Learning & Development: Two-Year-Olds: Part 1 - Settling in

Penny Tassoni
Friday, January 11, 2013

In our new series on caring for two-year-olds, Penny Tassoni offers advice on helping children adjust to being separated from their parents.

When it comes to working with two-year-olds, there are both delights and challenges. To my mind, one of these challenges is helping them to settle in. For two-year-olds and other young children, this means helping them to develop a strong bond with their key person. This bond is like an emotional safety net and it is essential that it is strong enough to 'catch' the child in the absence of their parents.

Where children have this bond, they tend to enjoy being in settings and benefit quickly from the activities, resources and interaction on offer. On the other hand, where settling in has not been effective, two-year-olds are likely to show significant signs of stress and anxiety. This may cause long-term effects on their patterns of behaviour and development.



So, how can we help two-year-olds to settle in? A good starting point is to understand two-year-olds' developmental patterns, starting with their need to be physically in range of adults with whom they have strong relationships. These people are often their parents, but for some children might also be grandparents, foster or other primary carers. An illustration of just how powerful the need is for this age group to be in 'sight' of 'their' adults is the way in which parents will often say that they cannot pop to the loo in their own home without their child tagging along.

Losing sight of 'their' adults creates huge distress in most children of this age and it is thought that this almost universal reaction in children is biologically driven. Nature intended that highly mobile, impulsive children should not stray from the supervision of safe adults. For good measure, nature also added another feature which can be thought of as a 'stranger danger' alarm. Its purpose is to prevent two-year-olds from playing with or going off with adults that they do not know. You can see it in action when two-year-olds are introduced to 'new' adults for the first time and respond by hiding behind their parents' legs or looking down at the floor.

As well as two-year-olds needing to be close to their adults, it is also worth considering other aspects of their development when it comes to helping them to settle in. Older children often cope with the absence of their parents by seeking the support of other children usually by way of joining in play; two-year-olds, however, are different. While they often enjoy watching other children or playing alongside them, they rarely reach out and find comfort and reassurance in each other's presence.

Given this developmental picture, it does not take a genius to understand that most two-year-olds will not therefore walk into a new setting, wave goodbye to 'their' adults and start talking to total strangers or go off to join in the play! (Indeed, if this does happen, the received wisdom is that you should start to consider whether the child needs additional support.) Instead, two-year-olds will need sensitive support to make the transition into settings and hence new relationships. The good news, developmentally speaking, is that two-year-olds are capable of forging new and strong relationships with adults - all we have to do is provide the optimum conditions for this to take place.



Start by learning as much as possible about each two-year-old that is coming to your setting. This is important because while two-year-olds share developmental traits, each child and their family's story will be unique. It is worth, for example, finding out whether the child has had any experiences of being cared for by friends, family members or other early years professionals. A child who has only ever experienced being with a parent or primary carer may need more time to adapt than a child who for the past six months has spent the odd morning happily with a family friend.

It is also helpful to find out if a child has experienced an 'unsuccessful separation', as this is more likely to make the child more fearful. As personality and temperament also play a part, it can be worthwhile finding out how parents perceive their child. Adventurous, curious children may be tempted towards unfamiliar adults provided interested activities are on offer.



While it is easy to focus on children, we must recognise that settling in should also include parents. Children are quick to pick up the anxiety signals that worried or nervous parents send out when they interact with other adults. Relaxed, confident parents with whom we have started to work in partnership will, through their body language, voice tones and facial expressions, give the green light to their children to make 'friends' with us. Key to developing a partnership with parents is hearing their concerns and personal stories too.

For some parents leaving their child with us will be a new experience and they may have a sense of foreboding. Others might be fairly relaxed, having already done this before with their other children. Some parents will be on tight timescales as they need to return to work. Finally, there are also some parents who are 'conscripts', having been told by social workers or the courts that their children must attend.

For settling in to work well, it is important that we find ways of understanding and recognising each parent's needs. As part of this, it can be helpful to talk through the importance of strong 'goodbye routines' and that how, once established, these will help their child make future transitions such as going to school.


With every child having different needs and previous experiences, a 'one size fits all' approach to settling in does not work. Instead, the best bet is to work out an overall plan with the parents as to how to help the child 'meet' their key person and develop a relationship with them.

