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child caring

Handle departures gently

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / July 27, 2000

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When a favorite teacher left the Ben & Jerry's Children's Center in Waterbury, Vt., Amy Brandt, one of the remaining teachers, braced herself for the children's sadness.

She particularly worried about 2 1/2-year-old Christopher. Katie, the teacher who left, had been his primary caregiver. Every day, she would wait for him as he woke up from his nap, and he would sit in her lap until he felt ready to play. She didn't talk to him or read to him or even sing to him. She just held him.

The first day after Katie left, Brandt waited for Christopher and offered him her lap. Christopher refused. Instead, he stood 2 feet away from her, sniffling and crying.

The second day, a fellow teacher suggested Brandt gently pull him onto her lap. Another wondered why she bothered at all; he clearly didn't want her. Brandt had a different interpretation.

"This was his way of telling me, `You aren't the same person as Katie. I miss her,' " she says. "I wanted him to know it was OK to be disappointed and sad. I was telling him, `I will respect your feelings. I'll sit here 2 feet away from you as long as you need me to, so you won't be alone." Each day, Christopher inched closer. By week's end, he sat in her lap.

With annual national turnover for day-care teachers hovering at 40 percent, a child may see caregivers leave at least once a year, sometimes more. Unfortunately, teachers aren't always as developmentally savvy as Brandt, and neither are we as parents.

"We get jealous at how close a child is to a caregiver and upset at the depth of their loss. It gets in the way of helping," says psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, a researcher at Judge Baker Children's Center.

To be sure, a child's deepest attachments are to parents, and nothing comes close to that, Waldinger reassures. Moreover, most children are flexible and adaptable and take change in stride.

Still, a young child benefits from feeling close to one or two adults in addition to parents, because he constructs a sense of himself through others: If people who care for him value him, he learns he is valuable.

"That enables him to see the world as a safe place," Waldinger says, which, in turn, helps him feel free to explore his own world.

The downside, says child developmen-talist Claire Lerner, is that when a caregiver leaves, a child's sense of security can be undermined. Lerner is on the staff of Zero to Three, a national nonprofit group that advocates for children's healthy development.

Creatures of habit

How children cope depends on their stage of development:

The 3- to 12-month-old. What's going on developmentally: Predictability and routine are what make babies feel safe; for instance, that a caregiver smells the same each day or sings the same song as she changes the diaper. A baby also sees a caregiver as an extension of herself, not as a separate person.

"She may feel she's lost her own sense of power when a caregiver leaves, even if someone else comes in and does exactly what the previous caregiver did," says Brandt, who now consults at day-care centers.

Behaviors you may see: Fierce clinginess. "It's a baby's way of saying, `If I let you out of my sight, you may disappear, too,' " says Lerner.

What do to: "Parents figure, they're babies, they don't need to do much for them," says Brandt. "In fact, a baby may be most sensitive to loss because the interactions she and a caregiver had were so intimate."

The more a parent and new care-giver tolerate clinginess, the sooner it disappears; indeed, Brandt advises new caregivers to use a backpack or stomach sling for heightened body contact. She also recommends using the same soap, shampoo, and fragrances as the former caregiver and learning each baby's quirks, such as how each likes to be held or put down for a nap.

Even if your baby is only six months, acknowledge the loss, says Waldinger: "I bet you miss Ann; I do." A baby understands your tone if not your words. Besides, he adds, "It's good to get in the habit of verbalizing what's happening for them."

Toddler insecurities

12 to 24 months. What's going on: A young toddler is just beginning to understand that an object or person stays the same even when she can't see it, enabling her to use us as a home base. "They feel safe enough to leave you to explore, but they're always looking over their shoulder to make sure you're there," says Brandt. If a caregiver actually does leave, it could make a toddler insecure and also cause her to lose the skills she learned from that person.

Behaviors you may see: Regression.

