Preschool can be daunting for parents. Your child seems to enter new phases every day. It’s an exciting time, but when behaviors crop up, it can be difficult to know what’s age-appropriate and what needs more attention.
Maybe your kid is a bit of a bully, a biter or has a hard time at drop-off. Do you have a ringleader, or a kid who has trouble making friends? What if your child is none of those things, but is having issues with a classmate who is?
Alise McGregor, who founded her own childcare chain and is author of “Creating Brilliance,” notes that preschoolers are exploring their independence. “It is a tough age, because the expectations are higher since they appear to be able to process what you are saying or requesting, but they are still only 3 to 5 years old,” she says.
Preschool is often a time of change that puts children in a new school and requires new skills. And adjustment can sometimes mean behavioral issues. “Some kids take changes in stride, while others really struggle with these adjustments,” says L.A.-based child and family therapist Megan Costello. New behaviors may emerge – and the key is to be able to identify them so that you can help your child.
If your child is mean to others, focus on building empathy. “Practice taking other people’s perspectives by reading books about bullying and then talking about how your child would feel if they were the character that was victimized,” says Katherine Firestone, education specialist and host of The Happy Student podcast. “If your child is friends with the bully, teach them to stand up for themselves by saying, ‘That’s not very nice. I’m going to go play with someone else.’”
Beverly Hills-based family psychotherapist Fran Walfish, Ph.D., advises giving your child tools to cope with bullies. “Arm her with phrases and behaviors she can use in bullying situations that may arise,” says Walfish, but also help your child identify adults they can go to for help. Walfish notes that bullies are often being bullied at home themselves, and are at greater risk for problems down the road than are their victims.
Preschoolers sometimes bite because they don’t yet have the language to express their frustrations, says Firestone. But what to do when they bite? It’s important to set ground rules and let your child know it’s not OK, she says.
Instruct preschoolers on the receiving end of the chomping, to play with someone else. If no one wants to play with the biter, he will quickly learn to stop, says Firestone. Of course, it’s your responsibility to keep your child safe, so if the biting becomes frequent or severe, that’s a bigger issue. “The ‘biter’ needs to be shadowed,” says early-childhood teacher Erin Sheehan, a teacher at Cottage Co-op Nursery School in Pasadena. “Encourage your child to loudly say, ‘Stop!’ and then find an adult.”
Separation anxiety is common for children entering preschool, often their first long and regular separation from home.
“They’re learning to be away from you,” explains Sheehan, who advises letting your child know that you’ll come back, that they are safe while you are away and providing a transitional object. “Give them a picture of your family to take to school,” she says. “They can visit this picture whenever they need comfort.”
If another child is upset about a parent leaving, you can help by offering a distraction. “It’s always a friendly gesture for your kid to see if the child struggling with separation anxiety wants to play,” says Firestone.
While some preschoolers may master skills later than others, Firestone says it’s best not to make a big deal about that. “My goals for preschoolers are really to learn to love school, and how to communicate, empathize, be a good friend and all those great character strengths,” she notes. “For most kids, they will learn to read and write when they are ready. Preschool is a unique opportunity to learn other, softer, really important skills.”
If your child has noticed that a classmate is behind, emphasize that we all have different abilities and different things we are good at. “Help them to understand how this child may be feeling as a way to build empathy and flexible thinking,” says educator Michael Delman, author of “Your Kid’s Gonna Be Okay.”
If your child is mastering preschool material quickly and acting out due to boredom, help her stay engaged with supplemental activities or through helping classmates. Strategize with your child and with the teacher for ideas. “Maybe they could ask the teacher if they could look at a book once they finish their work,” suggests Firestone.
If it’s a classmate who is acting out, “help your child to view them as a resource who can help out and contribute to the group,” suggests Delman. Firestone says this type of disruption can even be helpful. “It can be distracting to have this kid in your class, but it’s also good for practicing to focus and drown out distractions,” she explains.
Being a leader is actually a great thing, but if your child is being overbearing, explain the importance in letting others have a say. “Talk about how and why it’s important in your family to be inclusive, and then brainstorm with your child ways to be inclusive with other children at school,” says Firestone.
And if your child is the follower in the dynamic? That can be fine. “We don’t give enough credit to the child that can roll with the punches,” says Sheehan. But if he’s feeling railroaded, help him think of ways to contribute to play. “If they’re not feeling a part of things or listened to, they don’t have to play alongside the ringleader,” Sheehan says.
Sometimes one child is excluded by others, and Sheehan says preschool cliques are one of the most common concerns she hears from parents. “Here’s the thing: Kids can be mean,” she says, adding that while parents want to protect their little ones from hurt feelings, we can’t force apologies or friendships. “We need to let them feel their feelings, but also give them the tools to work through these feelings.”
If your child is having trouble making friends, the solution might be as simple as providing more opportunities. Head to some classes, activities or the playground. “Kids need to practice social skills, so the more opportunities they have, the better,” says Firestone.
Once they find a potential pal (from school or anywhere), Susan G. Groner, author of “Parenting – 101 Ways to Rock Your World,” advises that you set up a short playdate, and reassures parents that not all kids need friends by the dozens. “Not every child is super outgoing, and that’s OK,” she says.
At the end of the day, you know your child best, but it never hurts to talk to the teacher about your concerns. “If something feels off, ask questions,” says McGregor. There are many behavioral issues and developmental phases that are part of the preschool journey, but there is also lots of fun and joy in watching your child grow. Try to enjoy this part of your little one’s childhood. They’ll be off to kindergarten before you know it.
Lindsey Hunter Lopez is a freelance writer and a mom of two.