The Story of the Crying Child
There are times we meet a child that cries and cries when they start their life as a member of an early year's group. No matter how much love, time and support is put in the child is distraught when that one teacher they feel safest with is not next to them, or worse, other children are being comforted by them. Few activities excite them and there are few visible signs of joy being a part of the group.
I think what all adults need to remember is that children did not choose to come to preschool/nursery school (or whatever it is called) - especially those children under 3. What teachers and practitioners do is make the space the very best they can so that children want to spend the day there and want to come back. For the most part this works well, with a few days or weeks as a new child mourns the loss of the way life was and adjusts and begins to enjoy the new life they have. But for a few children it can take months, even years.
I feel so much for these children. Because in those tears lies fear and insecurity which begins to fuel how their brain is being wired - and instead of play and joy wiring for exploration and development there is a risk for trauma. As educators we look for what is it that makes this child feel insecure and how can we remedy it? What strategies enable this child to calm down and participate, even if for a short time? What strategies can parents and teachers provide for the child to self-soothe and to cope with life in child-care/preschool? We look for red flags - is there something happening at home that makes the child feel insecure (anything from moving house, redecorating, parents arguing, sick parents, hospital visits by the child etc etc), are there any sensory "issues", meaning is there anything in the preschool that makes the child feel unsafe - lights, temperature, sound, food, smells etc etc.? Every educator seeks to create a safe space for every child to thrive. It almost physically hurts when a child struggles with this and it takes so much longer. It is hard on the child, on the teachers, the parents and all the children in the group.
The best way I found to help these children is to have extremely short days, and I know this seems like a luxury that not all parents can afford, to be at home with their child when they need to be at work, but if you can make it happen I really recommend it, as it limits how much time the child is in a negative state of mind. Instead of 6 hours or more of being upset, halving it can enable the child to wire their brain positively and start working on those much needed coping skills and self-soothing skills. Maybe a grandparent, or some other family member, can pick them up early - or, maybe another form of care. Preschool groups are not going to be the best form of play and learning for all children. Some children need much much smaller groups to thrive, or even one to one, with short social sessions with others to practice those skills of interacting with safely until they are a little older. It's not a failure of the child, or the parent, that children need different support systems in their first years of life. Preschools are not a one size fits all solution. I have seen hundreds of great preschools, some absolutely amazing ones, and they would still not work for all children! it is not the failure of a preschool that strives together with the parents to make their space safe that a child occasionally does not, sometimes it is simply just the way it is.
So things to watch out for...
is the child wearing clothes they feel comfortable in - maybe they feel too tight, restrictive and not soft or loose enough? Or vice versa?
is the space loud? what kind of sounds are there, how often is it quiet, loud, very loud? Do lamps and electrical appliance etc emit sounds? Are there any unpredictable sounds?
how does it smell, how do smells change?
food wise are there any problems? texture, taste?
do they struggle with the movements of others, and interactions of others? Do they like physical contact or avoid it?
do they avoid or seek out swinging, spinning, rough and tumble, being messy, hanging etc etc
What is important is not to force children to tolerate something they actively avoid but to slowly introduce and increase their interactions so that they can develop strategies and overcome their sensitivity.
For children seeking extra sensory it will be about providing those extra opportunities to engage in spinning, messing or whatever - but I have found that most of the children that have struggled with being at preschool and have cried for excessive times over an excessive period of time, have been extra sensitive to things rather than sensory seeking.
For one child that was extra sensitive and cried and cried their parents decided together with us at the preschool to shorten their time spent there. Three mornings a week, which over time was increased to four 3 hour sessions, to then four 5 hour sessions to then four 6 hour sessions and eventually 5 full time days of 7 hours. The child went from being incapable of doing anything but cry unless sat on specific teacher's lap (at first one that then increased to two) at the age of 1-2 years old (they started just before their second birthday) to being a strong, confident five year old full of ideas, play and joy. It was parents, grandparents and a childminder that came and picked up so that this child could thrive. The parents received much criticism from their own parents thinking that they were "spoiling" the child (but how can we spoil a child with the love they need?) and needed support from us at preschool to show that the strategy was working and that the child was becoming more and more confident. The grandparents themselves changed their minds and praised the strategy when they saw how successful it was.
