Caring for Our Children (CFOC)

Chapter 2: Program Activities for Healthy Development

2.1 Program of Developmental Activities

2.1.1 General Program Activities Helping Families Cope with Separation

The staff of the facility should engage strategies to help a child and parents/guardians cope with the experience of separation and reunion, such as death of family members, divorce, or placement in foster care.

For the child, this should be accomplished by:

  1. Encouraging parents/guardians to spend time in the facility with the child and supporting the separation transition;
  2. Providing a comfortable setting both indoors and outdoors for parents/guardians to be with their children to transition or to have conversation with staff;
  3. Having established routines for drop-off and pick-up times to assist with transition;
  4. Enabling the child to bring to child care tangible reminders of home/family (such as a favorite toy or a picture of self and parent/guardian);
  5. Encouraging parents/guardians to reassure the child of their return and to calmly say “goodbye”;
  6. Helping the child play out themes of separation and reunion;
  7. Frequently exchanging information between the child’s parents/guardians and caregivers/teachers, including activities and routine care information particularly during greeting and departing;
  8. Reassuring the child about the parent’s/guardian’s return;
  9. Ensuring the caregivers/teachers are consistent both within the parts of a day and across days;
  10. Requesting assistance from early childhood mental health consultants, mental health professionals, developmental-behavioral pediatricians, parent/guardian counselors, etc. when a child’s adjustment continues to be problematic over time;
  11. When a family is experiencing separation due to a military deployment, explore changes in children’s behavior that may be related to feelings of anger, fear, sadness, or uncertainty related to changes in family structure as a result of deployment. Work with the parent/guardian at home to help the child adjust to these changes, including providing activities that help the child remain connected to the deployed parent/guardian and manage their emotions throughout the deployment cycle.

For the parents/guardians, this should be accomplished by:

  1. Validating their feelings as a universal human experience;
  2. Providing parents/guardians with information about the positive effects for children of high quality facilities with strong parent/guardian participation;
  3. Encouraging parents/guardians to discuss their feelings;
  4. Providing parents/guardians with evidence, such as photographs, that their child is being cared for and is enjoying the activities of the facility;
  5. Ask parents/guardians to bring pictures from home that may be placed in the room or cubby and displayed throughout the indoor and outdoor learning/play environment at the child’s eye level;
  6. Where a family is experiencing separation due to a military deployment, collaborate with the parent/guardian at home to address changes in children’s behavior that may be related to the deployment, providing parents/guardians with information about activities in care and at home may help promote their child’s positive adjustment throughout the deployment cycle (connect parents/guardians with services/resources in the community that can help to support them);
  7. Requesting assistance from early childhood mental health consultants, mental health professionals, developmental-behavioral pediatricians, parent/guardian counselors, etc. when a child’s adjustment continues to be problematic over time.
In childhood, some separation experiences facilitate psychological growth by mobilizing new approaches for learning and adaptation. Other separations are painful and traumatic. The way in which influential adults provide support and understanding, or fail to do so, will shape the child’s experience (1).

Many parents/guardians who prefer to care for their young children only at home may have no other option than to place their children in out-of-home child care before three months of age. Some parents/guardians prefer combining out-of-home child care with parental/guardian care to provide good experiences for their children and support for other family members to function most effectively. Whether parents/guardians view out-of-home child care as a necessary accommodation to undesired circumstances or a benefit for their family, parents/guardians and their children need help from the caregivers/teachers to accommodate the transitions between home and out-of-home settings (2).

Many parents/guardians experience distress at separation. For most parents/guardians, the younger their child and the less experience they have had with sharing the care of their children with others, the more intense their distress at separation (3).

Although children’s responses to deployment separation will vary depending on age, personality, and support received, children will be aware of a parent’s/guardian’s long-term absence and may mourn. Children may feel uncertain, sad, afraid, or angry. These feelings can manifest as increased clinginess, aggression, withdrawal, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, regression or other behaviors. Young children don’t often have the vocabulary to express their emotions, and may need support to express their feelings in healthy and safe ways (2). Additionally, the parent/guardian at home may be experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, or fear. These parents/guardians may benefit from additional outreach from caregivers/teachers, who are part of their community support system, and can help them with strategies to promote children’s adjustment and connect them with resources in the community (3).

Depending on the child’s developmental stage, the impact of separation on the child and parent/guardian will vary. Child care facilities should understand and communicate this variation to parents/guardians and work with parents/guardians to plan developmentally appropriate coping strategies for use at home and in the child care setting. For example, a child at eighteen to twenty-four months of age is particularly vulnerable to separation issues and may show visible distress when experiencing separation from parents/guardians. Entry into child care at this age may trigger behavior problems, such as difficulty sleeping. Even for the child who has adapted well to a child care arrangement before this developmental stage, such difficulties can occur as the child continues in care and enters this developmental stage. For younger children, who are working on understanding object permanence (usually around nine to twelve months of age), parents/guardians who sneak out after bringing their children to the child care facility may create some level of anxiety in the child throughout the day. Sneaking away leaves the child unable to discern when someone the child trusts will leave without warning. Parents/guardians and caregivers/teachers reminding a child that the parent/guardian returned as promised reinforces truthfulness and trust. Parents/guardians of children of any age should be encouraged to visit the facility together before the child care officially begins. Parents/guardians of infants may benefit from feeling assured by the caregivers/teachers themselves. Depending on the child’s temperament and prior care experience, several visits may be recommended before enrolling as well opportunities to practice the process and consistency of a separation experience in the first weeks of entering the child care. Using a phasing-in period can also be helpful (e.g., spend only a part of the day with parents/guardians on the first day, half-day on the second day, and parents/guardians leave earlier, etc.)
Center, Early Head Start, Head Start, Large Family Child Care Home, Small Family Child Care Home
RELATED STANDARDS Minimum Age to Enter Child Care Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultants Mutual Responsibility of Parents/Guardians and Staff
  1. Blecher-Sass, H. 1997. Good-byes can build trust. Young Child 52:12-14.
  2. Kim, A. M., J. Yeary. 2008. Making long-term separations easier for children and families. Young Children 63:32-37.
  3. Gonzalez-Mena, J. 2007. Separation: Helping children and families. In 50 Early childhood strategies for working and communicating with diverse families, 96-97. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.