Approaches to Separation Anxiety

Whenever I have new children who have separation concerns in my programs, I give the parents two choices about how to move forward. While this is all flexible, I have found that some variation of the two plans seems to work well for all.

Option 1 – The Parent Goes – Following this plan the parent comes into the room with the child at drop-off. The parents stays for a short but consistent length of time, maybe three minutes. At that time, the parent says a short, sweet “good-bye” and leaves. The a teacher may help the child away from the parent or hold the often crying child while the parent leaves. Often this is followed by the teacher carrying the child, trying to comfort or distract the child or helping them transition to play. The teachers mark the amount of time it takes the child to settle and anything that was helpful in the process. This repeats each day with the hope of the child transitioning to play sooner.

  • Make good-bye rituals – In our house, this was two high-fives and a hug. My children new they could relax, that I wouldn’t leave until this happened.
  • Say it when you mean it and go – Parents who stretch out the process either before by saying good-bye early or after by staying once the good-bye is said, tend to be adding anxiety to the system.
  • Okay to ask for feedback – It can be helpful to ask the teacher to track the progress over days or to call you 15 or 30 minutes into the day to let you know how it is going.

Option 2 – The Parent Stays – Following this plan the parent comes into the room and participates with the child on the first day. The second day and forward, the parent comes into the room stays with the child briefly then sits in a chair to the side of the room when it would otherwise be time to leave. The parent does not participate to the point that we encourage parents to bring a good book or work to do, so they are disengaged from the classroom activity. The teachers and play invite the child to join.  Gradually, as the parent is being very boring, the child joins the play. Once the parent and teacher feel ready, the parent plans a trip away from the classroom. The first trip maybe a five minute break to the office. When the parent returns, they do not gush or comfort, they greet then sit in their chair to read. Trips are gradually longer and the child learns to be in the classroom without the parent.

  • Avoid smiles and eye contact – If the parent is gazing and smiling at their child in play, it invites the child back to reconnect with the parent rather than continue to play.
  • Avoid pushing child out – The more the parent pushes the child to join the play the more they likely hold on. Let the teacher, children and the play pull the child out.

I have a two hour Parent Workshop on Separation Anxiety on Tuesday, August 2 from 7:00-9:00 p.m. For more information and to register, please visit:

Here are a few other places to learn about Separation Anxiety –

A 30 minute interview on Separation Anxiety with Parent’s Perspective:

A good publication by Zero to Three:

A good publication by NAEYC:

An online article by HelpGuide:

A good book Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety or School Refusal: A Step by Step Guide for Parents by Eisen & Engler

Author: Dr. Rene Hackney

With a MA in school psychology and a PhD in developmental psychology, I founded and work as a parent educator at Parenting Playgroups. Somewhere in there I trained in the Developmental Clinic at Children's NMC and in the public schools. I have two beautiful, funny children who make me practice what I preach most everyday.

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