Unhappiness at preschool -- could it actually be about kindergarten?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 4, 2012 06:00 AM

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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


Dear Emily,

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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6 comments so far...
  1. Well, the child may be afraid to say what's wrong.

    If either parent can sit down with him--hold your son on your lap, or next to you on the couch, and ask him one question: Is there something that you would like to tell me about school? Making the physical contact makes the child feel safe enough to tell you what might be going on.

    He may take a few evenings to start talking. But you the parent can say "It's really obvious that SOMETHING is wrong" and then sit and wait for it...Because with the new stories in the news about parents having to send their autistic kids to school with hidden recorders on them to find out that the teachers are abusive, you have to trust that the kid's body language is REALLY telling the truth.

    Maybe you can ask your son to draw you a picture of his day. Maybe you can ask your son what he would think if you moved to a different house (hypothetical). Maybe you can ask your son about his friends and what kinds of games they like to play. But you MUST ask open-ended questions because there is all the reason in the world staring you in the face every morning.

    I'm not jumping to any conclusions. But this is real fear, and something has to be causing it.

    Posted by Irene May 4, 12 02:36 PM
  1. My daughter did this last year. She had difficulty with transitions too, and then in March her behaviors escalated again. Finally, in August, she was able to articulate that she was nervous about using a different bathroom when they moved rooms for a special activity. Having taught older children as well, there is a change in the atmosphere in the spring in even the most structured programs that transition-challenged kids pick up on (more recess, more open-ended "special" activities, preparations for end-of-ytear concerts, later playtimes at home). Also come, spring, some kids are just "done" even if they love school.

    Posted by KathleenFD May 4, 12 05:48 PM
  1. A few tips (I'm a mom to two daughters, one who is finishing her third year of preschool..)
    1. Perhaps try to schedule a playdate with someone your son talks about from school (and someone teachers report he is compatible with). He might feel better once at school if he sees a few friends outside of school.
    2. I assume your preschool is a 5-day-a-week preschool? I find 5-days perfect--in my experience, it eases the transition from weekends to the school week, since all 5 days are the same (off to school in the mornings..)
    3. I would talk with teachers and parents about possible bullying situations...if you can volunteer in the classroom (assuming you can take a personal day at work), you might garner information about your son' s day while in the classroom that you wouldn't without being there firsthand.
    4. I know you said his teachers report "no problems" once he's settled in--but I am wondering why they didn't say he's "happy/busy/immersed in play with friends." What is his mood when you pick him up? Sometimes my daughter isn't in the mood to go to school, but she's always happy when I pick her up.
    5. Sometimes we do a "top 3 favorite things" on the way home from school in the car (since things are fresh in her mind, we do it then--later at dinner, she's forgotten). I find out a huge amount of info about how the day has gone this way...
    Finally, I really feel the teachers need to be working very closely and on a daily basis with you and your husband on this. Perhaps your pediatrician also might be a good source of advice, as far as what to do, and how to proceed (or he/she might know of a child psychologist who might be helpful). Your son is lucky to have such a loving mother--things will get better!

    Posted by lauren May 4, 12 08:50 PM
  1. Kind of the reverse of the advice given here, around this age my son got very bored with preschool. All of his best friends at preschool were a year older and left for kindergarten, and you could see him long to do what they were doing. He is both intellectually and athletically mature for his age and was also the oldest boy by about a year and just didn't want to play with the younger boys, and I could see this dynamic when we attended some birthday parties for classmates. He also started to talk about not wanting to go to school which he had never done. Fortunately things got better when a boy his age and sharing his interests joined the school and we haven't had any issues since, except when his friend is on vacation or absent and you can just see it in his face that it wasn't a great day. But rather than be afraid of kindergarten, my son has started a countdown on the calendar and can't wait to start and rejoin his old friends.

    Posted by northshore123 May 5, 12 09:54 PM
  1. As a pre-school owner, I've seen this alot throught out the years. Sometimes, parents read WAY to much into a child having an "off" morning and if a child is feeling tired, and reacts by way of being clingy or cries during drop-off, the attention then given to the child to get them to calm down= make the drop-off less upsetting for the parent, then snowballs into the child knowing they'll get that attention every time they act that way. Then it becomes part of their daily morning ritual. The best thing the parent can do is be quick and confident during the drop-off, kiss your child good-bye, tell them you'll see them later, and leave. The longer the parent stays and tries to stop their child from crying only delays the process. Once the parent leaves, the children very quickly settle into their morning schedule with their friends and any crying is over.

