Parental Advice

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Leaving Your 3 Year Old At Nursery

There are all manner of different childcare options these days, from the original extended-family to all-day expensive nurseries, or childminders or au pairs or live-in nannies – the list is endless. If we follow the trend that this Government seems to be encouraging, ie that women should be out there in the working world rather than at home caring for their under-fives, then more and more options will be needed.

However, the point of this article is not to argue the pros and cons of childcare that is needed so that the mother can return to paid employment but rather some practical advice for mums about that thorny problem: separation anxiety.

I am going to use the setting that I know most about: a Nursery School, attached to a primary school and staffed by teachers/Nursery Nurses. I have worked within this type of setting for many years and have also been on the receiving end as a mother.

For many mums, even though they understand just how important nursery education is, it is extremely hard to leave your three-year old with comparative strangers and expect to be happy about it.

You may have visited the Nursery several times. You hopefully have had chats with the staff and shown your child all the exciting things he/she will be able to do there. But nothing really prepares you for how you will feel when you have to say goodbye and walk off, leaving your child behind.

I have seen some mothers who frankly can’t get out of the building quick enough. Their children are equally divided into those who also can’t get away from their mothers fast enough either and embrace their new world with delight, and those who sob bitter tears at being abandoned for ever.

The more usual pattern of behaviour though is that the mothers know they must leave their child but are reluctant to do so. This is partly because they genuinely don’t want to abandon them and also partly because they don’t want to be seen to be too eager to rush off.

In my experience the least stressful way of approaching nursery is this:

First, find a setting that you feel most comfortable with. In order to do this, visit several and try to spend some time there with your child. You will have a strong basic instinct about whether your child would like it there. Is it warm/sunny/bright? Are the children all gainfully employed at a variety of activities? Are the staff approachable and smiling? Do they genuinely seem to like working there? Do they actually like children? (Amazingly some don’t!) Are there the right number of children? Perhaps your child likes smaller places and huge, noisy rooms full of dozens of children all rushing about, would frighten and overwhelm him/her. Watch to see what your child’s reaction to everything is. If they are keen to get involved in whatever is there and reluctant to leave because they haven’t seen everything yet, then that’s a good sign.

Having decided on the actual nursery, you now need to take your child there for several short visits. They need only be for 10-15 minutes (you don’t want to be a nuisance to the staff or appear as overly fussy). The idea is to get your child used to going to nursery and associating it with happy times. If you can manage to include a story time then this will be very useful as it is an easy introduction to the notion of “sitting still” with all the other children.

It is very important, however, not to spend too long there at each visit, otherwise your child will associate the nursery as a lovely place to go to that you stay at as well. This is not the idea. The whole point is to foster the notion that nursery is a wonderful place where they can do fantastic things to tell you about when you pick them up.

Before they actually start at Nursery, make sure you talk about all the things that they will be doing there: the playdough, the watertray, the dressing up clothes, the Home Corner, storytime etc. Also talk about the routine on the day(s) they will be going. What time they will need to get up, how they will get to Nursery (car/walk/bus), and most important of all, that you will be doing really boring things while they are there, so they aren’t missing anything. The final reinforced message you give them will be that you will be there to collect them.

On the first day that you are to leave them at Nursery make sure you give yourself lots of time. If you get there too early/too late your anxiety will be conveyed to your child. Arrive calmly, chat to another mum if you feel able to or just point out interesting things to your child on the way in. Make yourself known to a member of staff and lead your child in. Walk around with them and show them what activities are available that day.

The Nursery will have a policy for what to do on a child’s first day. Perhaps they will allow mum to stay for 10 minutes and then suggest she goes. Perhaps they will encourage separation straight away and the child will be handed to a member of staff (who hopefully will be cuddly and kind and ease the transition of care). How ever it is done, do make sure you say “goodbye” properly and state clearly that you will be back. Mums (or dads) who sneak off when their child is momentarily looking the other way are not helping themselves or their child. When this happens, most children think that their parent can’t be trusted and won’t take their eyes off them. Naturally this slows and hampers the process of teaching the child that Nursery is a lovely, safe place to be.

A lot of children do howl when they are first left. The sense of abandonment is great when you are only three and no matter how you tried to hide it, they will have sensed your anxiety. Please believe me when I tell you that the vast majority of children do stop crying very quickly. They may be subdued for a while but they soon realise that they are safe and that there are lots of interesting things going on. What will help more than anything is the fact that they will be surrounded by lots of other children who aren’t crying. The message will get through to them: it is ok here.

Finally, make sure you turn up to collect your child on time. I know someone has to be the last parent to arrive but make sure it isn’t you. When they have been at Nursery for a while they probably won’t care much if you are late, they will be too busy helping clear up or reading a book, but on Day one, they will care. Be at the door with a smiling face, a huge hug and a place on the fridge door for the first of many works of art.

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