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Why preschoolers are anxious about school
Let's admit it: Change is hard on all of us. Think about how you've felt the night before you started a new job – and then think about how many new things your child faces when he starts preschool or moves to a new class.
"Preschoolers have a lot of fears," says Patricia Henderson Shimm, associate director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York City. "That's because they're often doing something they haven't done before."
In addition to bringing on the telltale tears, a child's preschool fears can cause him to lie awake at night (or sleep more than normal), backtrack on toilet training, or suddenly exhibit aggressive behavior.
Your preschooler may know exactly what he's afraid of — the big slide on the school playground, or having to use an unfamiliar toilet – or he may just feel scared about school without being able to tell you why. Either way, a few simple strategies will help him feel more comfortable with the new experiences ahead:
Get him talking. Encourage your preschooler to open up about what's worrying him.
If he's not yet very verbal, try playing games that introduce the idea of coming and going: Engage him in a round of hide-and-seek, or slide cars in and out of a toy train tunnel. Then use the game as a launching pad to talk about how the cars – and your child – will always come back when they go somewhere.
You can also set an example by gently relating your own fears: "Sometimes I feel scared when I meet a new person, but I try to be brave and say hi anyway."
Don't minimize his feelings. It's natural to want to comfort your child by saying, "Don't worry, you'll make lots of friends at preschool." But this can actually make him feel more intimidated, since it sends the message that you expect him to be Mr. Popularity.
Instead, let him know that you sympathize. "It's really scary to go to a new school, isn't it?" you might say. "How could we make it easier?" And, of course, never give your child the impression that you think his worries are silly or trivial.
Let him take the lead. Since preschoolers can be resistant to parental suggestions, involve your child as much as possible in finding solutions to his fears. After all, he's more likely to try a strategy that he thought of – at least partly – himself.
For a younger or less verbal preschooler, offer several possible "fixes" for his dilemma, then ask him which he thinks might work. (See below for specific fears and possible solutions to try.)
The most common preschool fears, and how to ease them
"Mommy, don't leave me!" On the first day of school, your preschooler may well cry when you leave. In fact, he may cry every morning for a few days, or even for a few weeks. It's a painful process for both of you, and you'll probably cry, too (just try not to do it in front of your child).
Don't panic or feel bad when your child cries, though. The truth is, his tears don't mean that he doesn't like his new school – in fact, he may soon grow to love it. It's just that he doesn't want to be there without you.
Preschoolers are still young enough to suffer from separation anxiety, and at the same time are old enough to have some sense of time. So your child knows you won't be coming back to get him any minute, and that's a hard reality to come to terms with.
The first – and perhaps the hardest – thing you have to do is leave, as calmly as you can. Give your child a big hug, tell him you'll pick him up after lunch or nap, and then depart, even if you hear him wailing behind you. (If you see a meltdown coming, enlist a teacher's help in involving him in a game or activity – or simply sitting with him until the emotion passes.)
Veteran teachers say the most common mistake parents make is to turn back or prolong good-byes until they turn into tearful marathons. Instead, go outside, shed a few tears yourself, and call the teacher for an update an hour or two later. Chances are, you'll be comforted by a report that your child stopped crying soon after you left and has spent the morning playing with his new friends.
It also helps to find out from the teacher what your preschooler did that day, and to talk about it with him when he gets home: "So, you made a collage and played with Jeffrey today?" Some parents also make a nightly ritual of naming their child's new school pals in a song, story, or prayer. Anything you can do to emphasize the daily routine will help your child adjust and quiet his fears.
"Do I have to use the potty?" Preschoolers are naturally frightened by change, and one of the toughest changes they face is learning to use a new bathroom. With so many preschools requiring kids to be potty trained before they're enrolled, using the bathroom can become the focus of a lot of stress – for both you and your child.
If you're panicking because a potty training deadline is fast approaching, take a deep breath – it may be time to rethink your strategy. First, call the school, explain the problem, and find out how hard and fast the rule really is. You may find that the school is open to exceptions, in which case request that your child be one of them.
It's not a good idea, experts say, to push a child to potty train before he's ready just to meet an arbitrary deadline. If the school holds firm and your child really isn't ready, you may need to consider holding him back a bit longer.
An alternative is to put him in cotton underpants a few days before school starts, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. Many a child has surprised everyone by staying dry (most of the time, at least) when inspired by a classroom full of potty-trained peers.
If it's the toilet itself your child is scared of, ask if you can bring a potty chair for him. If so, buy one that's identical to the one he uses at home and keep it at school.
"I hate circle time!" It might look like fun to us, but to a shy or retiring preschooler, circle time can be, well, torture.
"For months, Natasha kept saying she didn't want to go to school," says one mother of a 3-year-old. "Finally, I found out it was because she hated circle time. The songs and stories were unfamiliar, and she was terrified when the teacher called on her to talk."
The solution in this case was simple: The teacher let Natasha sit on the sidelines for a few weeks, and once she knew the routine, she happily joined in.
One way to help your child weather the spotlight of circle time is to practice beforehand. On the way to school, for instance, you might ask, "What would you like to share today? Do you want to tell about the caterpillar you found?"
You might also want to ask the teacher for a list of songs the kids sing in class, then buy a songbook or recording so your child can learn at home. (You can also get song lyrics online at Kididdles.com.) Knowing all the words to "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Wheels on the Bus" might make him more comfortable joining in.
"What if I get lost?" If your child is starting preschool or moving to another class, he may worry about unfamiliar surroundings. Help him feel more comfortable by visiting before school starts.
If he hasn't met his teacher yet, make the introductions and encourage him to join in an activity or two. Help him find the cubby or hook where he'll store his things, and let him spend some time playing with all the tempting new materials. That way, on the first day of school you can say, "Hey, now you can go back and finish that game you were playing in the home center!"
Preschoolers often feel anxious about a new playground, especially if it feels big or has challenging equipment. To remedy this, visit the schoolyard after hours so your child can climb on the play equipment or ride his tricycle without the intimidating presence of other kids.
Another strategy is to pair a younger preschooler with an older buddy. An older sibling is ideal for this, of course, but you can also tap into your network of friends and neighbors to find a confident 4-year-old who wouldn't mind showing your child the ropes at preschool.
"What if no one plays with me?" Preschoolers can be just as daunted by a roomful of strangers as the rest of us are. To help your child feel less shy, introduce him to as many of his future classmates as you can on your visits to the school.
If a school directory is available, use it to find kids who live near you, then stop by and introduce yourself and your child. Or ask the director for a couple of phone numbers of outgoing kids who might welcome a new friend.
If one of your child's buddies will be in the same school or class, so much the better. Play up the friendship as much as you can, getting the kids together for playdates and emphasizing the fact that they'll both be going off to "big kid" school or moving up to a new class together. If possible, coordinate your schedules so both kids arrive at the same time on the first day and can walk in together.
As time goes on, keep snapshots of your child's school buddies on the refrigerator or in his room and talk about them often. After all, preschool is his home away from home, and when he's there, these kids are his extended family.
Read more about beginning preschool.