While there are many ways of doing this, including home visits and drop-in play sessions, the focus should always be on helping the child get to know their key person. It can be useful to see settling in as a six-step process with the aim of working through these steps at the child's pace. The advantage of using a step-by-step system is that it helps parents to see the progress being made during what is likely to be several visits.

Stage 1: Parent and child play with key person joining in

Stage 2: Key person and child play while parent takes the role of onlooker

Stage 3: Key person and child play while parent in sight of the child is engaged in another task, for example, reading a magazine, cleaning, etc

Stage 4: Key person and child play while parent drifts across the room and back again - always in sight

Stage 5: Key person and child play while parent tells the child that she has to 'pop out' to get something and immediately returns

Stage 6: Key person and child play while parent tells the child that she has to 'pop out' but returns after five minutes.


Once a relationship between key person and child is established, parents can start to leave. It is important to work with parents to ensure that goodbyes are fairly smooth. It is, therefore, worth talking through with parents the wheres and hows of the first separation and the importance of parents returning immediately if there are concerns that the child is not coping. In these days of technology, we can also ring parents to reassure them or even send a photograph of their child settled happily with their key person.


There are some undoubted organisational challenges when it comes to settling in this age.

Shift patterns and absences

Children's reliance on their key person means that they will become distressed if their key person is not available because of shift work, holidays or breaks. It is, therefore, important that fairly quickly, children are introduced to a second key person who can act as a plan B, when their key person is not there.

Swapping key persons

As professionals, we should be able to work with all children who come our way. Having said this, occasionally children may clearly develop a strong bond with someone who is not designated as their key person. It makes sense when this happens to go with the flow, providing that parents are kept informed and also that this does not mean that one person has all the children.

Parents who 'cut and run' or simply won't leave

Parents often show behaviours prompted by their own anxiety about leaving their children. Some may 'cut and run' while others might find it hard to leave. Both behaviours can unsettle the child.

Sometimes these behaviours are prompted by the parents' feeling that their child does not have a sufficient bond with the key person. Begin by considering whether this is the case. Assuming the child does have a strong bond, the next step is to talk to parents about how separation can be made easier for them. A word of warning, though - the welfare of the child always trumps the needs of the parent and so agreeing to take a screaming child from the parent's arms cannot be an option.

Crocodile tears?

It is important never to dismiss children's tears when their parents leave as 'crocodile tears'. Every child has the right to feel 'sad' when someone they care about leaves. Having said that, we must be vigilant and check that a child's initial tears are only temporary and that soon after children become animated and happy.



A child's bond with their key person can be observed. If you work in England, remember that Ofsted now reports on the quality of the key person relationship.

Signs that two-year-olds have strong relationships with their key person include:

  • Recognition, relief and smiles when they see their key person on arrival
  • Frequent eye contact to check on the whereabouts of their key person
  • Regularly approaching their key person for a hug, or other physical reassurance
  • Seeking out their key person if they are unsure or need comfort as a result of an incident or accident
  • Obvious delight and pleasure when they spend time with their key person
  • Clear preference to be with their key person during personal care routines
  • Distress if they cannot see their key person
  • Jealousy when other children share the attention of their key person.

Where you cannot see several of these, observe whether the child is passive, quiet and detached from what is happening. These are signs that the child is suffering from prolonged stress which is known to be potentially damaging.


There are a few skills that come in handy when you first meet a new two-year-old.

Eye contact

As, developmentally, most two-year-olds will become anxious in the presence of 'strangers', it is worth avoiding prolonged eye contact when you first meet them. Try instead to gaze and then look away so that eye contact is fleeting to start with.

First moves

Two-year-olds can at first be easily startled by strangers. When playing or showing them something, allow children to step forward towards you.


Expect two-year-olds to want to keep their distance at first. Choose places when settling in that seem open.


Two-year-olds like playful adults, providing that they are no threat. Using bubbles or a puppet can help a two-year-old to start to enjoy your company. Expect onlooker behaviour before children start to want to engage in play with you.

Modelling play

It can be worth modelling the actions of two-year-olds. If they are dropping things into the water, try doing the same.

Photographs at Lisson Green Community nursery by Justin Thomas.

Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


© MA Education 2022. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved