The start of the school year can be stressful for children and their parents. Regardless of how many times each has experienced a separation, each new attempt can evoke strong emotions. Sometimes, children are joyful and excited to be at school; other times, they seem excited and engaged, only to become fearful once the newness of the classroom and the activities therein wears off. It is as if the child realizes, “Oh no! I have to come here every day!” Some children take a long time to separate from their caregiver. Most teachers agree that once the child understands the routine, their separation anxiety will diminish.
There are many strategies a teacher can use to help children understand the classroom routine. An overarching approach is to recognize that there are phases to the early childhood school year. The first phase is focused on separation and attachment. When a class is in this phase, the teacher should plan activities that that are familiar to children. For example, the house corner should have materials, sometimes called prompts, that resemble typical household tasks.
Materials in the other areas of the classroom should be familiar enough that all children experience a feeling of competence rather quickly. When choosing materials, the teacher should consider items that have already been mastered by the child, rather than those in Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). ZPD refers to those developmental skills that a child can not do on his or her own, but is able to accomplish with support from a mentor. Materials that fall within the ZPD will come in Phase II and III.
Teachers should sing songs that encourage children to learn each other’s names. Books should have a theme of separation and reunification. (“Owl Babies” is one of my favorites, especially if read with the melody and rhythm of flying owls.)
Phase I can last until mid-October or even November in most classrooms. While teachers are usually eager to plan for, and implement, activities that challenge children’s skills (Phase II and III), the mastery of these skills will come more more quickly if time is given for all of the children to move through Phase I at their own pace.