If you teach Pre-K, TK, Kindergarten, or even first grade, you may have experienced children crying when they are dropped off first thing in the morning. If you have an assistant, that person can usually help. But what if you are teaching alone? What can you do? What if you have many sets of parents all lined up to meet you and drop off their child, and already you have two children crying hard? This is the stuff that early childhood teachers’ back to school nightmares are made of! (I call them “school-mares,” LOL!)
If you have a background in child development, you’ve probably heard of separation anxiety, and you are aware that crying when being separated from a parent is normal, especially if it is for the very first time. Of course, most teachers would probably hope that their classroom is not the absolute FIRST TIME that the child has EVER been separated from his or her mother! If this is the case, and the child is now four or five years old, brace yourself: you may be in for several hours of crying. There is usually a reason why the parents are uncomfortable leaving the child, and it’s generally not because the child is fine with it. (There are always exceptions, of course.)
But this situation is actually quite rare in this day and age! Most kids have been left with caregivers at some point, whether they are friends or family members. And some will have even been to preschool or a child’s group type of setting, such as Sunday School, etc. In the 20 years that I taught Kindergarten and five years of first grade, I’ve never had more than three children crying at a time, even when I had classes of 34 children waaaay back in the 1990’s. Normally, with a class of about 20-25 kindergartners, there may be one or two kids crying on the first few days… or none!
What can you do? Parents will look to you for guidance in handling the situation. Here are some situations and solutions.
1. Let’s say it’s the first day of school and there’s a long line of parents and children waiting to meet you, get a nametag, and drop off their child. A parent is standing in front of you with a child that is crying hard and holding onto his or her leg and hand and will not let go. The child is begging the adult not to leave.
First, reassure the adult that the child will be just fine and you will all have a great day.
Get down on the child’s level and look him or her in the eye. Introduce yourself and tell him that you’ll all have a great day and do lots of fun things with the other children, and that mom or dad will be back soon.
Say, “Would you like to hold my hand?” Or, “Would you like to sit here right by me?” If the child refuses, ask the parent if he or she would give you the child’s hand.
Avoid attempting to pull the child away from the parent. This can be interpreted as “man-handling” a child. Have the parent pull the child off of him or herself and give the child to you.
I recommend that you then follow the child’s lead. If the child wants to sit in your lap, let him do that while you meet the rest of the families. Otherwise, let him sit next to you, etc.
2. Here’s the next situation. Let’s suppose you already have one child crying and/or in your lap and along comes another. This parent and child are just like the other. What should you do?
Follow the same procedure as before. The have the second child join the first at your side. They both probably can’t sit on your lap at the same time, but they can drape their arms around your shoulders. Imagine how siblings share their mom; it can be done!
Just keep smiling and greet the rest of the parents and kids as calmly and good naturedly as you possibly can. Both parents and children will follow your emotional lead! If YOU are calm, confident, and happy, they will also likely be the same.
3. What to do if a child RUNS after their parent to follow them back out:
Keep in mind that this is probably not the first time that the child has run after the parent; children that do this tend to do it habitually. I would first wait and see what the parent does and see how they handle it.
If possible, ask the parent to close the door behind him or her so that the child is safe inside. Remember that most early childhood classrooms are fully gated, so as long as adults keep the gates locked, the child should be safe inside.
NEVER chase a child in this situation unless it is for safety reasons, (such as the child is headed into the parking lot and into oncoming traffic. Yes, that happened to me!)
If a child refuses to come back, call the office for back-up and let them handle it. Meanwhile, make sure the outside gates are locked so the child is safe and keep your door open. Obviously, you cannot leave your entire class unsupervised to go after a single child, but very often other parents will step in and help if they see that it is needed.
4. What to do if a child runs after his parents EVERY DAY:
Years ago, a teacher on my team had a child that would cry and RUN after her mom or dad EVERY SINGLE MORNING for MONTHS. Another little boy ran straight out the door and into the parking lot every single day for a about three weeks!
If you know it’s going to happen every day, develop a plan. Our kindergarten teachers had to work together to make sure that the child was always dropped off in a room with adult supervision and with a door that could stay closed and locked.
If the teacher of the child has duty, someone else must let him or her into their room that morning, or take the recess duty. Get your administrator involved in the plan. The child may need to be dropped off at the office each day.
Involve parents in the plan. Parents of children that run usually know how to handle it. They may not know how to solve the problem (obviously!) but they are generally used to handling it.
5. What to do if a child will not come in the room:
If a child refuses to come inside, call the office for back up and let them handle it. Meanwhile, make sure the outside gates are locked so the child is safe, and keep your door open to keep watch. Alert the teachers nearby that there is a child in the hallway that has gone AWOL and will not come back in, so that they can help keep an eye on him, too.
Assuming the child is safe outside, (or in the hallway, etc.,) I would just let him or her get bored out there. The child needs to choose to come inside, if at all possible.
If you can get him close enough to your door to hear you, offer the child choices.