But of course all these things are risks - we don't know exactly what will work or what will not work. All we can do is try our best, by listening to the needs of the children in our care - and crying is communication - it is telling us that things are not right. After working with children for 30 years I have got to hear the differences in what cries are communicating - sometimes its a "change my nappy", or "I want a hug," or "my teeth are coming through", or "I am frustrated", or "I miss my mum", or "they are taking the thing I am playing with", or "I am tired/hungry," and sadly on occasions it means "I am sad and unsafe and do not know how to make myself be safe and happy". A small percentage of children (2-5% according to Anxiety and Depression Association of America) experience anxiety about going to school (so not just the early years).
In very young children separation anxiety kicks in at 8-20 months old. Some children will develop strategies to over come this, some children will take longer, others much longer. So being apart from their primary caregiver is the stressor.
For some children it is the anxiety of being at preschool that is the stressor.
For the separation anxiety, peek-a-boo games and hide and seek can be a good way to play with their primary caregiver to overcome this.
For the anxiety, arranging playdates with others from the same group (one at time for the youngest children) can be a helpful solution. The child can work on social skills in the comfort of their own home, and then has this new friendship as a support system in the classroom. It can be good to have 2-3 such friends so that if one is sick and not at preschool/child-care the anxious child does not experience a set back, but has others to lean on.
In the preschools I have worked in, we re-enforced these relationships - we noticed which children the anxious child watched the most with curiosity (not fear) and encouraged playdates with those; and we also provided small group work between those children in the preschool. Creating positive social interactions as strategies for well-being.
I also do a lot of role-playing with dolls and puppets with these children and through play create positive relationships with the children - I also do lots of silly things like pretending to change the babies nappy and then pop the pretend poopy nappy on my head and say "eeewwww" - trying to illicit small moments of shared laughter to build mutual trust.
Crying is something that all babies/young children do - it is a form of communication. Crying is not something we should fear, but something we should listen to.
Stress is not always a bad thing either, but there are different kinds of stress, and how long we are exposed to stress is also important to reflect on.
positive stress responses - are when things are not experienced positively - frustration, getting vaccinated, hungry etc - these are all manageable in a stable environment, and passes. The child learns strategies to cope, self soothe, and solve problems.
Tolerable stress - which can result from a death in the family, or a divorce etc. Again manageable in a stable environment and loving adults. Things might be wobbly for a while but they sort themselves out with support.
Toxic stress - this is the kind of stress that changes the chemistry in the brain. it is connected to abuse, neglect and non-stable environments.
There is research that prolonged excessive crying triggers higher levels of stress hormone cortisol induced by the anxiety of the situation perceived by the child. These imbalances inhibit the development of nerve tissue in the brain, suppress growth, and depress the immune system. For links to research, and more about how excessive crying is connected to ADHD, development problems and physiological changes please read The Effects of Excessive Crying. (more suggestions for reading are found at the end)
If your child is finding being in preschool/childcare more stressful than others - or you are taking care of such a child in your setting. Finding ways for this child to "recombobulate" is vital. As a parent of autistic children, and being autistic myself, anxiety is almost like an old friend - it means I have to take the time to find my equilibrium and to let go of the stress. Each person will have their own way of doing this - and the same will be for a toddler who finds being in preschool stressful.
I suggest that the best place for such a child, if they have had a full day of preschool, is being home - not stopping off at the park, or going to the shops, but straight home to detox all that stress. Children who have the luxury of parents that can offer half days or shorter can probably enjoy some time in the playground after a detox session at home, because they will have shed their stress and be ready to encounter an adventure together with their most trusted human on their own terms. It is easier for a child, with their trusted human, to leave a park, or playdate, before it becomes a negative experience, which is not always a possibility of the child in preschool/childcare.
Building up a series of positive experiences at preschool, with children that go the preschool, with playing varying distances from their trusted human at playgrounds and enjoying themselves so much they forget their human in there... all start wiring the brain positively, providing the strategies, the joy and the empowerment they need to start self-regulating enough to cope full days, as planned, at preschool.
The fact is, some children just need more time with their trusted humans.
As a mother of a child that cried every day when I left him at preschool for years I have great empathy for all parents in this situation and have always wanted to ease this stress for all concerned. It is so hard as a parent to see your child cry - especially as I left mine at one preschool to go take care of other children at another preschool!! I made the choice to give my children short days, so that they could manage all of them, sometimes they had to have sick days to socially detox - I think this is incredibly important, that you take the mental health of your children as seriously as their physical health.
I share this to show that this text is written as a teacher with experience of crying children, as a mother with experience of her own crying children at preschool, and as a researcher who has strived throughout life to understand children, and as a wife of a neuroscientist/psychologist.
Joy can include crying, but then comes a point when excessive crying sucks out the joy.