My 4.5 year old son has been struggling intermittently for the past year over going to his pre-school. He seems to struggle the most when he returns to school after vacation and on Monday mornings. Lately, his struggle has become more emotional and he will cry and become upset over everything--even the weather--as he grows more and more insistent about not wanting to go to school. Once he settles into the school environment, his teachers report no problems. I remain positive with him, remind him of what he likes about school, often pack a favorite book in his bag, and try to be upbeat. Occasionally I've had to semi bribe him to get him into the car in the mornings and lately he's been extremely upset when I leave him at school. I've talked at length with his teachers and school administrators about this and they've offered various tips to help him but nothing seems to stick. Things work for a little while but he always returns to this sadness in the mornings.
I'm wondering what else I can do. I hate for him to start his mornings in such a sad way and I feel immense guilt that he feels this way. When I've tried to talk w/ him about it in the evenings, he shrugs it off. Any tips for working through these emotions with him? He is in a full time preschool program. My husband and I both work full time but we tailor our hours so he is in childcare about 7.5 hours a day. We hate to see our son so sad in the mornings!
From: Emily, Arlington, MA
Your anguish just jumps off the page. I'm sorry for what you're going through and know how hard this is, especially when it seems to be getting worse, not better. It's pretty typical for this kind of behavior to begin mostly on Mondays and after vacations. Children have a hard time making these transitions, especially if routines change. I'm guessing that it got somewhat worse because he saw that his complaining got him attention -- albeit negative -- from you and dad. The tip-off to that is that the teachers say he's fine once he settles in at school. (And I'm assuming "settling in" happens quickly.)
I'm willing to bet that it's gotten worse lately because kindergarten is looming. I know you don't mention that he's going to K, but it's likely affecting him even if he's just moving into another classroom at the same preschool, even if it's his classmates who are going and not him.
Discussion of kindergarten comes up in this time of year in preschools, even when teachers try hard (as I hope they do) to keep it to a minimum because, if nothing else, kids are going off for k-screening. They talk about it among themselves: "I'm going to kindergarten next year." There's also always someone in a child's life saying things like, "Oh! You're such a big boy! You're going to kindergarten next year!" The kid is left to wonder: "What does it mean to be a big boy? Will my parents still take care of me? What if I'm not a big boy? What if I don't want to be a big boy? What if I don't want to go to kindergarten?" Sometimes, it's a big kid in the neighborhood who says something seemingly harmless such as, "Oh, in kindergarten you have to....." Fill in the blank.
The transition to kindergarten doesn't have to be personal; if he sees his friends preparing for it, it will affect him, too. In his own way, he's thinking about how change of any kind -- their change -- could affect him.
It's also possible, of course, that there is, and has been, something about preschool that bothers him. Have there been any changes there, like a new teacher, or the anticipation of a favorite teacher leaving? What about a favorite playmate? Has a teacher been on leave, or switched her hours? What about at home? Illness? Job change? Parental stress? Children pick up on any and all of these events and can feel stress.
Either way, the best you can do is:
Keep routines and schedules as consistent as possible.
Tell him (if you think K is the issue): "You know, some kids wonder about going to kindergarten. They wonder if mom and dad will still take care of them. If you're wondering, mom and dad will take care of you even when you're a big boy, just like we do now."
Talk about things that will stay the same, not what will change: "In kindergarten, there's circle time, just like in preschool. There's a bathroom right next to the classroom, just like in preschool."
There's no need for a special conversational opening to drop these statements into the conversation. All you need is something simple: "You know, I was thinking: in kindergarten....," .
Stay confident. It sounds like you feel good about this preschool and the teachers, and that you have open communication with them, which is good. (Ask them what discussion there's been about kindergarten.) Be sure to say positive things about the school to your son now and then: "Boy, I sure do love this preschool and the way it does X...." If it's a stretch for you to find things to say, that's a red flag.
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