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Encourage secure attachment & positive separation experiences with these steps!

“When a child is held in mind, the child feels it, and knows it. There is a sense of safety, of containment, and, most important, existence in that other, which has always seemed to me vital. . . . It seems to me that one of life’s greatest privileges is just that—the experience of being held in someone’s mind.”

As a parent, what is your reaction to The School Drop Off? Is it a “Hallelujah, I’m finally free for a few hours!”- moment, or is it “How is my baby going to do without me? What am I going to do without her?”- moment?

In my seven plus years working at Bubbles Academy I’ve seen many different versions of each of these reactions, and everything in between. But, what has always sparked my curiosity is why each family’s reaction to separation, whether it be for an hour long gentle-separation class, or a full day of care, is so different. The answer can partially be found within something called “Attachment Theory”, which helps to explain how an enduring emotional bond is formed between an infant and her primary caregiver. Gaining an understanding of this theory can help any family navigate the separation process.

Since before he was born, your child has relied on you to take care of his every need. Food, warmth, safety, is all provided for him through you, his primary caregiver. But, what happens after birth, when you have to work harder to anticipate his needs and determine what his cries mean? When your signals get crossed, does the attachment between the two of you get weaker? Surprisingly, the answer is no. In fact, studies have shown that infants and their caregivers are out of sync, or their signals are “mismatched”, 70% of the time . But, it isn’t that 70% that shapes your child’s view of you, or even their view of the world; it’s the other 30%. It’s in how you repair those mismatches that count, and that create a secure attachment between the two of you. So, if your baby is crying, and you think he needs a diaper change, but he’s really trying to tell you that he’s hungry, you don’t have to get it right immediately, you just have to figure it out eventually. And while he’s waiting for his signal to be read correctly, he’s learning one of the most important skills he’ll need in life, how to cope with stress. Developing effective coping mechanisms, and learning how to self-soothe is one of the biggest goals of early childhood, therefore your child actually needs you to make a few mistakes, and to let him figure some things out on his own. In doing so, you’re giving him space to create a healthy internal working model of himself, and of the world; to see that even when things don’t go his way, he’ll be ok, and that most problems will eventually be solved.

So, where does that leave the two of you when it’s time to hand over that primary caregiver role to a teacher? You’ve created a strong attachment with your child, she’s learned that she can trust someone else to get her needs met, and she can figure some things out on her own, so now she’ll be able to transfer those important skills into the classroom and into her relationship with her teacher. But, she needs your trust, and so do her teachers.

Children are very skilled at reading emotions, or at what is sometimes referred to as “emotional eavesdropping” or “emotional referencing”, which means that if you are nervous or scared, she will pick up on your cues, and begin to feel those things too. This idea has been tested by psychologists in something called the visual cliff experiment. When infants were placed on top of a sheet of plexiglass with a sharp drop-off visible underneath, they only crawled across it when their caregivers displayed happy, encouraging emotions. When the caregivers were told act nervous or unsure, the infants stayed put.

So, think of your school drop off with your child as your own visual cliff experiment. You’ve built a strong foundation of a secure attachment, so do your best to be happy and encouraging of your little one’s new experience. Once you’ve tackled that hurdle, you can make the next step by fostering a strong, loving relationship with your child’s first teacher and with her first school experience.

A recent study showed evidence that children who had positive strong, positive relationships with their preschool teachers were much more successful academically in school later on. And, isn’t that what we all (teachers and parents) want for our little ones? To feel happy, secure and successful? Perhaps that’s the reason so many caregivers get nervous during bouts of separation, but remember, it’s ok if it doesn’t go as planned. Mistakes are a crucial part of healthy development. For you, and for your child.

Here’s a cheat sheet for you to ensure that your next drop off is as easy as possible:

  1. Give your little one some space. The more you let them explore on their own, the more comfortable they will be in the classroom.
  2. Stay Calm. Do your best to be as upbeat, and relaxed as possible during drop-off, and when talking to your child about the process. Remember to breathe!
  3. Find out your teacher’s name and get a picture if possible. Use this to talk about how their teacher will help take care of them just like you do at home.
  4. Don’t stress over being perfect. Remember that every mistake is an opportunity for you and your little one to grow!

To learn more about Attachment Theory, and the separation process, join me for my Attachment Theory 101 parent workshop at Bubbles Academy at 6pm on November 7th. This event is $10 per person or free for Bubbles Academy Members.

Click HERE for tickets

Looking forward to seeing you soon!

Pawl, J. H. (1995). The therapeutic relationship as human connectedness: Being held in another’s mind. Zero to Three, 15 (4), 1-5.
Pianta, R. C., & Stuhlman, M. W. (2004). Teacher-child relationships and children’s success in the first years of school. School Psychology Review, 33(3), 444-458.
Tronick, E. (2007). The neurobehavioral and social-emotional development of infants and children (pp. 155-163). New York: W. W. Norton & Co


Samantha Perry

Samantha Perry is the Director of Bubbles Academy’s Arts-Integrated Preschool Program. She is also the recipient of the Harris Foundation’s Scholarship for Excellence in Leadership and is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Child Development with a specialization in Administration at Erikson Institute. The Harris Excellence Scholarships are awarded annually to a select number of students with excellent academic credentials and a demonstrated commitment to the field of early childhood.

Sam is grateful for the opportunity to use both her theatrical expertise, and broad knowledge of needs of young children at Bubbles Academy’s arts-integrated preschool program. As an educator, Sam strives to inspire confidence, independence, curiosity and creativity in each of her students every day.