Compassionate Transitions

When my son, River, was 3 years old, we signed up for a toddler gymnastics class. At the first class, I asked if I could attend with him. Although they usually didn’t allow parents in the classroom, they agreed to let me sit at the wall and observe. I was told that I could not participate in any manner as it was against their policy.

I, like most parents and caregivers, knew my son very well, and knew that he would probably sit next to me throughout the entire class unless I held his hand and walked with him into the circle of children as they did “donkey kicks” and moved across the balance beam. I knew that if I could participate next to him for just 5-10 minutes, he’d join in and most likely have a blast. Unfortunately, parental involvement was not allowed. After three sessions of sitting against the wall beside an unmoving River while the other children played on parallel bars and practiced summersaults over mats, we left the class.

Before becoming a parent, I spent a significant amount of time working in daycares and preschool classrooms, as well as observing various school and childcare settings. I once observed a young preschool class which had just begun a new session. Out of the twelve 2-3 year olds in attendance on that particular day, any 5 of the children were simultaneously crying intensely as a teacher and 2 aides tried to comfort them. This occurred over the entire hour period I was there. As an observer I was not allowed to speak with the children–although I ached to pick them up, attempt to soothe them, and call their families back in to support them. The teacher assured me that after a few weeks the children would get used to being away from their families and caregivers, and that it was best to treat the situation like a band aid—separating the child quickly from the parents instead of allowing parents to stay and potentially cause more upset.

I have never understood the band aid analogy. I have never understood why children are suddenly expected at 3 or 4 or 5 to be comfortable with being dropped off in a totally new, unfamiliar environment with people they have never met without any sort of compassionate transition. I understand that many children have multiple caregivers and some have been in daycare from a very young age. This does not change the fact that being dropped off in a brand new environment—such as a new school setting—whether one has been in the care of a family member or daycare provider previously, is an enormous transition.

When my son was 4, I looked for a preschool program that I felt would meet his needs, but more than anything else, a program that would allow for a compassionate transition. Most of the preschools in our area had strict “no parents in the classroom” policies, meaning that children must always be dropped off and parents/caregivers were not allowed to participate in class activities in any way. I deeply believed in another way, and luckily found a wonderful little program in a homeschooling mother’s house where parents were welcome to come and stay as needed. On River’s first day of preschool I sat next to him at a table with the other children. Over the course of the next 4 classes I moved to a couch in the next room, then to my car in the driveway and finally, I was dropping him off as he ran in to play with his friends without looking back. No band aid needed—and no tears!

I deeply believe that parental/caregiver involvement based on the individual needs of the child is of paramount importance in making the transition into any new setting, especially when children are so young. Many children are comfortable very quickly in a new and engaging environment, and those children might run happily into a new place without looking back. Others may need a few minutes, 2 class sessions or maybe even a month or more with their parent or caregiver with them in the new setting before they feel completely comfortable. How often do we, as adults, go to completely unfamiliar environments all alone and feel open and at ease to learn and become engaged in conversations with the new people? It can be unsettling and scary when we are 20, 40, and 60—let alone 3, 4, or 5!

When creating a program with children’s needs in mind, flexibility is the key. At our Yoga Preschool program, some children run in on the first day of class without looking back, while others need more time with their parents/caregivers nearby to feel comfotable. We are all individuals, and honoring the needs of each unique child is at the heart of what we do. I am hopeful that we will see a growth of cooperative programs that embrace the value of a compassionate transitions for all children. As one of our Yoga Preschool parents said, if you are uncomfortable, how can you feel free to learn?

parent participation

A parent using play dough with her daughter and friends. (Her daughter is the dinosaur.)