What screams i'm 18

Getting used to kindergarten: "Long screaming is not normal"

Every year in late summer there are tearful scenes in kindergartens and crèches. The separation pain in the acclimatization phase is great - for children and parents. "Tears are part of it, and it is not the crying children that you should be concerned about," says Tina Eckstein-Madry, who among other things worked on the Vienna day nursery study on the acclimatization phase of toddlers. The conclusion of the research work: Children need time to build trust in the educators.

DEFAULT: Many toddlers have just finished their first few weeks in daycare or kindergarten. How can parents tell whether the acclimatization is going well?

Eckstein-Madry: In the first few days, the parents are in the group room and can see whether their child accepts the pedagogue's first attempts at contact or whether they are already starting to play and explore the room themselves. With the first farewells, they no longer have such a good insight. It is therefore advisable to ask the teacher how your child behaves and how the next days of acclimatization will be organized. Parents can tell that the acclimatization is going well by the fact that their child is already being calmed down or comforted by the new educators, accepts play offers, is balanced when they are picked up and later contacts other children. Now, at the latest, the crying when you say goodbye should gradually decrease. Some children are already looking forward to kindergarten and run into the group themselves. Then you can say: the child has arrived.

DEFAULT: In the past, parents simply left their children in kindergarten and said goodbye quickly and painlessly. Today you hardly ever do that anywhere in Austria. Why are the first days in external care so important?

Eckstein-Madry: Children need an accompanied transition period. This means that initially they need their parents to support them while they explore this new world of kindergarten or crèche. Everything is new for the child there: the teacher, many new children, much more noise than usual and unfamiliar rooms. In addition, there is the pain of separation when mom or dad leave the group room. It is therefore not surprising that acclimatization for children is associated with stress: We were also able to demonstrate an increase in children's stress based on the stress hormone cortisol in the "Vienna day nursery study" for the first weeks of acclimatization. A gentle, needs-based acclimatization phase and a relaxed everyday family life help the children to cope with this stress.

DEFAULT: What does such a gentle acclimatization look like in concrete terms?

Eckstein-Madry: Most day nurseries or kindergartens work with familiarization models, based on the Berlin or Munich model. These stipulate that the child comes to the group room together with mom or dad in the first few days. Only after about four days does mom or dad leave the room for the first time for a few minutes. In the following days and weeks, the duration of the separation increases continuously, with the parents always on call if the child cannot be reassured. At the end of about three weeks, the child would then be cared for half a day. How long it takes to get used to it, however, always depends on the child.

DEFAULT: But that means that parents should allow several weeks to get used to ...

Eckstein-Madry: Not all parents have infinite time; many have to go back to their jobs. But the truth is: You can't force a quick acclimatization. Children feel their parents are pressed for time, and that in turn creates stress. It is therefore best for parents to take two to three weeks vacation and try to spend a lot of time with their child in the afternoons as well. Often the children have to process what they have experienced in the daycare or in kindergarten after the morning. And for this they need their closest caregivers.

DEFAULT: Do crèche children between the ages of one and three need more time than kindergarten children between the ages of three and six?

Eckstein-Madry: Crèche children often cannot understand why mom or dad leave, which makes the separation particularly painful for them. As a result, younger children seem to take longer to settle in. Most of the kindergarten children who are settled in have mostly already had some sort of separation experience, which is why settling in is easier. But be careful: Kindergarten children also encounter an unfamiliar situation, everything is new for them too, and they too have to reorient themselves. Accordingly, sensitive support is always required so that the children can find their way into the new everyday life in kindergarten.

DEFAULT: Most children cry when they say goodbye. Do parents have to worry about this?

Eckstein-Madry: Crying shows that the child is overwhelmed and that they long for mom or dad to come back and comfort them. This separation pain is completely normal. Parents feel it too, and some of them have to cry too. The goal of getting used to it is that the teacher can comfort the child by offering physical contact and speaking comforting words. When children have built up trust in the new teacher, they can often be comforted in just a few minutes.

In the Berlin nursery study we found that those children who cry develop a closer relationship of trust with the educators. We then asked ourselves why that is. The answer: The children show their emotional pain outwardly by crying, and the educators can respond to it. While children who don't cry are often underestimated. This is also shown by Maria Fürstaller in her dissertation "Still suffering children": These children suffer internally, but cannot show their emotional pain externally. The problem with this is that these children seem to have got used to it quickly and then often receive too little support from the educators to deal with the emotional pain.

DEFAULT: What if my child is still crying a lot and a long time after two weeks?

Eckstein-Madry: If the children cry for several weeks, and I'm not talking about a short cry when they say goodbye, but really about long screaming and fighting back, then that is not normal. Parents should take a closer look: Are the children also very sad when they are picked up? Is your personality also changing? Are active children withdrawn in the afternoon or vice versa? If so, you should seek a conversation with the teacher. Pedagogues usually feel very well themselves when to postpone the acclimatization. Sometimes even by up to a year. Some children are so overwhelmed that they cannot accept the support of the teachers. For other children, however, the group size is too overwhelming. For these children, a childminder would be conceivable who only looks after a small group of children in their home environment.

DEFAULT: Can a failed acclimatization also traumatize?

Eckstein-Madry: These first days in kindergarten shape the child as the world outside of the family works. If the acclimatization fails, the child will initially start with an uncomfortable feeling in the next care facility. If the child does not have any corrective experiences even then, it may of course be that they start school with more fear and insecurity. However, children can have corrective experiences, as we have seen in our studies: Children whose relationship with their mother was strained were nevertheless able to build a trusting relationship with the teacher. But this then requires very sensitive educators.

DEFAULT: As a parent, how can I make it easier for my child to get started in daycare or kindergarten?

Eckstein-Madry: It can be helpful if children have had contact with their peers in joint group activities, such as in baby groups, toddler groups, swimming courses or play groups. By then they have already experienced what it is like to be a member of a larger group, and what it is like to be in the nursery. In addition, it is easier to get used to it if you already have experience of being separated from mom and dad, for example if grandma and grandpa or a babysitter regularly paid attention.

DEFAULT: Many have a cuddly toy with them ...

Eckstein-Madry: Farewell rituals are definitely helpful for the child, because they give the child security: for example, when the child is allowed to take something with them, such as their favorite cuddly toy or pacifier, which they can hold on to in an emotional sense. Such so-called transitional objects can also be feather duster or photos of the parents, the children often choose this themselves.

When saying goodbye, it is important that the parents clearly communicate what is happening now and when they will be back: "I'll go to the bathroom for a moment, and you will stay with Ms. Müller for five minutes, and then I'll be right back." This also offers the child security and predictability. And the children need it even after they are used to it.

DEFAULT: Often, however, it is the parents themselves who fail to say goodbye.

Eckstein-Madry: When parents say they're leaving now, it's also important that they really go out. During the acclimatization process, I have also observed that parents come back and say goodbye several times. This confuses the child and makes them feel insecure. I know it is not always easy to give your children "into strange hands", especially when the child is crying. If the parents feel that it is difficult for them to say goodbye briefly, an exchange talk with the educators is also helpful: They can then give an insight into how the child is doing after the parents have left the group room.

DEFAULT: Well, somehow everything is different this year. In some regions of Austria, the traffic lights are yellow or orange, which means that increased security measures are being taken due to the corona virus. I heard in my own circle that parents are encouraged to say goodbye on the second day in the daycare so that there are not too many parents in the group room.

Eckstein-Madry: The first day, which often only lasts one to two hours, is an orientation - for the parents and the child. What is there? Who's there? Playmates? Toy? Many children feel insecure on the first day. The first separation on the second day is too early because the child has not yet trusted the teacher. Despite the tense situation caused by the novel corona virus, parents should be allowed to accompany their child to the group room for several days before they leave the room for the first time. Parents shouldn't let themselves be unsettled and let themselves be urged to separate earlier. Children need this time and also their parents as security in order to be able to find confidence in the new situation. It is not for nothing that it is said: the child does not get used to it, it gets used to it. (Nadja Kupsa, September 18, 2020)

Tina Eckstein-Madry is a developmental psychologist and mother of two children. She researches day nurseries and kindergartens and was significantly involved in the Vienna day nursery study, which was carried out at the University of Vienna.

Heard already?