Supporting Families through Transitions - Big and Small
I started a new job in a toddler classroom that had recently experienced a revolving door of teachers. There was one boy in particular that I remember, who came to school twice per week. Each arrival you could hear the child as he and his mother came through the front door, “No mommy, no go school. I want to hold you.” These were the cries that echoed through the halls. I noticed that it was especially heart breaking for his mother. Once his arrival routine was complete, and his things were put where they belonged, I would tell him, “Give mom one last hug before school. She will come back later, I am going to take you in 10, 9, 8….” As she tried to leave, he became even more upset. One day it was so difficult that she came back into the room to sooth him.
I asked her if we, (child included), could speak outside of the room. I assured her that this transition was going to take some time to establish. He needed the opportunity to build a relationship with me. I asked her to bring in a family photo or two to keep in the classroom. After we chatted, she reluctantly left and allowed me to console her child. It was hard, he did not know, trust or feel safe with me yet. This factor alone inhibited his ability to learn. His toileting skills regressed, he spent the days crying and not engaging with friends or the curriculum. I knew that he needed more support through this challenging transition. The following Tuesday, I had a plan.
The same rough transition occurred. However, this time mom gave him the family pictures that she had brought with them. Once mom left, I asked him, “Do you want to go with me to laminate these photos so that you can hold them?” He nodded his head yes. When we came back into the room I asked him if he would like to write a letter to mom and dad. He choked back his tears and nodded his head vigorously. We sat together, while he scribbled on a piece of paper, I asked him what he wanted to say. He spoke, “Mommy, I miss you when you are gone. I love you and want to hold you. Please come back fast.” It was in that moment that things changed.
Once that letter was complete, he took his picture and walked away to find friends to play with. Throughout the day we would talk about his family, mentioning who was in the picture, and talking about their names and relationship. He told me that dad was picking him up for t-ball that evening. We began to truly connect with one another. When dad came for pick up that day, I let him know that his son had a great day - very few tears and LOTS of happy learning. I could see the sense of relief wash over him. I did ask that the letter for mom stay in the box until she could pick it up.
The next arrival, things were much different. Once everything was put away, the little boy came over to me, gave me a hug and told me that I did not need to count that day. Mom grabbed the letter out of her box, read it and began to cry happy tears as she left for work with confidence. That was it! Drop off was no longer such a challenge. What he needed was a connection; someone to hear his pain and help him process and move through it. In the end, he and I became great buddies. The grief young children experience when separating from a loved one is real, no matter how irrational it may seem to adults. It is also important to remember that a child’s struggles are also family struggles. Patiently supporting children and families through transitions, using a relationship-based approach, helps provide a foundation of confidence and self-control and builds resilience. Early childhood caregivers and educators can make all the difference!