    Posted by Cathy May 6, 12 09:35 PM
  1. I have taught all age groups in child care for over 17 years. My favorite age is preschool, particularly the prekindergarten 4-5 year olds. In all my years I have only had one child who cried every morning for a couple of months when her mother dropped her off. Her mom was a nurse and she worked varing schedules which made it hard for the child to get into a consistent drop off routine at school. The little girl was extremely shy so it took her quite a long time to adjust to her teachers and make friends. I had my asst teacher greet her each morning, sit with her and give her some 1-on-1 for a little while each morning. She eventually got over her fears and loved school. She just needed a little help building trust and feeling secure. All this to say, is your child's morning drop off routine exactly the same each day? If your child is sensitive to change, then consistency helps curb the drop off blues. Also, a quick goodbye and a positive statement about the great day he will have may help. For my 1st born, fearful of any change in routine, I made a little necklace with my picture in it and told him I would always be with him. It helped a lot! On the down side, as a teacher I would say there could be things happening in the center you are not aware of that often happens in the day care scene. For example, I've witnessed teachers who smile at the parents and tell them everything is okay when sometimes it really isn't. I have heard teachers speak to children in demeaning manners (I'm gonna take you to the baby room if you don't stop that crying); I've seen arms being yanked to pull a child to a chair for a "time out"; I've been witness to children OR teachers being shuffled around to different rooms in order to keep the ratios because they often run short on teachers; I've seen teachers try to force children to sleep at naptime or pat their backs a bit took hard to get them to go to sleep, etc. Unfortunately, the job often doesn't pay much or offer any/many benefits to teachers. Turnaround is often very high in the business. The best thing is to try to talk to your child everyday and ask very specific questions about his day. if you can ask the center for a copy of the daily routine, you can use it to ask him questions about his day. Ask, "What did you/your teacher do during circle time?"; "Did anybody get in trouble in school today? and, "What did the teacher do or say to (Johnny)?"; "What was your favorite thing/least favorite thing that happened today?" Do that with each part of his daily routine and see if you can pinpoint what is on his mind. School should be fun, but if he is not adjusting there MAY be more to it than the school is willing to share.

    Posted by Lisa May 7, 12 12:05 AM
 
6 comments so far...
  1. Well, the child may be afraid to say what's wrong.

    If either parent can sit down with him--hold your son on your lap, or next to you on the couch, and ask him one question: Is there something that you would like to tell me about school? Making the physical contact makes the child feel safe enough to tell you what might be going on.

    He may take a few evenings to start talking. But you the parent can say "It's really obvious that SOMETHING is wrong" and then sit and wait for it...Because with the new stories in the news about parents having to send their autistic kids to school with hidden recorders on them to find out that the teachers are abusive, you have to trust that the kid's body language is REALLY telling the truth.

    Maybe you can ask your son to draw you a picture of his day. Maybe you can ask your son what he would think if you moved to a different house (hypothetical). Maybe you can ask your son about his friends and what kinds of games they like to play. But you MUST ask open-ended questions because there is all the reason in the world staring you in the face every morning.

    I'm not jumping to any conclusions. But this is real fear, and something has to be causing it.

    Posted by Irene May 4, 12 02:36 PM
  1. My daughter did this last year. She had difficulty with transitions too, and then in March her behaviors escalated again. Finally, in August, she was able to articulate that she was nervous about using a different bathroom when they moved rooms for a special activity. Having taught older children as well, there is a change in the atmosphere in the spring in even the most structured programs that transition-challenged kids pick up on (more recess, more open-ended "special" activities, preparations for end-of-ytear concerts, later playtimes at home). Also come, spring, some kids are just "done" even if they love school.

