We have all seen it. The parent dropping off a child at Bible classes when the child is not particularly keen about being left. Tiny ones will often erupt into tears and wailing, while preschoolers may melt down or have a tantrum. What’s worse is that an upset child can cause other children to start crying in sympathy or the mistaken assumption that the other child somehow knows they are going to be unhappy or unsafe in this environment. Even older children can be uneasy at being left in Bible class – especially if they are visiting, have certain special needs or don’t attend regularly.
Thankfully, there are a few strategies you can use to make these transitions as easy as possible. We can’t guarantee they will work with every child, but for most it will eliminate or at least shorten the ensuing behaviors that can upset all of the children in your class and disrupt learning.
- Have adequate adult to child ratios. Student safety means that mandatory ratios are one adult for every three children from birth to two years, one adult for every four children for ages two to three years and one adult for every six children from four to eight years. These ratios should be non-negotiable in your ministry. Anything higher and you are risking a lawsuit if something happens. You will need additional volunteers for children with certain special needs (to provide the extra interventions they may need) and on weeks when several new students are in the class.
- Quick goodbye routines at the classroom door. Once a parent enters the classroom, it makes it much more difficult for volunteers to manage any meltdowns that occur. By staying outside the classroom door, it makes it easier for the volunteers to close the door and prevent children from making a run for it. Send parents a letter explaining that separation anxiety means quick goodbyes at the door are best. Suggest some sort of quick routine – like a hug and kiss and reassurance that they will have fun in class and the adult will return in an hour (or whatever the time amount will be). Young children have no real concept of time, but the reassurance the adult will return can help. The adult dropping the child off should place the hand of the child in the hand of the volunteer meeting them at the door and leave with a wave and a smile. Encourage them to merely pat and verbally reassure the child if there are tears, but then get out of sight as quickly as possible.
- Volunteer greeting each child at the door. It is easier for parents to leave if they know another adult is aware of how the child is feeling and feels it will be handled immediately. It is also helpful for those children who cling to parents to give them another person to cling to. You may want to have a few extra volunteers to help greet, but then who can go to their adult class once the children are settled.
- Large digital clock with only the hour showing. Use paper to cover the minutes unless you need them. Place a large sign by the clock with the time parents will return. For example, if class ends at 10:50, place a sign that says 11:00 by the clock. This gives parents who talk a ten minute margin to pick up their child and doesn’t undermine your credibility with the children when parents are a few minutes late. Teach students that when the number on the clock is the same as the number on the sign, their parents/caregiver will return.
- Immediate engaging activity. Once you get children engaged in something that interests them, they forget their anxiety. Make sure to change the activity regularly so it doesn’t lose its ability to engage students over time.
- Buddies. For older children visiting your class, this can be a peer who helps them navigate your class more easily. Children who continue to struggle when left and certain children with special needs will need an adult focused on helping only them transition and participate.
- Floater. This person goes from class to class every few minutes during Bible class and quietly peeks into the room. This person will help manage situations the classroom volunteers are unable to handle before upsetting the entire class or disrupting the lesson entirely. The floater may go retrieve a parent or sit outside of the classroom with the child, continuing to try and soothe him or her.
- Windows in the door – possibly with one way glass. Children aren’t the only ones with separation anxiety – parents can have it too – especially if their child is visibly upset. Having a one way mirror allows parents to peek in without being seen by their child. Agree with parents ahead of time at what point they can intervene if you are unable to soothe their child.
- Comfort items. This can backfire, but may be necessary in some cases. Try to encourage children to bring something small enough that it won’t distract them or the other children in the class. Or you can make a policy that everyone can bring their comfort item. Providing comfort items in the class is great in theory, but they are difficult to sanitize.
Separation anxiety is normal and common at certain ages. Having these transition strategies in place can lessen the negative impact it can have on learning for everyone.