Young children have a strong need to have access to at least one attachment figure, a person who they feel bonded and connected with, who is holding their care and best interests in their mind and heart. They need to know they’re being cared for by someone who can meet their needs, be it a drink of water, helping them solve a problem or giving them a hug. Children generally need an existing attachment figure (their parent generally) to be the bridge, to be present, while they adapt to a new carer and a new environment.
It’s easier for children to form new bonds when supported by their parent/ primary caregiver. With the security of their parent present, the child can slowly start to develop their sense of familiarity and trust with a new person in their lives. As that bond and trust develops, parents can follow the child’s cues and give them more space and freedom to begin to venture forward with greater confidence in interacting more with their new carer or friend as well as bonding with their new environment. The child needs to learn that the new person in their life will continue to be warm and responsive in a variety of different situations. All the while, the child is learning to trust that spending some time apart from their parent/ primary caregiver won’t have a negative impact on that bond.
The more understanding of attachment a teacher has, the more equipped they are to help children feel secure. When I work with early childhood teachers, I give them (or remind them of) some background information about attachment science and how fundamental it is that the child’s need to form secure attachments is at the forefront of the minds of parents and caregivers, and how insecure and even lost they can feel without that solid secure bonded connection.
Although all children are different, most children can generally bond very quickly with an adult who shows a lot of warmth, care, attunement, confidence and a willingness to engage with the child in a fun way! Being fun can make adults much less scary and much more attractive to children.
However, it’s unfair to leave all the responsibility for establishing those connections with a child who is still largely very new to developing these social skills (in the bigger picture).
It can work best when the teacher teams up with the parent, working together to help the child who is new to their centre find their solid ground. It’s easy for a parent to be intimidated into going along with a settling in process, or lack thereof, that doesn’t feel comfortable to them. Most parents have some lingering authority issues from their childhood and adolescent years in school and can struggle to speak up to represent their child’s needs and best interests, yet it’s our job as parents to advocate for our children and to help the teacher in their often challenging role of helping the child integrate.
Is your child developing positive associations with their learning environment? It’s important that parents choose the centres, holiday programs or other environments for their children where the staff understand and value the child’s emotional needs around bonding and developing emotional security and are tolerant and supportive of the parent being present for as long as the child needs, be it 15 minutes in the morning, the whole morning or for whatever length of time a child is at the centre in their first days until they have started to feel more secure.
In our society, it’s often thought that children should be confident in settling into new environments. Although this is slowly changing as more awareness of attachment science filters through, yet still many early childhood centres (and primary school teachers of children starting school) more tend to believe that the parent’s presence is only encouraging the child’s dependence on the parent and inhibiting the child’s development of independence. Yet, again going back to what we’ve learned from attachment science, it’s through the meeting of a child’s dependency needs that helps them build the trust and security that leads to a healthier independence in the long run.
Some valuable gems of insight from an expert in attachment science: In this interview, Jon G. Allen, PhD, psychologist and psychiatrist who has written extensively on the subject of attachment, shares some great gems about the value of a child being connected to an attachment figure:
“Attachment is our fundamental way of coming to feel emotionally safe and secure, that’s at the core of mental health and a sense of wellbeing.”
“If you’re feeling connected to someone you feel secure with and trust, this takes a huge load off your brain. ”
“Our most potent and efficient way of regulating emotional distress is to be connected with another person who you trust.”
“When a child feels safe and secure, they’re more capable.”
“The secure base (of being connected to an attachment figure) provides a kind of platform for the infant or toddler to go out and explore their world. So when the child feels safe and secure, they’re more capable of going out in the world and explore. Their attachment with their caregiver fosters independence.”
“Children who are securely attached tend to be the most independent.”
Should I drop them and run or hang around for a while? I encourage parents to be present as the child settles in at least for the first half hour or so in the morning even if that means leaving home earlier (if parent has to go to work). The parent can encourage their child to engage with activities with other children or staff, as they act as the bridge to help establish some communication or play together and then fade into the background, far enough away that the child has the chance to get used to the feeling of being a little bit apart while being in the space, but the parent is close enough to be easily accessible.
You are your child’s advocate. Parents can also support their child’s transition into new group situations by making sure the new carer understands that their child needs extra connection, care and friendliness to help them feel secure and giving the carer more information about their child’s specific likes, dislikes and needs to help the carer in their transition of bonding with the child. Parents can help their child tell the teacher about all the things they enjoy doing at home, or giving all this important information on behalf of their child in a warm triangle of relating with parent, child and teacher. It’s the role of the parent/ primary caregiver to be their child’s advocate in their early years. Slowly over time, hopefully, your child will continue to get better at representing their own feelings, likes, dislikes and needs, hopefully, they’ll get better at expressing boundaries or asking for what they need, but this is a long and slow process that develops over their whole childhood. The more their parent helps them in this process of communication or advocates for them in a way that’s respectful and inclusive, the more empowered the child will be to keep improving their ability to represent themselves and hence feel safer when away from home or with other adults and friends.