Helping Your Preschooler Cope with School Anxiety

We are so excited to introduce today’s guest questioner Brian Gresko, editor of the anthology When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers on Fatherhood, forthcoming from Berkley Books/Penguin in spring 2014. He has written about books and culture for SalonThe Atlantic.comThe Daily BeastThe Paris Review DailyThe LA Review of Books, and numerous other publications, and keeps a daily column on parenting and gender politics for Babble. 

How do I prepare my 4 year old for pre-K when he’s had a previous bad school experience with preschool and doesn’t want to go?

MOLLY: Brian also said that his son likes to be in control and sometimes has tantrums when told what to do, or when they correct him for misbehaving. At two-years-old he attended an educational program for a couple of mornings a week, but it didn’t go well. In particular he formed a negative relationship with the head teacher, for similar reasons. His son has an awareness of his behavior and has expressed a “fear about being naughty with the teachers” when he starts this fall.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom):  The really good part of this story is that the child has an awareness that he has a difficulty, so that will be helpful in preparing him for this new experience.

What I would suggest doing with this child is to talk with him about his past behavior in school, what he thought went wrong  (because it sounds like he has some insight), and how does he think he can manage this so he won’t repeat the experience.  It’s very important to get his input so he’ll buy into your new system.

Then, what his dad can say to him is along the lines of: I understand that school has sometimes been hard for you but I want you to pack away in your mind all the things that might bother you at school – with your teacher or your classmates – and bring them home in your mind to tell your mom and me.

MOLLY: What do you mean?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Let him know that he can tell his parents all about his experiences in school. This means that he doesn’t have to act out in school but can save up the experiences that bother him in his mind and then, when he comes home, he can talk about those experiences with his parents.

MOLLY: How would you tell him to do that?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Now I realize that he’s just turned 4 years old and this might not be a perfect system, but what you would say to him is to give him an example: Suppose he gets mad at his teacher because she tells him he has to sit quietly at the table to wait for his turn and he would rather not. Help him realize that he can catalog his grievances in his mind while keeping the peace by following directions.

Make sure he knows not say a word to the teacher about it; he has to keep it to himself. What he can do is remember it in his mind and bring it home and to tell his parents. That way you’re teaching him to talk about his feelings rather than act out his feelings.

I do remember that this particular child is only 4 years old, but he already shows that he has some insight and he might be able to use this kind of system.

MOLLY: Would you want to try that “best and worst” parts of your day game where you and your child share the best and worst thing that happened in your day?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, that game can be really helpful for giving young kids a framework to talk about their experiences. Every day should be a check-in day with his parents about how the experience went at school.

And, his parents will want to give him the opportunity to talk about the things that really bothered him, so that he can talk it through rather than act out his feelings at school and get himself into trouble again with his teachers.

It’s important for kids to learn this skill early because acting out in school can have both short term and long term consequences. Negative feelings about school could set a stage for him to have this kind of behavior later in school, which will get him in nothing but trouble and would be very difficult to manage.

MOLLY: It sounds like the kid has some anxiety about starting school. Is there a way to help alleviate that?

DR. RUTHERFORD: That’s a very good sign that he does have that anxiety because that means he’s aware that he participates in the problem on some level. Some kids refuse to own any of their responsibility and insist that any problems are the teacher’s fault, the parents’ fault…everybody’s fault but their own. But this child recognizes that he does something that causes problems so that’s what you really want to work with. You want to explore how he can change that paradigm.

I wouldn’t expect a miracle to happen overnight, but I think if you stick with it every day and do this program, I would think that there would be some significant improvement in classroom behavior reports.

MOLLY: So should you set aside a time for when you pick up the kid? When should be the time that he tells you?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Anytime after school. If it works better in the car or in transit on the way home that’s fine, but it should be a regular time every day that you schedule to talk about school, and probably as close to the end of the school day as possible because that’s when it’s going to be clearest in the kid’s mind.

The issue is more that it’s important to set up a regular time. If that’s dinner time, when everyone is home together, than that’s fine. You set it up ahead of time with the child that it’s going to be done on a regular basis. At this time every day after school, let’s talk about how the school day went and you can tell me all the things you liked and all the things that upset you. This should be a pattern every day. I believe regularly talking about things will help keep the child from acting out so much in school.

MOLLY: Do you think you should do some pre-prep before school, like going over what the rules are in school before you drop him off?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, that would be very important to do.  His parents should talk with him how the school schedule is going to go, how important it is for him to listen to the teacher, and that they understand that he gets upset at times but he needs to bring that home with him and not act out in school. At this age, parents are the primary source for setting the tone in his life. Encourage him to follow the rules by telling him how much more fun he will have when everyone in the classroom works together and listens to the teacher.

MOLLY: Do you think that the parents need to talk about consequences beforehand? What happens if he does act out? Or not yet?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I would not focus so much on consequences in the beginning. This kind of change may take some time to practice. If he’s having a really hard time with this strategy, you still want to be really supportive at home, but it’s possible that consequences will have to be set up if the behavior continues or escalates. Really, though, the child should feel like his parents are on his side and that they are all on the same team rooting for him to thrive at school in this new classroom. Reassure him that this time will be different with a different teacher and different classmates and different activities. He will have a fresh start to have a great time a school.

MOLLY: So maybe the parents should just wait to see how it goes?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right, I would try to focus on the more positive parts of this before getting into consequences, and see how it works. Sometimes, a different teacher will make all the difference in a child’s classroom behavior, anyway. The parents should talk with the teacher in advance of the start of the school year to relay the child’s anxieties and ask the teacher to help make school a good place for this kid. They should plan to stay in close communication with the teacher as the school year progresses so that they can be aware of any minor problems before they become greater. For a pre-kindergartener, the most important thing is that they enjoy school and have positive feeling about going.

If problems continue as the year goes along, there may need to be some consequences. I always think parents should ask their child what he thinks the consequences ought to be for whatever transgression occurred. As we know, children tend to be more strict on themselves than their parents.

MOLLY: What might you see later on in this child’s life, if these issues continue?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Well, you could see big problems throughout his school career because he has a pattern of acting out at school. There will be endless meetings with teachers and administrators about how to deal with a child that doesn’t toe the line. There can be lots of short term and long term consequences when he’s older because, if his only coping skill is acting out or being defiant, it will be more difficult for him to negotiate his way through life as a teen and an adult.

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