“As my son Daniel will turn 2 years old next month I am keen for him to start nursery school. Our local one has a space and I have arranged to start work to coincide. I have looked after him full-time up until now. Daniel is an outgoing boy and we have successfully left him for short periods with neighbours. However, just recently he has started crying and clinging when we leave him anywhere. I am worried whether he will settle down at school.”
Despite widespread hopes that chronological and emotional growth should go hand in hand, age in itself signifies little more than just that - an age that has been reached. Daniel reaching 2 is therefore not in itself a sign of personal readiness to go to nursery school. Whilst some children start successfully at 2, others are not ready until 3 or 4.
However, there is not only the child’s readiness to consider. There are the family’s economic and emotional needs as well. Some parents can wait until the child is ready and others are not able to. For fortunate families readiness in the child and parent coincides. A parent begins to have mental space to think of work or other activities at a time when the little child shows an ability to be interested in others. Daniel has been able to manage separation and that has allowed Mrs D.E. space to consider a job for herself and plan a nursery place for him.
However, whether 5 year olds are ready for full-time school or not the fact of a formal starting age (give or take a term) means parents can prepare their children in a confident way. “I was really looking forward to having time to myself”, said the mother of one 5 year old, “but I did not feel guilty about it because that was the time she had to go anyway”. There is no such clear moment for nursery or playschool provision. Whilst some state infant schools have added on nursery classes for 4 year olds, provision for the under-fives falls largely on the voluntary and private sector. This means parents, with the advice of nursery teachers, carry the responsibility for deciding if and when to start.
Where a parent, like Mrs D.E. has been at home full-time with her child prior to him starting school, the separation process is two-fold. She is saying goodbye to the earliest stage of parenthood as well as looking forward to the new stage. Daniel is also having to change his environment, moving into the wider social world. “These two separate experiences can get confused and magnify each other,” says child psychotherapist, Mrs Lisa Miller who is responsible for the Tavistock Clinic’s Under-Fives Counselling Service. “Almost all our work includes some aspect of separation issues. There is an underlying thread about weaning as the whole growing up experience involves a process of separation. This can be most acute before children join their first social unit outside of the family”
Where a parent does not feel guilty about the timing of separation it can be discussed with the child openly so that the child’s feelings can be explored. Mrs H, for example, needed to return to work earlier than she intended when her husband’s illness led to an economic crisis. “It’s Mummy’s turn to go to work instead of Daddy so he can have time to get better” she told their 2 year old, Josie. She also explained Grandma was coming to look after Daddy and Josie each day until Mummy got home. As Josie understand the concept of taking turns, was satisfied she and her father would be looked after and recognised the certainty in her mother’s voice she was able to adjust to the new circumstance.
However, Mrs D.E. does not appear to have told Daniel of her plans yet. “Children know when there are plans in the air” says Lisa Miller. “Perhaps Mrs D.E. doesn’t realise how much Daniel knows”. Children can be far more frightened by unspoken wishes and plans of their parents than the actual reality. It is possible that Daniel is being clingy because he senses a separation but fears a far worse one air than has actually been planned.
Susan Reid, author of “Understanding Your Two Year Old” emphasises the way first separations stir up for the mother her own past experiences. She points out that many mothers confess to crying when they leave their child at nursery for the first time. It matters that the new adult is trusted by the parents so that the handover can be made with confidence and that there is provision for a gradual start. It is possible that Daniel is picking up his mother’s feelings about her own experiences of separation in addition to his own worries.
Transitions are complicated and rarely smooth. A little child can begin nursery school confident and well-prepared but then find the strain of sharing an adult with other children and the absence of a familiar person too much. Janie, aged 2, the youngest in her family, began with great curiosity and pleasure and looked forward to going each day for the first week. She wanted to be like her older siblings. After the first weekend she burst into tears at the thought of going back. Her parents and nursery teacher decided to give her more time and she started again six months later. 3-year-old Tom, on the other hand, needed his parents and teacher to gently insist on his attendance. Experienced Nursery Heads can offer helpful advice on how slowly or quickly to phase in attendance. After Mrs D.E. feels confident in speaking to Daniel about her plans introductory discussions and visits with the Nursery would be helpful so that there is a month to settle him in. Where problems persist it is worth gaining extra help.
Under Fives Counselling Service, Mrs Lisa Miller, The Tavistock Clinic, 120 Belsize Lane, London NW3
“Understanding Your 2 Year old” Susan Reid)
“Understanding Your 3 year old” Judith Trowell