Daily Separations and Reunions

Parents, staff, and children all experience intense emotions when young children leave or return to a caregiver’s program. Early Head Start and Head Start staff can provide emotional support for their staff, parents, and children. The pattern of “give and take” that occurs among young children and their parents and caregivers shapes how children feel about themselves.

Daily separations and reunions are part of the fabric of relationships. In center-based [and family child care] programs, they provide opportunities to develop a young child's skill at making positive transitions.

by Libby Zimmerman



From birth, positive give and take in relationships fosters social and emotional well-being and resilience. Secure relationships are particularly important for a very young child's language development, problem solving, social interaction, and emotional regulation. The patterns of interpersonal exchanges during the early years have significance for the developing brain, including the development of a young child's sense of self, as well as what the child thinks, remembers, and feels. Researchers have found that although brains are impressive in their continuing ability to change and adapt throughout the life cycle, early relationships are significant in influencing future development.

Relationships described as "secure attachments" involve identifying and enhancing positive emotional states such as joy and elation and identifying and supporting painful emotional states such as fear, sadness, and anger. Hellos and goodbyes–times when young children's emotions are often heightened–provide golden opportunities to build and enhance relationships. It is important to take into account the reality that parents and professionals often experience intense emotions themselves and are influenced by their past experience with comings and goings from loved ones. 

In Early Head Start and Head Start center-based [and family child care] programs, reunions and separations happen simultaneously. Every morning, young children separate from their parent and reunite with their teacher. Every evening, young children separate from their teacher and reunite with their parent. Since the mental health of young children depends on the emotional well-being of the adults who care for them, providing support for the adults is equally as important as providing support for the children. 

The pattern of give and take that occurs among young children and their parents and teachers shapes how children feel about themselves. Both infants and adults contribute to the quality of the relationship. Some patterns lead to a child's sense of safety and well-being. For example, an adult who generally responds to the specific emotions and non-verbal requests of an infant by remaining emotionally present and focused while not being intrusive helps a child to feel noticed and valued. As infants grow older, their contributions evolve from non-verbal signals to a mixture of non-verbal and verbal signals as the adults' verbal responses become more detailed.

Misunderstandings are inevitable in the course of the normal give and take between young children and adults. The key component in secure relationships is the ability to repair a misunderstanding. For example, when a mother realizes that her nine-month-old is fussy because he wants her to look at the light on the ceiling, not at the toy on the shelf, she will be rewarded by a delighted smile and squeal as she redirects her attention to the light, smiles, and begins to talk about it with him.

How children express emotion during hellos and goodbyes evolves with age and with their length of time in a program. A newly enrolled three-month-old baby rarely says goodbye in a pronounced way; however, she might withdraw or take time to observe another baby rather than engage with a toy or person. This apparent lack of response may be difficult for some parents to understand. Loud protests are taken as a more common sign of connection.

Older infants (six to nine months of age), toddlers, and preschoolers might say goodbye with cries of protest when they begin a new program or they might walk in with a smile and a wave goodbye. Each response merits the teacher's and parent's acknowledgement and affirmation.

Separations and reunions are stressful for the adult, especially at the beginning of a relationship. Acknowledging the adult's emotions, whatever they might be, mitigates the stress. Supervisors and peers can provide this for the teacher and the teacher can support the parent, as can other parents. A parent's feelings might range from sadness and fear about separating to relief and elation about having time away.

Saying goodbye to a crying or withdrawn child might make a parent sad. Finding and talking to another parent in the hall who is also feeling sad or finding it hard to say goodbye can be comforting. At other times the educational coordinator or site manager might be the right person to chat with for a few moments.

Staff members generally report that by the end of the first month in a center-based [and family child care] program, even young infants look to the teacher for comfort and stimulation and indicate preferences through calling to, looking at, and wriggling with delight towards specific staff. Teachers are rewarded by these interactions and by their ability to comfort a crying child. However, some children who are temperamentally slow to warm up may not demonstrate delight for a long period of time. They also may be quick to cry when they are getting to know a new person. Supervisors and peers can support the teachers through this process by acknowledging their feelings of frustration or anxiety.

