by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D

Young children bond with their childcare providers.

So when a caregiver leaves, special care is needed so children understand where that cherished adult is going. Ideally it is best to prepare young children in advance of a care provider’s leaving. They can be told when and perhaps why he or she is departing. Use of a calendar to mark the countdown to a departure will help children understand about time, and this will better prepare them for the change.

If a teacher is discharged from her duties, dies or leaves abruptly for another reason, the option of preparing children is not there. Children will have different reactions to this situation based on their personalities, past experiences with loss, and the nature of their relationship with the care giver. Collateral changes that occur in the wake of a teacher’s departure may alleviate or exacerbate the stress experienced by children. If there is great sadness, anger or other strong feelings experienced by adults in the child care environment, the children will suffer more profoundly. In addition, if the day-to-day routine is disrupted as a result of this person being gone, the children will notice. The children who are less flexible and those who depend on routines for security are likely to experience anxiety. Likewise, children who had a very close relationship with the absent teacher can be expected to “grieve” a bit.

Young children view things solely from their own perspective. Consequently they may assume that somehow they are responsible for things that happen (“Ms. Smith left because I was naughty”). Many child development experts believe that a toddler’s greatest source of anxiety is being left behind. So toddlers and young children need to hear that they will be well cared for in the caregiver’s absence. Children should be reassured that it is no one’s fault that their special friend had to go away.

Adjustment challenges experienced by children and adults at the center will probably depend on the circumstances surrounding the caregiver’s departure. Young children grieve differently than adults. They show their feelings rather than discuss them.

Consequently, children who are in distress may be defiant. Children may be deliberately provocative to be assured that there is still order. Provocative behavior may also be a means of getting extra attention, even if it is negative attention. Consistent limits and a predictable routine along with some extra closeness and attention for good behavior will be helpful. Children who are sensitive may express sadness by crying, whining or withdrawing. These children need just as much attention as the challenging ones. Sadness is an opportunity to teach about feelings and build a child’s emotional vocabulary. It is a good idea to validate a child’s feelings even if they express them negatively. They can be encouraged to talk about how sad it is that Ms. So and So is gone. Children who are more emotionally, verbally and cognitively advanced may be able to articulate their feelings and may ask direct questions about why the care provider left. It is best to answer questions simply, without too much detail.

Regardless of whether or not the children were prepared for the care provider’s departure, the following may help the children cope:

  • Compose a story about the caregiver. A homemade story book or a PowerPoint presentation that is printed will do.
  • Make a memory book or collage of things that represent the special person.
  • Designate a stuffed toy that represents the teacher. This way the child can give it a hug.
  • Art projects and songs can help children express feelings.
  • Have the teacher’s photo printed on a t-shirt that a child can put on.
  • Read published children’s books that are about feelings or about when friends go away (The Invisible String by Karst is a good one).

Finally, children will want to be assured that they are safe. They should be told that just because one teacher left, this does not mean that others will leave. If their beloved teacher is not deceased, it would be ideal if they could hear that she is alright and “happy.”  Unfortunately we all must learn to say goodbye to people we love. Sometimes this is a lesson learned at school. 

 

Pat Blackwell, Ph.D. is a licensed developmental psychologist at Pelts, Kirkhart & Associates. She also writes our award-winning "Learning Years" column. Check out Pat's latest article '3 Key Steps You Need for Potty Training Success'.

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