Settling: What to do when your child becomes unsettled at childcare

1st September 2023
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Written by Angela Bush

Every morning around the globe there are parents heading in to drop their child off at an early childhood service wondering how the moment of settling is going to pan out today. Even if your child has mostly been settled, happy, and easy to separate, the day may inevitably come when they decide that they do not want to go. Suddenly there's a period of time, your child cries and clings to you every morning, at the moment you need to leave. 

This is not unusual, effecting the most relaxed and settled child. Even  those children who generally had a positive induction into their childcare service, where they made strong connections with educators and other children when they first started, the change can come as a surprise.  Quickly becoming a concern for parents when their child seemingly and suddenly decides that they no longer wish to attend. Standing at the gate with a child refusing to let go of your neck, can be heart-wrenching for any parent.

Are any of these scenarios familiar to you?

  • Your child has started to become upset if you even mention getting ready to head off to preschool. Often leading to a refusal to get dressed, get in the car, or to skillful stalling tactics (their dedication to brushing their teeth and making their bed has never been so rigorous before!)
  • You are finding yourself increasingly having to peel your child out of their car seat and off your legs every morning when you arrive at preschool.
  • Your child insists that you stay for longer and longer every day - just one more story, one more puzzle, one more anything to make you stay.
  • Your child becomes boneless if you try to carry them into their centre.
  • Your child instantly starts crying as you pull into the car park or make any moves to leave in the morning.

Why does this happen?

There can be many reasons that a child becomes unsettled and decides they no longer want to attend preschool (at any age). Sometimes this is obvious and easy to work out, and other times you will have no idea what is going on for them and you are completely baffled.

Think about some of these possibilities...

Changes that can affect your child’s ability to self-regulate;
  • How is your child sleeping? Are they making the transition from dropping their day sleep and are therefore more tired than usual? Have they been unwell?
  • Have you been absent from the centre for a while? On holiday or for a family event.
  • Has there been any significant changes in your family dynamics? E.g. parental separation, a death in the family, a new baby, an older sibling starting school etc
  • Has your child had a recent emotional event that impacted their equilibrium? E.g. something that frightened them? Something they are feeling worried about?

Changes in friendships or relationships at the centre;

  • Has your child’s best friend or group of friends left and started school, leaving your child without their close and familiar group to play with?
  • Has your child’s favourite educator left, or changed their shift so that they are no longer present in the morning when you arrive?
  • Is there a dynamic between some children that is worrying your child at the moment?
  • Have there been changes in the centre environment or routines that your child is struggling to adjust to? E.g. a change in mealtime routines.

Like most of us, young children prefer a level of predictability and consistency in their lives. When there are significant changes or too many changes all at once, this can be unsettling and difficult to cope with. Every child is different, and some will have a temperament and developed coping mechanisms that enable them to drift through changes with very little impact. While other children will need more support and strategies to manage change in their lives. Some children will be far more resilient while others will just not handle change in their world easily.

Let’s also not forget, that sometimes there are days when we simply don’t feel like leaving the house. Other days we bounce out the door, looking forward to what the day has in store for us. It is the same for children. It is important to have realistic expectations of children, as we do for ourselves.

So what can you do to help your child find their mojo and settle happily into childcare again in the morning?

The following suggestions are for children who are usually quite settled and happy in their early childhood service. If your child has never really settled and has consistently cried every time you take them, that is a different kettle of fish for another blog that needs close attention and management. Although the principles suggested here will be relevant to that experience too.

Check that your child is not unwell

If your child has an illness brewing or has recently been unwell, the thought of not being able to stay home where your child feels most comfortable can be hard to express. I get it, you don’t have endless sick leave (if you are working), but sending your child to preschool when they are not well or still recovering from a recent illness is always going to be a problem - for your child, for other children and for their educators who care for your child. Think about how you feel when you are not well and you have to go to work. It’s not fun.

If you can’t keep your child at home, find someone who can take care of them away from preschool until you know they are 100% better. Can you share care with another family? Or ask extended family to help temporarily?

Believe your child and let them know that you care about their feelings

Whatever you suspect are the reasons for your child being unsettled at preschool, it is important for them to know that you believe what they say (if they can talk) and that you acknowledge their feelings. Children’s feelings are just as real as yours as an adult. Telling them “you’re ok” or to “toughen up” sends a signal that their feelings are not valid and that you cannot be relied upon for emotional support when it matters.

Talk with your child when you are relaxed together (outside of the centre) - in the car or at home, and ask them why they are feeling upset about going to preschool lately. Tell them what you are noticing and ask them how you can help them to feel better again. Hopefully, if they are able to articulate their worries, this gives you an opportunity to help them unpack these feelings and support them to build new coping mechanisms. If there is something they need your help with at preschool or at home, you will have new insight into how you can help them.

