A new study shows that several factors may play a role in the ease or difficulty that mothers and their young children experience during the emotional transition from home to child care.
Some of these factors include the child’s age and temperament as well as the mother’s feelings about returning to work and placing her child in day care. One of the biggest determinants of a smooth transition, however, was whether or not the child care provider had fostered a bond with the family before the child’s first day.
Rebecca Swartz, Ph.D., an early learning specialist with the Early Care and Parenting Collaborative at the University of Illinois, and lead author of the study, says that having a strong connection with the child-care provider that began at the time of the transition or before the child’s first day made a big difference to mothers who participated in the study.
“That warm hello by the provider is really important in setting the tone for the relationship,” Swartz says.
Swartz encourages providers to pay special attention to building relationships with families. “If parents bring their child to the center so they can get acquainted before they start care, it eases the transition.”
For the study, the researchers surveyed 65 moms of 18- to 36-month-old children about their own and their child’s ease in transitioning from home to non-parental care. In general, moms had a tougher time emotionally than their children did, and this was especially true of moms whose children also had a hard time.
“For mothers, an easy transition was characterized by their comfort with the provider and the idea of returning to work, and also by the ability to exercise some control over when they returned to work and how many hours they would work,” said Kate Speirs, Ph.D., a University of Illinois postdoctoral research associate and co-author of the study.
“When mothers valued being able to return to work or their child spending time in early care and education, that helped make the transition easier,” Speirs says.
Children’s temperament mattered in a successful transition, as well, with socially fearful kids having a more difficult time adjusting to the new environment, she adds.
The researchers suggest that early child care programs in the United States might want to look at transition practices in other countries. In Italy, for example, child-care centers place photos of children with their families on the wall so that children can “connect” with their parents throughout the day.
“When the child is looking at the photo, the teacher can say, ‘oh, maybe you miss them.’ Then the teacher is able to say to the mother, ‘your child missed you too. We were looking at your picture, and we talked about where you were, that you were at work.’ Those photos in the center may be reassuring to parents and give them a feeling of connection to the care setting,” Swartz said.
The authors were also inspired by practices in New Zealand, where the ministry of education stresses the idea of the families feeling a sense of belonging at the center.
“There they believe that parents and the child-care center staff are partners in supporting children’s development. They use the term te whariki, which means a woven mat. They imagine that the intentions of the parent for the child and the efforts of the center will be woven together to make a strong foundation for the child,” said Swartz.
Managing transitions well helps a child feel more secure and therefore more willing to experience new things.
“We know that from birth to age three is a critical time for children’s development. If they have a secure foundation, they’ll be ready and able to learn when they start school. If a child is continuously stressed and anxious, she won’t grow as much, learn as much, explore as much,” said Swartz.