Early years practitioners will be familiar with the scene: it's 8.50am and you hear a blood-curdling scream outside your classroom door. You rush outside carrying your portable first-aid kit, panicking that Matthew has launched himself off the climbing frame again. What you actually find is a small child clinging like a limpet to their parent's leg.
Clingy kids are part and parcel of early-years teaching, but that does not make them easy to deal with. You are watched by a sea of faces each time you are confronted with the challenge of separating child from leg. So how can you deal with the issue effectively and practically?
It is essential to make children and parents feel comfortable. Welcome and greet each child by name - making it personal helps them to feel safe. Anxiety about school can often stem from the parent or carer being upset or anxious about leaving their child, so build a rapport with parents. Take the time to talk to each of them personally, so they feel as safe and comfortable in the school environment as their children do.
Establish clear rules and routines
Children feel secure when they know what is expected of them. Having an allocated place to put their water bottle, book, bag and coat helps them to feel comfortable in the classroom. A self-registration tool on the interactive whiteboard can also help, because it gives the child responsibility and a sense of ownership. Allow parents to come into the classroom for the first week to help settle their child, but explain that the following week they will be expected to enter on their own.
Create an engaging environment
Ensure that your classroom looks and feels welcoming. Playing music can be soothing or exciting, depending on the mood you wish to create. Tabletop activities look inviting, and new games or tasks can be something that children look forward to. A visual timetable projected on to the whiteboard shows children what they will be doing throughout the day, providing them with a sense of anticipation and a level of predictability.
Reassure the adults
If you are forced to separate a child from their parent, do so with the parent's permission. Talk to them while you are doing it. Encourage them to leave the classroom quickly, and distract the child with their favourite activity, using a soothing voice and lots of smiles. Wherever possible, phone the parent once the child has calmed down - it can be reassuring for them to know how quickly their child settled and this may help them the next day if their child is regularly clingy. If you are unable to leave the classroom, ask a teaching assistant or the office staff to make the call for you.
Arrange a time to speak to parents
If a child is often distressed in the morning, it is a good idea to arrange a time to talk to the parent when the child is not so upset, perhaps at the end of the day or, if they are a working parent, through a phone call. Try to understand the cause of the child's distress. Develop a strategy for dealing with the issue - for example, use a reward chart or arrange for the child to walk through the classroom door with a friend. Arriving at school through a different entrance can also help to break the negative cycle.
Talk to the child
When the child is happy and calm, take a few minutes to have a chat with them. Acknowledge that they were upset and tell them you are pleased they are happy now. Encourage them to talk about what they like about school and ask them why they didn't want to come. Often they will say they didn't want to leave their parent, so tell them it is OK to feel that way and reassure them that their parent will come back. Discussing how you would like them to behave the next day helps the child to understand your expectations. When they make the effort to come in with a big smile on their face, make sure that you smile back and give lots of praise.
If a child is still taking a long time to settle after a month or two, and you have followed all this advice, it may be that there are underlying issues at home or at school. Take some time to investigate the problem and talk to your colleagues. If a child is regularly distressed in the morning, you will require support. Your school's special educational needs coordinator or inclusion manager could have other ideas about how to tackle the problem.
Thankfully, in the vast majority of cases, children grow out of the clingy stage and enjoy their school life. It may be challenging at the time, but when you eventually have every child's excited, smiling face pressed up against your window in the morning - while you frantically lay out your resources and down a cup of coffee - teaching really is the most rewarding job there is.
Alice Edgington is a teacher at St Stephen's Infant School in Canterbury, England.