At our school, we have a rolling admission. This means that new starts are not limited to September and January; children can be enrolled at any time during the year. There are pros and cons to this system, without careful planning, it can set a classroom into a continuous state of upheaval; but for our toddler room, rolling admission has been a huge asset. Rather than welcoming a dozen new friends at once in the beginning of the year, which is overwhelming for both the children and for the adults, we are able to welcome one or two at a time. In this way, the new friends have the opportunity to adjust in a more peaceful, already normalized environment. New children often need more attention than the seasoned veterans, and such a system allows us the greatest possibility of meeting the needs of all of our children. This also gives us the luxury of truly following the child; when they are ready to move up to primary or up from the infant room, the flexibility is there.
Every child responds differently to entering our environment for the first time. Comfort levels for children depend on a wide variety of factors; age, comfort level of the parents, previous child care situations, parent-child attachment styles, and personality all come into play (amongst many others). Many cry their first day, often intermittently throughout the day, some continue to cry at drop off for their first few weeks, while others adjust more quickly. It is fairly rare that a child is inconsolable to the point that we decide to call the parents for early pick up, but from time to time this happens as well, and is not in any way abnormal. It can be a stressful time for all of us. The parents seem to feel some level of guilt over leaving their scared and tearful child, the children feel confused and sometimes abandoned, and as caregivers, we search carefully through our big bag of tricks to find the thing that will help comfort this child, this time. Though we strive for outward calm, we worry about how long it will take to build trust and security.
To help build that all important trust, a greater emphasis is placed on our routine whenever we have a new friend, and expectations for behavior become more clearly defined. Children at this age often feel fear when faced with the unknown, so we work hard to create a safe, predictable space. The sooner we can help them understand our environment, and how they can fit in to it, the sooner they adjust to being here. Often, if a new child has settled down during the work cycle, we will see a renewal of tears at transition times, such as going outside or to the nap room. Patience, soft words, hugs, songs, and tissues are all employed, often simultaneously. Slowly, the trust begins to build. They see that their needs will be met consistently, their cries will be responded to immediately, and that mom or dad do come back. Until that point is reached, we try everything. It might be a particular material that draws them in, familiar, repetitive motion like stacking or sorting, and low challenge materials are often first choices, others may need to hold on to one of our hands, their lunch bag, coat, or other comfort item from home to help them to feel secure. Seeking extra security does not suggest that the child is not ready for school, and initial reluctance does not mean its not a good fit. Sometimes, all we need is time, and I firmly believe that Montessori really is for every child.
As with all things around children, consistency is key. Children who come every other day or twice per week typically take longer to adjust than those who come everyday, even if they only attend in the morning. I have found that children need an average of two weeks before they feel completely comfortable with our environment-if they attend everyday. Those with alternate schedules can take a bit longer to separate confidently. All of them get there though! I have learned that the single most important factor of a secure drop off is parent comfort level. You chose us for a reason, and believe this is a good place for your child. Tears can mean fear, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Learning to trust that mom or dad (or grandparents or nannies) will come back provides a life long benefit and adds to a secure parent child relationship. I make it clear to the parents that drop off is at the door-this space belongs to your child. By separating at a clear barrier, your child receives this signal, and the other children feel protected from unknown outsiders. Its best if parents have a little extra time those first few days. Depending on the situation, it can help to have the parent sit in the doorway with their child, watching what goes on. If the parent is able to do this calmly and quietly, often the child will be more willing to come in with me to see some of the materials. Then the parent can leave quietly. Occasionally, this extra time is not possible, and in these cases, a quick, confident good bye at the door is in order. This way can seem more traumatic, but it think of it as the “ripping off the band-aid” theory. This will not damage your child, their psychological well being, or their relationship with you or with us.
I look forward to meeting new children. Each one is a universe unto themselves, with so much to add to our little community. I enjoy watching the trust develop, the sense of security and independence increase, and the love of learning take over their whole being. It can be a particular challenge to learn their needs on the spot, while balancing the needs of the other children in our group, helping them find their place and a feeling of belonging, but it is one I relish each time!