Sometimes just having an empathetic ear from a loving adult can make the difference to a child articulating and processing what is bothering them. This is a really useful lifelong skill to develop with your child.

Create a consistent routine

We are all creatures of habit. Having consistent routines makes settling predictable and more manageable for your child. When your morning routine is the same most days, your child is able to anticipate what happens next, and this helps them to emotionally prepare for your departure. Your routine will also become familiar to your child’s educators who will be able to recognise when is the right time to be available for support and hugs if required.

Try to do the same things in the same order every morning that you are attending preschool from the time your child gets up:

Breakfast, get dressed, brush teeth, pack the bag, in the car, go.
At the centre: Sign in, child puts their own bag away, greet educators and friends.
If you have time it can really help to do one predictable, enjoyable activity together before you leave e.g. read a book, do a puzzle together, feed the goldfish etc.

Wherever possible try not to deviate from this routine and be suckered into one more book, or one more game. This is a slippery slope into ten books and before you know it your child has managed to keep you there all morning, successfully delaying the inevitable.
When you deviate from the routine your child cannot predict what happens next and this can create anxiety that they can find difficult to manage.

Make the moment of truth quick and never EVER leave without saying goodbye!

Sometimes the anticipation of saying goodbye is worse than the actual event. Children can build up intense feelings in anticipation of you leaving which can leave both of you feeling upset about that moment of saying goodbye. If your child is generally settled and engaged in their centre and you don’t have concerns about them being cared for, then this moment of truth is part of life that they will learn to cope with.

Think about it - they love you! Saying goodbye is not easy. For most children, once you are out the door, and they are settled into play they soon feel better and look forward to seeing you later (or they become one of those children who refuses to leave at the end of the day!).

NO matter how hard it is for you to see your child cry, or to hand them over to an educator with a quivering lip (theirs and yours), lingering, prolonging the separation, or sneaking out will always make things worse. If you sneak out your child learns that you are not trustworthy and they will cling with the might of superglue every time.
It will not get better. It will get worse.

For educators, they have a strong desire to support both you and your child through separation. If you prolong this after your usual routine and become unpredictable it can be very difficult to read your cues and know when to step forward for a cuddle or the usual way your child likes to be comforted when you leave.

Build a connection with at least one familiar person

Your child needs to have at least one familiar, consistent adult in their early childhood service that they connect with. The same goes for parents. Hopefully, your centre has consistent staffing and possibly primary caregiving or a key teacher in place (especially for infants and toddlers). It is super important that you find at least one educator that you trust and build a relationship with. This is someone who knows your child well, who knows what your morning routine is, and recognises when they need to step forward with support.

If you are struggling with settling your child, talk to your educators. They are probably awesome people but they are not mind readers. When they hear what is concerning you, or that you need help, they will likely be able to offer some useful suggestions and will be able to support both you and your child through this phase. You can create a separation plan together, that gives everyone a role and responsibility in the morning routine.

Have ONE comfort item (if it helps)

Sometimes having a comfort item from home helps your child to feel stable. No matter how old your child is, having a familiar comfort item that smells and feels like home can help them to self-regulate. If it is an item that they frequently use at home for comfort then it makes perfect sense that they will also need this at preschool. This may be a blanket, dummy (pacifier) or soft toy.

For some children, having the choice and control over bringing ONE special object to preschool helps them to make a positive transition in the morning from home. Be careful not to go down the path of having to bring a swathe of toys and books and paraphernalia that requires a pack horse to carry. Children are very clever, and it is important to recognise when the comfort item that your child insists on taking to preschool becomes an opportunity to take their new birthday toys or collections of cars, horses, or widgets that is not about needing a comfort item to settle. Although I can fully understand how hard it can be to leave new toys behind! Imagine being told you cannot take your new phone to work when you just want to have a little play with it?!

Always check with the staff how they prefer to manage personal items from home. Sometimes it is useful to have a comfort item for the settling period, then when the child is feeling confident, the educator can help your child to put this away in their bag for home time. It can become very difficult to manage multiple children turning up with toys from home that they have no desire to share, or that get lost and then the educators are held responsible for this. Keep it to one comfort item, and only during a period of settling or resettling.
99% of the time, children will resettle, become confident and happy again in their early childhood service. If you have consistently tried all of these strategies, including communicating clearly and honestly with your child’s educators, but they still do not settle back into a smooth morning transition within 3 - 4 weeks, then it is time for a conversation with a senior staff member or centre manager. It is important to work together to seek understanding about what is going on for your child.

Transitions and change will often create unsettled behaviour and strong feelings that young children are still learning to manage. Developing the skills and mechanisms for self-regulation and the ability to honestly articulate feelings takes practice and time. It is our role as educators and parents to support children in these developments throughout their lives.

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