Preschool is often a child’s first experience in a semi-structured social environment. Whether a child enters preschool at 2, 3, or 4 years of age, the first school experience is designed to foster the development of cognitive skills, language and communication skills, fine and gross motor skills, and social skills. In addition, children are learning to follow directions, sit for longer periods of time, and participate in group activities. It is also a time of separation and individuation from their caregiver which fosters a child’s growing independence, and emerging self-concept.
Although preschool is an exciting time for children and their parents, there are often little bumps and hurdles along the way that are part of the learning process for both child and parent. What follows are the most common preschool concerns, and how to assist your child to navigate them successfully.
Preschool may be your child’s first consistent and structured separation from you. The environment and teacher/classmates are novel and unfamiliar, and this lack of predictability causes many children to feel nervous and clingy. In order to help your child adjust to preschool:
- Prepare him/her well in advance that they will be going to preschool, what the routine will be at school, and when you will be coming to pick them up.
- Consider making a visual schedule of the activities of the day so your child can ‘see’ the sequence of events. Make sure to draw yourself picking them up at the end!
- Tell them in advance what your goodbye routine will look like, so there are no surprises. For example, “we’ll put your things in your cubby, go find something fun to do in the classroom, and then Mommy will give you a hug and a kiss and will say goodbye”.
- Try to stick to your routine without delay, especially if your child whines or cries – staying an extra 5 minutes as a result of your child’s whining will make this behavior more likely next time.
- Never sneak out if your child appears busy or engaged. Although you may avoid a tearful goodbye, your child may not trust you next time, and may lack confidence in separations in future.
- Offer to your child to take something of yours to school with them (a photo, a shirt, etc.). If they have a favorite stuffed animal, offer that they take that as well.
- Try not to get teary or anxious yourself. Although you may be feeling those feelings inside, demonstrating anxiety or sadness to your child communicates that you are not secure they can cope with this challenge. Children sense this feeling in their parents exceedingly well, and will become more resistant to separating in future.
- Normalize and label their feelings. Tell them it’s normal to be sad and scared sometimes. You felt this too as a child, and the other kids in the class do too. You understand their feelings, however you know they will be ok. Having someone describe their emotion and put it into perspective can help significantly.
Defiance or Other Disruptive Behaviors
One of the most valuable learning experiences in preschool is how to relinquish control, and put aside one’s own agenda in lieu of the classroom agenda. This skill is emerging at age 2 and 3, and is usually in place by age 4. You will see that in 2 year old classrooms, structure is present, but minimal, with social routines such as circle times brief and succinct. As children turn 3, their ability to sustain social attention improves. Circle times last longer and are more interactive, and children are more inclined to follow the lead of teachers in order to gain approval. If your child’s teacher is reporting that your child is noncompliant, disruptive, or is not cooperative, don’t fret. The initial period of ‘testing the limits’ is quite normal, and when the following tips are incorporated into the classroom, the behaviors typically are reduced:
- Ignore minor, inappropriate behaviors. For example, when children are asked to sit on the rug, and your child is lying down, rolling on the rug repeat the instruction, and then ignore!
- Praise positive and appropriate behaviors frequently, labeling the desired behavior (e.g. ‘good sitting quietly!’)
- Redirect negative behaviors. If a child is engaging in a negative behavior, attempt to redirect them to a different activity. For example, if he/she is playing too rough with a toy, attempt to model appropriate play with the toy or attempt to engage them in a new and exciting (and appropriate!) activity.
- Use brief time-outs for aggressive or hurtful behaviors. Children learn best when there are short, consistent, but somewhat unpleasant consequences for negative behaviors. If a child pushes or hits, simply say ‘no hitting’, and remove them to a quiet area of the preschool classroom devoid of fun activities. Upon exiting time out, explain why they were placed in time-out, and remind them that next time they hit, they will return to time-out.
- Attempt to gather information from the preschool teacher as to when difficult behaviors occur. Often patterns emerge if there are recurrent triggers for negative behaviors. These patterns can assist in identifying what your child is struggling with, and can help design strategies for your child to cope more appropriately with these situations.
- If negative behaviors do not improve, consider consulting a professional in order to establish what strategies need to be in place to help your child be more successful.