updated 12 Jan 2012, 11:24
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Tue, Jan 03, 2012
The New Paper
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Separation anxiety makes parents and children cry
by Benita Aw Yeong

Two-year-old Amelie will be attending school for the very first time today.

It's a rite of passage that every child has to go through, except that these days, school - even if it's mainly play - begins at just 18 months of age.

At Pat's Schoolhouse, Amelie will attend music lessons, as well as English and Mandarin classes, says her mother, Ms Alyssa Tan, 37. Other activities include story-telling, painting and drawing.

Amelie's story echoes the majority of children's lives here as parents opt to start their child in school early. Sounds overwhelming for a child that young?

"Sending your child to school for the first time at Primary 1 is really not a good idea." says senior pre-school director at Eton House Pre-School, Miss Josephyne Ho.

"By then, they are expected to be equipped with a range of basic skills, such as reading, writing, and counting - which are taught gradually at pre-school," she adds.

And if you think separation anxiety is something that only kids struggle with, think again.

Parents cry too, she says with a dry chuckle.

"I had one mother who cried when she left her child with us for the first time, although the child himself was alright.

"If such cases, I usually advise them to do it away from the children so that their children don't feel alarmed," says Miss Ho.

Pre-school teacher Faith Neo, who has been teaching for the past seven years, says one of the most severe cases of separation anxiety she has come across involved a two-year-old boy who refused to get out from under the teacher's table.

"He was just screaming and crying his head off for his mother.

"He refused to come out no matter how much we coaxed, and this went on for about two weeks!"

But the 25-year-old, who teaches at a pre-school located in the west of Singapore, added that out of a class of 20 students, only about five would have trouble settling in.

Then there are the rare few who cry for their parents throughout the term, which lasts for 2 and a half months.

"For kids who don't stop crying after a sustained period, we suggest to parents that they may not be ready, and perhaps enrolment may have to be deferred," Miss Ho explains, adding that in her eight years of teaching experience, such cases have occurred only four times.

Amelie's mother Ms Tan doesn't see herself as as over-protective, nor does she anticipate a bad case of separation anxiety.

Instead, the senior manager wonders if teachers can handle her feisty daughter.

"After setting her mind on something, she can be quite determined.

And if she doesn't get her way, she's prone to tantrums.

I don't know if the teachers can handle her strong-willed personality.

"Sometimes, she also cannot control her strength when she gets upset, so I worry for the other kids in her class more than about her," she adds with a chuckle.

For kids who are returning to school to move up a grade, there is a different set of concerns. Three-year-old Seth Leow will be starting Nursery 2 at EtonHouse International Pre-school on Thursday .

He has been attending playgroup at EtonHouse since he was 18 months old, but it is the first time he will be putting on a school uniform.

When The New Paper on Sunday tagged along to a uniform- fitting session two weeks ago, it took a long round of cajoling before the little one could be convinced to put his arms through the red-and-green checked shirt.

Once it was on, his little brows furrowed into an angry arch as he struggled to yank the shirt off. Arms wrapped tightly around his mother's thigh, he looked the picture of back-to-school blues. Suffice to say, the shirt didn't stayon for long.

Moving to what Seth's mother, Mrs Yvonne Leow, calls "big school" alsomeans shifting to a different campus.

"Previously, school for him was mainly play. But now, there's going to be more academics, where they have to learn how to hold pens, pencils.

"They also need to sit and listen to the teacher for a good 15 minutes or so. I wonder if he'll be able to do that," says the 39-year-old part-time art consultant with a laugh.

A similar set of challenges face Mrs Sim Jin Ling, whose three-year-old daughter Rachel will also be starting Nursery 2 at Etonhouse's Mountbatten campus.

"She has got quite attached to the teachers and the environment at the previous campus, which she has been attending for the past two years or so.

"I'm worried if she will adjust, especially since her new routine will no longer include shower times and naps."

The operations manager recalls the first time she placed Rachel at pre-nursery: "She cried for two whole weeks, and it got so bad we contemplated pulling her out of school.

"Thankfully, she adjusted pretty well after that," says the 31-year-old.

Tips to banish the blues

Build confidence

Reassure your child that everything at home remains the same and that you will be there waiting for him/her after school.

Talk about the positive aspects of going to school. If your child is going to Primary 1, guide him/her about buying food at the canteen, for example.

Help your child to feel that you understand and support him/her

Having healthy self-esteem will encourage your child to step forward positively.

Set routines, foster independence

As soon as your child enters school, he/she is expected to follow routines and instructions without constant prompting.

So, establish some healthy routines at home and encourage your child to behave independently.

Help your child to pack the school bag with the materials needed and then encourage him/her to do so independently.

At home, encourage your child to pack toys away and tidy up, rather than expecting someone else to do it.

Instil a sense of ownership that encourages your little one to want to do things for oneself and take care of his/her belongings. Also establish a healthy bedtime routine in the weeks before school. Your child will need plenty of sleep and time to have a healthy breakfast. Promote excitement

Encourage your child to feel that starting school is an exciting experience and something to look forward to. Create a sense of anticipation by involving him/her in buying the materials needed in school.

Ask the question, "What do you think you'll need in your school bag?" (Encourage your child in the right direction, of course, should he/she decide to take the entire toy box!)

Talk about the new friends your child will make and the exciting things he/she will do and see. You can also arrange a visit to the school, simply to walk around the buildings and classrooms, helping to orientate your child to the new surroundings. Sound positive and excited yourself - this will rub off on the little one.

Fun treat

Finally, give your child a fun treat to look forward to once he/she has started school and be sure to follow through on any promise. Praise your child constantly. Let him/her know how proud you are of him/her, as your child embarks on this new adventure.


These tips are provided by Ms Fiona Walker, principal director of Julia Gabriel Centre for Learning and Chiltern House.

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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