“Would you like to do your work now, or later when the other children are playing outside?”
“Would you like to stay outside by yourself doing nothing, or come in and paint?”
“Would you like to hear what this puppet has to say?”
“We are meeting our class pet. Would you like to come see the turtle?”
Chasing children around a play yard to bring them in quickly becomes a game, and they are usually MUCH faster than the adults that care for them! And it is completely ineffective! I have actually watched this scenario from my doorway a few times, with some amusement. I’ve never seen it work once.
6. How to start your school day with students that are crying:
If you still have children crying after all of the parents have gone and you’re finally ready to start your day, then I would suggest keeping the one that is crying the hardest on your lap or right at your feet, if possible.
DISTRACT WITH A CLASS PET: Meeting a class pet is a GREAT distraction!
DISTRACT WITH A PUPPET: My favorite way to start school is by grabbing my dog puppet and reading Wiggles Learns the Rules at School. I interact with the puppet, and show the kids how Wiggles the Dog always forgets the rules, but then he learns them. Wiggles has a silly voice and is tons of fun. The kids BEG to hear the story multiple times, and it teaches them the rules! I read it every day for the first two weeks, at least. After that, I switch to one of the other Wiggles or Sittles books. They all have lessons about behavior, and can be read with a puppet.
DISTRACT WITH MUSIC: I try to start singing with the children as soon as possible, because music soothes the children and generally makes them happy. The I Can Follow the Rules song and the Backpack Boogie song from the Classroom Management DVD have movements and are great ways to start off the day.
7. What to do if a child continues crying well into the school day:
If the child is still crying more than 30 minutes after the parent has left, you may want to give him crayons to color with or put some kind of manipulative in his hands to see if that helps.
Letting the class have some playtime can help get a child to stop crying. When the crying child sees the toys come out, they usually want to join in the fun and the crying stops. If not, it will give you a chance to sit with the child and get to know him or her a little better. You may want to take the child by the hand and guide him over to some blocks and get him started playing with another child that may seem like a good playmate.
8. What to do if a child is STILL crying daily, ALL DAY, two weeks into the school year:
First, let me clarify that this is NOT the norm! I’ve only seen this happen a handful of times in Kindergarten over the course of my 26 year teaching career.
Try to find out if there are underlying issues causing the distress. One little girl in a colleague’s class would cry softly off and on nearly the whole day, even two months into the school year. She kept telling her parents that “she didn’t like school.” Of course, they had no choice but to send her, so that was basically ignored. After quite a while, we tried to find out ourselves what the problem was, because she actually seemed to enjoy the activities- at least when she wasn’t crying! It turned out that she hated the school DAY CARE, which she also thought of as “school,” because it was at school, but in a different building. Once we figured that out and suggested that they changed caregivers, she was a TOTALLY different child! She was happy and the crying at drop-off completely stopped! But she simply couldn’t communicate well enough to explain what the problem was. So if things just don’t add up, keep digging until you figure it out.
Try to “wean” the child off of the parents one step at a time. Another child kept bawling LOUDLY, even after two weeks. It was so loud that the other children couldn’t really even hear what I was saying. I talked to his parents about it, but it truly was the first time he had been away from his mom. They had tried preschool, but the same thing had happened, so they pulled him out. Sooo, we agreed that one of the parents would stay with him for a week each to help him get accustomed. On the first day, mom sat right behind him every minute. On the second day, she sat about a foot behind him, but he could still see her feet. On the third day, she got a little farther away. On the fourth day, she sat in a chair at a table. On the fifth day she sat on a chair at the back of the room. The following week, her husband came and followed much of the same routine, but didn’t start out quite so close. By Friday, dad waved good-bye halfway through the morning, and he started to wail… and then looked over at us singing a song. He stopped crying after about five minutes, and JOINED US! SUCCESS!
9. Give parents some pointers on how to handle separation anxiety.
I always address this at our beginning of the school year meeting. I tell parents that a “long good-bye” is the VERY WORST THING for a child that is having trouble letting you go. So if the child that wants you to stay “for just five more minutes,” you’re actually helping more by telling them that you have to go. Give them a hug and tell them you’ll be back soon. Then walk confidently away and don’t look back with tears in your eyes! If mom or dad is anxious, then the child will also surely be even more anxious.
It’s also a VERY BAD IDEA to have parents “stay and watch” or even help the first week, unless you already know the parent and child, and you know that the child can handle having the parent there. The parents need to learn to separate from the children just as badly as the children need to separate from their parents. I tell families that volunteers are wanted, needed, and welcomed, but we will begin the second week.
I also tell them that everyone should say good-bye at the door and not come inside to put their child’s things away for them, etc. Part of what their child is learning is to be independent enough to put the backpack into the cubby and their jacket on a hook. If the child does not learn to do this in Kindergarten, then first grade will be even harder.
So what do you think? Is this the way you handle children that cry in your classroom? And what’s YOUR worst “school-mare?”
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