    Posted by KathleenFD May 4, 12 05:48 PM
  1. A few tips (I'm a mom to two daughters, one who is finishing her third year of preschool..)
    1. Perhaps try to schedule a playdate with someone your son talks about from school (and someone teachers report he is compatible with). He might feel better once at school if he sees a few friends outside of school.
    2. I assume your preschool is a 5-day-a-week preschool? I find 5-days perfect--in my experience, it eases the transition from weekends to the school week, since all 5 days are the same (off to school in the mornings..)
    3. I would talk with teachers and parents about possible bullying situations...if you can volunteer in the classroom (assuming you can take a personal day at work), you might garner information about your son' s day while in the classroom that you wouldn't without being there firsthand.
    4. I know you said his teachers report "no problems" once he's settled in--but I am wondering why they didn't say he's "happy/busy/immersed in play with friends." What is his mood when you pick him up? Sometimes my daughter isn't in the mood to go to school, but she's always happy when I pick her up.
    5. Sometimes we do a "top 3 favorite things" on the way home from school in the car (since things are fresh in her mind, we do it then--later at dinner, she's forgotten). I find out a huge amount of info about how the day has gone this way...
    Finally, I really feel the teachers need to be working very closely and on a daily basis with you and your husband on this. Perhaps your pediatrician also might be a good source of advice, as far as what to do, and how to proceed (or he/she might know of a child psychologist who might be helpful). Your son is lucky to have such a loving mother--things will get better!

    Posted by lauren May 4, 12 08:50 PM
  1. Kind of the reverse of the advice given here, around this age my son got very bored with preschool. All of his best friends at preschool were a year older and left for kindergarten, and you could see him long to do what they were doing. He is both intellectually and athletically mature for his age and was also the oldest boy by about a year and just didn't want to play with the younger boys, and I could see this dynamic when we attended some birthday parties for classmates. He also started to talk about not wanting to go to school which he had never done. Fortunately things got better when a boy his age and sharing his interests joined the school and we haven't had any issues since, except when his friend is on vacation or absent and you can just see it in his face that it wasn't a great day. But rather than be afraid of kindergarten, my son has started a countdown on the calendar and can't wait to start and rejoin his old friends.

    Posted by northshore123 May 5, 12 09:54 PM
  1. As a pre-school owner, I've seen this alot throught out the years. Sometimes, parents read WAY to much into a child having an "off" morning and if a child is feeling tired, and reacts by way of being clingy or cries during drop-off, the attention then given to the child to get them to calm down= make the drop-off less upsetting for the parent, then snowballs into the child knowing they'll get that attention every time they act that way. Then it becomes part of their daily morning ritual. The best thing the parent can do is be quick and confident during the drop-off, kiss your child good-bye, tell them you'll see them later, and leave. The longer the parent stays and tries to stop their child from crying only delays the process. Once the parent leaves, the children very quickly settle into their morning schedule with their friends and any crying is over.

    Posted by Cathy May 6, 12 09:35 PM
  1. I have taught all age groups in child care for over 17 years. My favorite age is preschool, particularly the prekindergarten 4-5 year olds. In all my years I have only had one child who cried every morning for a couple of months when her mother dropped her off. Her mom was a nurse and she worked varing schedules which made it hard for the child to get into a consistent drop off routine at school. The little girl was extremely shy so it took her quite a long time to adjust to her teachers and make friends. I had my asst teacher greet her each morning, sit with her and give her some 1-on-1 for a little while each morning. She eventually got over her fears and loved school. She just needed a little help building trust and feeling secure. All this to say, is your child's morning drop off routine exactly the same each day? If your child is sensitive to change, then consistency helps curb the drop off blues. Also, a quick goodbye and a positive statement about the great day he will have may help. For my 1st born, fearful of any change in routine, I made a little necklace with my picture in it and told him I would always be with him. It helped a lot! On the down side, as a teacher I would say there could be things happening in the center you are not aware of that often happens in the day care scene. For example, I've witnessed teachers who smile at the parents and tell them everything is okay when sometimes it really isn't. I have heard teachers speak to children in demeaning manners (I'm gonna take you to the baby room if you don't stop that crying); I've seen arms being yanked to pull a child to a chair for a "time out"; I've been witness to children OR teachers being shuffled around to different rooms in order to keep the ratios because they often run short on teachers; I've seen teachers try to force children to sleep at naptime or pat their backs a bit took hard to get them to go to sleep, etc. Unfortunately, the job often doesn't pay much or offer any/many benefits to teachers. Turnaround is often very high in the business. The best thing is to try to talk to your child everyday and ask very specific questions about his day. if you can ask the center for a copy of the daily routine, you can use it to ask him questions about his day. Ask, "What did you/your teacher do during circle time?"; "Did anybody get in trouble in school today? and, "What did the teacher do or say to (Johnny)?"; "What was your favorite thing/least favorite thing that happened today?" Do that with each part of his daily routine and see if you can pinpoint what is on his mind. School should be fun, but if he is not adjusting there MAY be more to it than the school is willing to share.

    Posted by Lisa May 7, 12 12:05 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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