[Editor's note: Joy Turner wrote this article in September 2004.]
On the first day of school in my year of Montessori student teaching, my head teacher assigned me the task of receiving children at our preschool classroom door as they arrived. It was déjà vu. Just the week before, when I had to report for duty during classroom preparation week, I had to leave my 2-year-old son at a different program a few miles away (my Montessori school didn't accept children under 2 ½).
I had been pretty much a stay-athome mom until that point. Leaving my boys to the care of their grandmother during the day for the 8 weeks of the summer academic phase of Montessori teacher education just wasn't the same as dropping the younger one off at a strange new place where he didn't know anyone well. He had cried a little, despite my reassurances that I would be back to pick him up after school was over. And on my first day of student teaching, when some children cried, it brought up for me that sad little face that I myself had left behind-along with a pain somewhere in the region of my heart.
As parents dropped their children off at school, it was my first opportunity to observe them together, and I was amazed by the variety of styles of saying goodbye. Some mothers appeared dressed for office work and were very cheery and matter-of-fact about parting; they tended to give a hug and kiss, point the child toward the door, and fling "Have a good day" over a parting shoulder. Other pairs lingered longer but eventually made the break. Tension was in the air, however, even among the chipper ones. And then there was the group in obvious pain; either the child was crying or the mother was crying or both were crying. Some mothers tried to comfort, while others simply tried to peel the children off their bodies with minimal damage to skin and clothing.
Resisting the urge to wring my hands when these last children showed no sign of coming in on their own, I sought my head teacher's eyes and pantomimed, "What do I do?"
"Just lead them by the hand or pick them up," she said. "They'll be all right once their mothers have gone."
She sounded so supremely confident that I went along with her advice. Soon those children who had been crying were seated on the floor at circle time with everyone else: one sniffled in my lap, while one on each side clung fast to my skirt, trying as hard as they could to transfer their sense of security to me, poor substitute that I was.
As the days went by most of the tears did indeed cease; however, it seemed to me that this didn't necessarily mean that everything was "all right." Several children still cried every morning upon saying goodbye. One little girl who used to cry now ran off to play with others on the playground, ignoring the fact that her mother was still there, while her mother took that opportunity to slip out unseen to avoid saying goodbye.
At individual activity time, a few children still spent most of their time wandering, never seeming to find any work that interested them. Most would accept a lesson from a teacher but then put the work away and begin wandering again.
Some children were having reunion problems: when the parent came at pickup time, instead of running to him or her with warm greetings, the child might say, "Go away; I don't want to go home." Another child might run away from the parent and hide out on the playground or in the classroom when the school day was over.
What on earth was going on?
The Significance of Separation
After a short time, I began to realize what a momentous event it is to start a child in preschool. For parents it is probably the first serious, formal sort of separation from their child. And the more the school can facilitate this process, the better.
In the scheme of human development, as the foundation for physical, emotional, and cognitive growth, babies form attachments between themselves and their caregivers (Bowlby, 1983). …