Over time, young children begin to express joy in reunions with their teacher. How staff and parents interact can support the well-being of the adults as well as the child. When nine-month-old Leah leans out of her mother's arms with a broad smile on her face and eagerly goes to the teacher in the morning, her mother smiles warmly and says, "Oh, you are happy to see Sarah." Many mothers appreciate the pleasure their children experience in their expanding social world. However, some parents might feel concerned or anxious about whether their baby still loves them.

The teacher can have a pivotal role in reassuring the parent that the baby has room for more than one significant relationship and keeps each person "straight" in his or her own mind. The teacher can point out how the baby might wriggle or crawl towards the parent when he arrives, or help a parent understand that an older child might need time to reconnect through playing or reading a book before going home.

Infants, toddlers, and young children may cry when they separate from their parent. At times the separation from the parent may not be done in an optimal way and even exacerbate the child's distress. Here is an example of how a teacher in Early Head Start responded to the distress of a young child in a way that built her relationship with the toddler and her parent and affirmed the child's relationship to both adults.

Darlene, two years of age, bundled up in a snowsuit, hat, and scarf, arrives crying at the gate to the infant/toddler room in the arms of her mother. The mother, in a rush that morning, hands Darlene to a teacher standing at the other side of the gate. The mother dashes off after quickly saying goodbye.

The teacher says, "Goodbye, see you later." The teacher brings the child to a cozy corner with large animals. Darlene stays in the teacher's arms and sobs. The teacher talks to her gently saying, "It's okay, mommy will be back after work." The teacher's first overture to take off Darlene's hat and scarf are met with louder sobbing. The teacher holds Darlene and continues holding her, reassuring her that it is okay to feel sad and angry and reminding her that her favorite giraffe is waiting to play. Within a minute, Darlene's sobs begin to subside and she lets the teacher take off her hat, scarf, and snowsuit. Within the next minute, she is calm and explores a giraffe sitting next to the teacher.

With preschool children, we might begin to wish they would not cry or cling. We may see the tears as a failure rather than as an opportunity for connection. Parents and program staff struggle with fears that it may be "bad for the child" if we respond immediately to a crying child, especially a boy. In fact, boys, as well as girls, need to know that they can express their feelings, be comforted by caregivers, and develop their own coping mechanisms.

Whatever a child's emotional state might be, the quality of interaction between all the participants influences a child's sense of well-being when saying goodbye to a parent and hello to a teacher.

Susi, a little over three years of age, arrives walking and holding her father's hand. Susi and her father enter the room and the father greets the teachers. He kneels down and helps Susi take off her snowsuit, hat, and scarf, talking to her about what he is doing. A teacher comes over and talks to them and asks how Susi's morning was and the father describes what they ate. Susi stays close to her father as he hangs up her clothes and puts some things in her cubby. Susi observes what the teachers and other children are doing and smiles when a teacher invites her to come and sit and read a book with her and several other children. The father walks over with her and stays while she settles in and then says goodbye. Susi waves goodbye to her father and the teacher says, "Bye Dad, we will see you later." The father leaves and Susi sits close to the teacher, focusing on the pictures in the book. In a minute or two, Susi gets up and walks over to the housekeeping corner and begins "cooking" with a friend.

Although many parents and staff know that even young infants are aware of comings and goings, at times it still might be tempting to leave without saying goodbye–generally at a moment when the child is engaged in play or snuggling in the teacher's arms. The understandable goal is to prevent a child's protests and tears. However, the hidden cost is a missed opportunity for the child to develop the skills necessary for making positive transitions. Over time, adults' comforting helps children learn to comfort themselves. 

Tips For Programs

Supporting emotionally meaningful separations and reunions

  • Provide parents with access to staff after saying goodbye to their children. If a baby was crying when the parent left, the parent might be comforted by talking to the teacher or the director and hearing how the baby is doing.
  • Spending time in the morning observing the classroom can give the parent a concrete image of other babies in the arms of caregivers singing and talking and reminding the babies that "mama or dada will be back later."
  • Create a welcoming environment for parents so that they can enter the room, help children get settled, connect with a teacher, and hang out at the end of day. These moments allow the staff and parents to interact and share their feelings and knowledge of the child.
  • Arrange for and invite parents to regular (monthly) parent/staff meetings to talk about their children and hear how other parents and children are doing.
  • Provide regular, reflective supervision so staff can discuss their emotions and responses to children and parents.