What to do: "The worst thing is to insist, `But I know you know how to do this,' " Brandt tells parents. Toddlers regress in order to establish with the new person the trust and skills they gained with the previous one. "You have to go with the backslide knowing it will be short-lived," she says. It may speed up the process if you talk freely and positively about the departed teacher: "Oh, look! Here's a picture of you and Katie. I bet you miss her." This grants her permission to love the new teacher without feeling disloyal to the old one.

Young child's identity

24 to 36 months. What's going on: He's beginning to identify himself by what he has: "I am who I am because I wear red shoes and my caregiver is Toby." When Toby leaves, that identity is threatened. Because a young child is a concrete thinker, he also may blame himself for her departure: "I was bad; that's why she left."

Behaviors you may see: Temper tantrums, clinginess, conflicts with peers, difficulty with transitions, requests for diapers.

What to do: As stumped as you may be about the diapers, don't fight them. "She doesn't really want diapers," says Lerner. "What she wants is to be a baby again, because that's when the caregiver she misses was there to take care of her."

She also wants power. "Her world changed and no one asked her," says Lerner. "So she's going to extremes to regain some sense of control.

Lerner's advice is to grant her the control she wants but in a way that doesn't undermine her progress: "You know, you are the master of your body. Here's the drawer with pull-ups and big-girl underwear. You decide what to wear." When the pull-up needs changing, don't lay her down as you would for a diaper, but encourage her to help take it off and put the new one on.

Preschoolers' fears

3 to 5 years. What's going on: Loss of a caregiver can exacerbate fears and make preschoolers more vulnerable to them, especially the fear of losing someone you love.

Behaviors you may see: Bad dreams, fearfulness, pretend play that uses loss as a theme.

What to do: Stock your dress-up trunk at home with the kind of clothes the nanny or teacher wore; at Brandt's center, they got a pair of hiking boots like Katie's. Share with them the sense of loss: "See that truck? It's like the truck Toby drove. I miss Toby, don't you?" Help them manage fear by connecting it to their feelings: "It was so hard and scary when Toby left that you're worried other people might leave, too, huh?" Then offer reassurance: "You know what? Mom and I are here; we aren't leaving."

Children of all ages benefit from some small goodbye ritual, such as singing a teacher's favorite song together one last time. "You want a caregiver to say goodbye, even to a baby," says Gwen Morgan, an early childhood educator at Wheelock College and one of the nation's leading day-care researchers. At home, help your child draw a picture to give to the teacher. "It gives them a sense of control," she says.

Departure spawns book

Brandt was so struck by how big a deal Katie's departure was that she wrote a book for the school that has since been published, "When Katie Was Our Teacher" (Redleaf Press).

Brandt was amazed at how powerful and helpful the book was: Children carried it around with them, hid it under the blocks, read it to dolls, read it to themselves.

"Our teachers know we miss Katie, so they made a special missing place for us," the book reads. "They tucked it down low in a quiet place . . . next to a smiling picture of Katie. . . . I think Katie misses us, too."

AFTERTHOUGHT: The one human being most capable of curing antisocial aggression in a boy is his biological father, according to studies cited in "Father Facts, 3d Edition," published by the National Fatherhood Initiative.

how parents can help

With turnover on the rise, some centers minimize the impact of loss by having teachers stay with groups of children from infancy through preschool. Only about 5 percent of centers currently do this, but day-care advocate Gwen Morgan hopes the idea will catch on.

Initially, a child may seem unfazed when a caregiver leaves: It can take up to three weeks for her to realize he isn't returning.

A child under 3 needs about one-week's notice that a caregiver is leaving, a 3- to 5-year-old slightly more.

When you're looking at a day-care center, ask about teacher turnover rate. Thirty percent or less is acceptable, anything more isn't. When you're hiring an in-home caregiver, expect at least a year's commitment.

Transitions will go more smoothly if you keep other changes in a child's life to a minimum. Even small changes count, like mom getting a haircut.

If a child's behaviors don't get back to normal within three weeks or so, consult your pediatrician.

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