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Returning to work: 5 practical tips to help your child transition to their new routine

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In her previous article, 4 key considerations for choosing the right childcare option for you and your child, Kirsty Foster offered guidance on identifying the right childcare option for you and your child. Here Kirsty shares with us five practical tips to help your child transition to their new routine.

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Hi there! How did you get on with selecting the best childcare option for you and your child? Once you’ve made that decision, your thoughts will instantly turn to transitioning into your new routine, and helping your child to get comfortable with this new arrangement. The good news is there is much that you can do to help your child transition into this new stage – quickly, confidently, and with as few tears as possible.

This article will provide you with some practical strategies to do just that. It will enable you to keep your child informed of the process in an age appropriate way, supporting them to establish bonds with their new carers, and to develop trust in their new environment.

Here are five practical strategies to help your child transition:

  1. Transition Visits

Once you have filled out all the paperwork, you will be ready to start taking your child for visits.  This part of the process is called transition. Your instincts will be telling you that this is going to be the tricky part of the process, and you’d be right.  But by adopting my tried and tested approach, and using the accompanying resources, you can be confident that your transition can be as successful and as tear-free as possible.

The following steps have been written as though you are visiting a childcare centre or home-based carer, where your child will be in a new environment. However transition visits are also important for a Nanny or Au Pair arrangement – and should be adapted to suit.

Ideally you will have around four transition visits.  

Visit 1 (familiarisation) – The aim of the first visit is to allow your child to explore their new environment in a calm and relaxed manner.  The visit should be quite long (maybe an hour or so). At no point should they feel worried that you are going to leave them – you will stay with your child for the entire visit.  Play with them if they want you to, but if given the opportunity, sift into the background (but still in sight) so your child can come and go as they need support.

Visit 2 (experiencing a mealtime / group time) – This visit may be around 30 minutes to an hour. It’s very similar to the first visit except this time you may want to visit during a mealtime.  Check with your Early Learning Centre (ELC) first as you may need to bring a lunchbox and/or drink bottle, or this could be provided. This visit provides a great opportunity for you to take photos of your child participating in activities in this new environment. These photos are great for putting together a personalised transition book for your child to support your conversations, and help them become familiar with their new routine. This transition book is discussed in more detail below. Ensure you seek permission from the ELC before snapping away, however.

Try to take photos of the following:

  • a photo of your child standing outside the ELC (e.g. by the sign)
  • your child’s bag and drink bottle
  • your child eating and drinking at the ELC
  • photos of the teachers, especially your child’s primary carer
  • your child playing and interacting with others (ask before taking photos of other children and teachers)
  • the nappy changing area / toilet (depending on what stage your child is at)
  • the sleep area (if your child still naps)
  • a photo of you and your child reading a book
  • you and your child having a hug
  • your child in their carseat
  • the place where the bags and drink bottles are stored (e.g. your child’s cubby hole)
  • you standing by the interior door (as though you are there for pick up)

Visit 3 (building a routine) – This visit might only be for 30 minutes but try to start building a routine into your visits.  Talk to your primary carer about how you would like to do this so they can support you and your child too. Take a bag and drink bottle this time, practise putting these away, then engage in an activity together – such as reading a book.  Once you have done this, invite your child to go and play (it would be great if their primary carer could support them to choose the activity). At some point in this visit you will want to leave the view of your child, and you will want to tell them you are going. You could just tell them you are popping to the toilet or you might say you are going to the office to sign some papers, but emphasise that you will be back very soon. Organise it so that you have left the room for at least 10 minutes so that your child learns to rely on others in the environment (there may be a few tears but still carry on as this is an important step). When you return, don’t make a big deal of it, just reappear back into their sight and they will notice you when they need you.

