Positive Relationships: Behaviour - Hard to part

If a child relatively new to the nursery shows troubled behaviour, think again about the process of settling in. Penny Tassoni offers some practical tips.

There is a little boy in our setting who is showing a lot of attention-seeking behaviour and tantrums. He is just two years old and has been with us for four weeks. We have followed our usual settling-in procedures, but he still screams every morning when his mother drops him off. He normally quietens after a while, but the minute another adult comes into the room he starts up again. We have tried praising him when he is showing wanted behaviour, but it does not seem to make any difference. Any thoughts?

I am afraid that this is not a simple case of attention seeking and so this is why you are not making any headway by using reward strategies. What you are seeing are behaviours linked to the child being separated from his parents in something known as separation anxiety. The answer is to deal with it very differently.

A good starting point is to understand that Mother Nature did not intend for young children to be separated from their close family and friends. In evolutionary terms, the world was an unsafe place for unskilled and immature human babies and the best way of protecting babies and young children was to keep them close to trusted adults. Fast-forward thousands of years and the same processes are still at work. Babies are born, parents develop a strong attachment to them and within a few months, babies clearly know who they are meant to be with. It even gets to a stage when parents cannot go to the toilet without their offspring wanting to follow them.

The process is magical and you only have to observe parents in action with their offspring to see it in action. Look out for the exchange of glances between parent and child, or the quick reaction of a parent if the toddler takes a tumble. But observe also what happens if the parents goes out of sight from the toddler. Suddenly, it's all action stations. The child tries to find the parent and may also start to cry. Nature's alarm has been well and truly triggered.


This is the basis, then, of separation anxiety, which I need to point out, affects parents as much as it affects children. While you have not mentioned the effect on this little boy's mother, I would suspect that she is not having much fun either.

Most parents report that they panic or feel sick and guilty when they leave their child crying at nursery, pre-school or school, even though they recognise that their child will be in safe hands. In my experience, this in turn creates some interesting behaviours in parents who become fearful of separation.

Some parents become 'cut and runners', where they drop their children off and make a speedy exit, sometimes without even saying goodbye. Others develop the habit of 'long lingering'. Long lingerers, as I call them, tend to hang around for as long as possible. They hesitate by the door and keeping calling their child back for another kiss. Some peer through the windows and some find it simply impossible to leave the premises! Both type of behaviours are, of course, unhelpful for the child, who at handover needs a confident, calm and relaxed parent. So in helping this little boy to separate, you will also need to support his mother.


While the bond between parents and child is usually very strong, it is not an exclusive one. Babies and young children can build attachments to others too. This often includes siblings, relatives and close friends. It means that while most young children will prefer to be with their parents, they can be left with people they have an attachment with. This is the principle behind the key person system, whereby each child in the setting has their 'own' adult who is special to them and so helps them to cope with parental separation.

In the case of this little boy, I suspect that he does not have this special relationship and so shows signs of separation anxiety. His crying each time when an adult opens the door is not attention seeking, but a resurgence of his distress, as he is seeing the door where his mother was last seen.


While in the long term, you need to review your settling-in procedures, the solution now is to work intensively with this little boy and his mother so that he can build an attachment with you. This is a five-step process in which you need to work in partnership with the parent. It usually requires several short visits, after which the child should be ready to be left at nursery.

Step 1 Ask the mother if she can play with him and then once he is happy, join them. At first you should keep a low profile, but do something such as blow bubbles that attracts his attention. Once he seems relaxed with you, signal to her to pick up a magazine and to 'sit back'.

Step 2 Begin with the mother sitting close to you and the child, but then she needs to wander back and forth across the room, in sight of the child. Practise this over and over again until such time as the child is happy enough to play with you without getting up and trying to follow her.

Step 3 Start again with the mother sitting close to you, but this time, she needs to wander across the room and out of sight for literally a couple of seconds. She then needs to come straight back and sit back down again. This may take a lot of practice.

Step 4 Begin with the mother sitting close to you and the child, but after a while, she will state (not ask) that she needs to get something from the kitchen/cloakroom/changing room. She goes through the door, but comes straight back. If the child tries to follow, do not restrain them. Do this repeatedly until the child is happy to stay playing with you. After a while, lengthen the amount of time the mother stays outside.

Step 5 Begin as before, but this time, try a separation of 15 minutes with the mother on standby outside. Expect the child to cry but see if you can distract and calm the child down within five minutes. If this does not work or the child quickly grows very distressed, she should come back. Repeat stage four again.


  • Ensure that the child has a relationship with the practitioner before separation takes place - you can use the five-step process outlined.
  • Tailor the process for each child - some children need several sessions before being ready to separate.
  • Plan activities and play that will attract the child to you. Think about using puppets.
  • Use settling-in as a way of creating good relationships with parents.
  • Differentiate between the children who are feeling 'sad' and who quickly brighten up, and those showing strong signs of separation anxiety.
  • Reunite children quickly with their parents if they are distressed and cannot be comforted.

Nursery World Print & Website

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

From £119 per year


Nursery World Digital Membership

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

From £119 per year


© MA Education 2020. 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