Is mum really a "hindrance" to a child's adaptation to kindergarten?

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Starting kindergarten can be an anxious time in the life of a child and the whole family. Every parent thinks about how the child will fit into the new environment and routine, how they will cope with their emotions, being separated from their parents. Elīna Kļaviņa, a mother of the first emotional support (PEP), talks about how the adaptation process will be more successful. 

The team of parents and teachers plays an important role in the adaptation process, helping the child to get to know the new environment and feel safe there. However, parents often encounter unsupportive comments and attitudes from kindergarten teachers. Are these comments based on science?

Today, at another PEP Mum Consultation, I gave emotional support to a mum whose baby is starting kindergarten. I stuck to what the teacher said to the mum: "You have to leave, you are interfering with the adaptation." This is not the first time I have heard this from parents in my counselling sessions.

I know that not only a lot of teachers, but also a lot of parents feel that parents get in the way of adaptation. It is assumed that it is normal for children to cry for a long time until they "get used to it". But what if we followed the evidence and made the whole process easier for children, parents and educators? 

In Sweden, kindergartens moved from the classic two-week adaptation, in which parents played a passive role, to an adaptation model of a few days, in which parents are actively involved. 

In the first case, children spend more and more time alone in kindergarten, while parents are available, but their role is passive - not involved, not visibly present. 

In the second case, children spend 3-5 adaptation days with their parents, who play an active role - they are by their child's side, engaging in play and activities. This way, both parents and children have the opportunity to explore the kindergarten environment and processes together in a safe way. During this time, the teachers can get to know both parents and children, observe what the child needs, introduce the kindergarten to the parents in a relaxed way and show them the expected daily routine (1).

The biggest difficulties faced by the teachers in the study were that there were still parents who did not think that their children needed such a "gentle" adaptation, and that parents were inactive and unwilling to participate in the activities organised by the kindergarten. 

Babies (and especially those under 3) have high levels of stress when they start kindergarten, and they remain so for up to 5-6 months after starting kindergarten.(2) This is a lot of stress for such a young child, so it would be great if we (parents and teachers) could use approaches to make this wonderful experience - being in kindergarten, making friends, learning new things - more enjoyable. 

It should be stressed that the commitment of teachers is critical, as existing research shows. Teachers need to be receptive, to speak to the child, to reciprocate. It could start with a simple greeting and saying your name when a new member joins the group. "Hi! I'm Elina. I'll be your tutor!" 

Unfortunately, I hear a lot in consultations that this is often not the case. The team of parents and teachers working together to help the young person get to know their new environment and feel safe there is a big part of a successful adaptation.

After this consultation, I launched a public discussion on the issue and invited parents to share their experiences of starting kindergarten: "How do you feel about starting kindergarten? What would it be like if in our kindergartens it was the norm for parents to be actively involved in kindergarten life for a few days to a week? Would you agree?"

Here are some of the answers I would like to discuss more.

"How different the children are. Some need their mum around all the time, some don't need her at all. My granddaughter has been going to kindergarten since she was 1.5 years old, every time she says "atah" to her mum and runs to the kindergarten smiling. Now she's 4 and asks you to come and get her so quickly..."

Yes, children have very different temperaments, attachment styles, early life experiences and, as I have already stressed, the responsiveness and empathy of teachers is also very important. There are so many factors affecting adaptation that it is the responsibility of adults to take these differences into account and adapt to the child.

"There are children who can't adapt for a whole year because the parents can't cut the umbilical cord, the same rituals every morning, if Dad has nodded two times, not three, then the child's day is ruined..."

Here I would like to say: why is it a problem to observe the ritual? For children, such rituals give a sense of security. Like the oft-heard phrase 'breaking the umbilical cord'. Both from theory and from my own practical experience of working with parents, I can say with certainty that it is at this stage that the bond between child and parent needs to be strengthened so that everyone involved feels safe. The child should not be made to cope with himself at an inappropriate age.

"Then the problems start at school because there is no independence - they are always waiting for their parents' help. Some children can't separate from their parents for the whole pre-school period. Children from 1.6 - 3 years old need parental support, but some parents leave their children at that age for 12 hours in pre-school."

Yes, a large number of children may still need support from parents and teachers in primary school. This is perfectly normal and age-appropriate.

"It's individual for each child. There are children who don't really need their parents - they slap their parents for being too quick to come to kindergarten. Sometimes it seems strange that children don't mind their parents when they come to pick them up - they get angry and bite their parents."

I often hear about these situations from parents in counselling sessions too. I would like to say that this behaviour can be explained by the child's temperament, attachment theory and other individual aspects. 

However, it is certainly not about "not needing parents". When you meet the attachment figure, the child's pent-up emotions and tiredness can "explode" and it can practically look exactly as described here.

"Management is not irrelevant (because it recruits and retains staff), but the success of PII 80%+ lies in the staff in a particular group. If you see clear problem situations, then changing the group or the PII is the most rational thing a parent can realistically do."

"This is actually a very sensitive topic in Latvia. I myself had a very good experience in Germany with the Berlin adaptation model. When I came to Latvia, I had an expectation that we would be able to adapt in a similar way. However, the problem started with the fact that very few kindergartens support adaptation as such."

"We had this sentence. I ignored it. But in general I've been resisting a lot, as the experts advise in their books, slowly and gently, not with a knife - sniff, sniff. Don't like my opinion, but my child has adapted better and is not even ill."

I am sorry that parents have to face resistance and confusion when they want to support their child in the process of adaptation to kindergarten, so I would like to say thank you and words of encouragement to everyone who stands up for their child and their well-being in this process. 

Each parent knows their child best and each child's experience, even within the same family, can be very different, so it is very important to "be an adult" and to believe in and support your child, and to adapt to how to make the adaptation easier and safer for your child. 

(1)Markström, A. M., & Simonsson, M. (2017). Introduction to preschool: strategies for managing the gap between home and preschool. Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy, 3(2), 179-188.

(2)A study on child stress: Nystad, K., Drugli, M. B., Lydersen, S., Lekhal, R., & Buøen, E. S. (2021). Toddlers' stress during transition to childcare. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 29(2), 157-182.

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