Visit 4 (an actual departure) – You may have to pay for this visit as this time you will want to leave in earnest. This visit could be an hour or two in duration but you will want to be sure that there is a meal time within this visiting period as this will provide an opportunity for your child to learn to trust his/her new carers.  You’ll want to prepare your child that you will be leaving for a short time before you arrive at the care environment. Depending on your child’s age, first hook them into the visit by saying “shall we go to preschool again today?  You can play with the ‘red car / play kitchen / dinosaurs’” (whatever their favourite things are). Then once they are hooked in, explain that you have to pop to the shops for a bit, but you won’t be gone for long, and remind them of their primary carer – explaining that he/she will look after him/her while you are gone.

When you arrive at the ELC, follow the same routine as last time – put belongings away, read a book, handover to a primary carer.  Then actually leave. Keep yourself busy by running some errands or go grab a coffee. Your child may cry as you leave. Although heartbreaking, this is perfectly normal.  It’s important that you don’t linger and have 500 more hugs, though, as this just exacerbates the situation. Keep to the routine, have one cuddle and then leave (swiftly). If it is possible for your child to wave at the window then this is usually a good idea.

  1. Transition Book

Throughout the visiting period you will have compiled a good collection of photos of your child.  It’s a great idea to use these photos to make a transition book to help your child get used to their new routine, carers, and environment. You can keep this simple, and even involve your child in pulling it together. What’s important is that it covers the activities your child will do, and allows them to visualise their new space. 

Read this book to your child every day for two weeks leading up to their first day (and probably the two weeks afterwards too).  This will lead to important conversations about what is happening and why, and will help your child to visualise and understand their new routine. Throughout these conversations ensure you explain to your child that you love them very much and you’ve loved being at home with them every day, but it’s time for you to go back to work, as you need to earn money to buy food and petrol, etc.  Also emphasise that your child is ready to spend more time with his/her new friends and have so much fun doing all the exciting things that their ELC has to offer.

  1. Handles for Attachment

The wonderful thing about a transition book is that it provides a sense of order and familiarisation, and it also helps you to have consistent conversations – whether it’s Dad, Mum, Aunty or Grandad reading the book. This is very reassuring for a child who may be feeling anxious or out of their comfort zone.

Another way to provide that sense of order at drop off time is by creating a ‘handle for attachment’.  This is where you provide something tangible for the child to do whilst they develop attachments to a new environment. In the transition book I suggest that parents read a book with their child every morning.  It doesn’t have to be a book, it could be to play with the cars or dolls. Whatever it is, try to do the exact same thing at every drop off time for your child’s first two weeks of care.  Try to follow the exact same routine – for example, put their bag away, read a book together, have one cuddle and one kiss, say goodbye, and wave at the window. You may need to ask your child’s primary carer to help you leave.

Your child may cry when you leave at first, but if you use the ‘handles for attachment’ theory, then after a little while they will feel secure in the routine and the tears will diminish to the point where they will simply run off happily to play.

  1. Swift Exits

It is important that once you have completed your ‘handles for attachment’ routine that you swiftly exit.  This is not the time to be chatting to other mums at the door, or paying a bill. Do this at pick up time. Your child needs you to keep up your end of the routine for him/her to feel comfortable to keep up theirs.

  1. Positive Language

Finally, you may be experiencing some feelings of guilt or anxiety around going back to work, and/or leaving your child each day. These feelings are very normal. It’s important, however, that you don’t show this to your child. You may need to do a bit of acting here, but you want to show them that you are totally comfortable with all of this, and that this change of environment is going to be great and positive for everyone. Children are very perceptive and will take on the emotion of the people around them (particularly their parents).  If you are happy and confident about drop off time, then they will follow your lead.

And there you go.  You are now armed with some practical strategies to help your child transition into your new routine.  I hope it goes well for you, and all the best for your career – I hope you enjoy being back at work.

By Kirsty Foster
Little Learners

Kirsty Foster is a mum of three, and a qualified and experienced Early Childhood and Primary School Teacher. She is also the founder of Little Learners, where she uses her knowledge, skills and experience to offer insights and resources that help make parenting easier for New Zealand families.

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