In the nursery school world, we sometimes think of "separation" as a specific event – a moment in time when a child has made the adjustment to school and is able to feel secure as he moves beyond the stage of complete dependency on his caregivers at home and is able to comfortably be at school. Parents often anxiously await that day and they imagine their child eagerly running into the classroom, barely taking the time for a quick hug and goodbye kiss, and excitedly rushing over to play with his friends. Sometimes it is with mixed emotion that a parent breathes a sigh of relief and reports, "he hardly needs me anymore; finally, he can separate."
Of course, now that we are approaching the end of the year, we know that this isn't really what happens. We realize that being able to successfully separate and make some of childhood's larger transitions, is part of a life long journey that will take many twists and turns – and many steps forward and back -- along the way. Separating is not so much a goal as it is a skill and a tool. It lets us know that a child is becoming more sturdy, resilient, able to take part in relationships with others, and is moving along the path toward greater autonomy.
By now, your children have grown together as a community and they feel comfort in knowing what to expect of their peers and teachers. When they come to school, they know what to anticipate and they enjoy the routines and the predictability of the classroom. Because they have a sturdy foundation, they are able to enjoy new experiences and variations in the patterns and routines of the school day.
Of course, the path of development continues its upward spiral and it is time to continue mastering new experiences. Learning how to say goodbye to friends and teachers, to leave what it is familiar and comfortable, and to anticipate the unknown becomes the "curriculum" for the end of the school year. Closing the door to one chapter of life allows us to move along and embrace new experiences. Reflecting with children on shared experiences allows them to carry these memories with them as they go off into new territory.
Talking to children about what to expect as they approach a transition will help them feel more secure and, if you look for them, you will find many opportunities to reflect on the past and anticipate the future. But, at the same time, there is an unknown factor to anything new and different. As much as we might wish we could fully prepare our children for their new adventures, we can never know exactly what they will encounter. Children need practice and time to master anything new, whether it is learning to walk, complete a puzzle, or feel comfortable in a new situation. When parents attempt to smooth the way and take away all frustration and discomfort for their children, in fact, they do them a disservice. Helping a child cope with age appropriate amounts of frustration builds resiliency, coping skills, and allows children to experience themselves as competent and confident human beings.
Here are some suggestions to help support your child's successful transitioning to day camp, kindergarten, or a new class next year:
- Listen carefully to understand your child's concerns and questions
- Validate what you hear them expressing, either verbally or through play
- Try not to project your own worries about the transition onto your child
- Remind anxious children about the successful transitions they have already made, no matter how big or small
- Brainstorm with your child about what camp, next year's school, or his new teachers might be like
- Talk about some of the similarities between the new adventure and your child's experiences in school this year
- Wonder together about what might be different
- Role play scenarios (using stuffed animals, dolls, or action figures) that seem worrisome to your child
- Share stories of your childhood emphasizing times when you moved on to new experiences
- If your child is anxious, share that you were, too, and let your child know that there were grownups and other children who helped you feel comfortable
- Read books to your child that have transition themes
- Plan some play dates with children who will be in your child's camp group or new school
- If possible, visit the camp facility or play in the playground of the new school before the first day
- Remember that your supportive emotional presence is reassuring to your child
- Remember that children are often more resilient than we give them credit for being
- Remember that all new experiences provide opportunities for mastery and add to your child's reservoir of strengths