Q. We are moving and will be switching childcare centers. How can we help our 18-month-old son say goodbye to his current teacher (someone he adores) and transition to the new center?
A. Transitions can be hard for young children, especially toddlers who are, by nature, not fond of change. Being sensitive to the fact that this will be difficult for him, especially because he will also be dealing with the house move, is the most important first step.
Toddlers don't have a firm grasp on time, so don't start talking about the change in childcare until a week or two before the change will take place. Talking about the center change too far in advance may just create more anxiety. In addition, while 18-month-olds do understand a lot, and certainly understand more than they can actually say, they can't begin to fully comprehend complex ideas such as making this kind of social transition by words alone.
Here are some ways to help him accept the change:
1. Ask your child's current teacher to write some brief notes about your son to share with his new caregiver. Some important issues to cover would be: how he handles transitions (does she do anything special to help with this?); what his routines are for naptimes and mealtimes; how to comfort him; and what his favorite toys, books, and activities are. Sharing this information with your son's new caregiver helps to ensure some consistency in his life during a period of great changes and can ease the transition into a new childcare setting.
2. Read books with him about making changes. Hearing about the similar experiences of others can be a powerful way for young children to make sense of their own situation and may help them feel less alone.
3. Create ways to help your child remember and hold on to the old center in his mind. Take photos of the teacher, the room, the playground, his friends, his favorite toys, and create a memory book for him to look at.
More Ways to Smooth Childcare Transitions
4. Ask his teacher if there is something special she can give to your son -- such as a cuddly stuffed animal -- that he can take to the new center for comfort when he needs it. This kind of transitional object can help your son hold his old caregiver in his mind and provide the comfort he needs to adapt to his new setting. While some parents worry that these remembrances from the old center will be more upsetting and interfere with the transition, in fact, such keepsakes are very important. They help children remember and honor their experience in a special place. They also give children permission to express their feelings of loss and sadness, which is key to helping them move on and adapt to what comes next.
5. Have a special goodbye ritual for his last day. You can bring in his favorite snack or music tape and have a small party to celebrate his time there. Marking partings like this is important for helping children say goodbye.
6. If possible, take him to see the new childcare center several times before he makes the actual transition. Let him explore the room where he will be cared for and meet the caregivers.
7. During the first week in the new center, stay with him for an hour or two each morning. Gradually decrease the time you stay until you simply drop him off by the end of the week. He will take his cues from you; if you interact warmly with the new teachers and other children, he will know that the new center is a good and trusted place.
Taking a thoughtful and incremental approach will help your son successfully adjust to his new childcare setting. It will also help him learn how to cope with future changes as he grows.
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, July 2005.