxious the parent will stay around longer, the student will learn to use this behavior to prevent his parent from leaving the classroom.
While parents may feel guilty about leaving a crying child, the best advice for parents is to have a set good -bye routine and leave. Teachers should help determine the place and time for the routine. For example, some schools have a rule that parents must say good-bye to their children within the school foyer. Parents are not allowed to walk their child down the hallway and into their classroom. At the end of the school foyer and before the school hallway, a sign reads "Hugging Zone." The hugging zone is where parents say good-bye to the children, give them a hug, tell them that Dad or Mom will pick them up after school, and leave. By providing parents and children with a place and routine, teachers can help parents learn how to help their children overcome separation anxiety.
Once the parent has left, Harkness (2005) recommends that teachers try to distract crying students with activities, songs, or any activity that will redirect the student's attention. It is important for the teacher to have a set morning routine to help students become adjusted and comfortable within their new environment. Again, consistency is critical.
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