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Soothing Your Child’s Pre-School Anxiety

Soothing Your Child's Pre-School AnxietyRecently, while Felix and I were hanging out on the stoop, a woman walked by who has a boy not much older than my four-year-old son. “Where’s Bobby?” Felix asked.

“Bobby’s in school. How come you’re not in school?”

“I’m taking a break from school,” Felix told her.

Her face scrunched up, nostrils flared. “A break? How come?”

“I didn’t like it very much.”

“You didn’t like school? Who doesn’t like school?” And then she turned to me and stage whispered “What’s wrong?”

It’s true. My son didn’t like school.

When Felix was two, he attended a preschool alternative program a couple of mornings a week. It took place in a yoga studio, though the place inspired anything but calm in my tot. At drop-off, Felix often clung to me, upset and tearful. Always a kinesthetic, active kid, he played too rough with his peers and — like most two-year-olds I think — had issues sharing toys. A few times he out-and-out attacked his a classmate, biting a finger, scratching a face, or pulling hair. Worse, he also tussled with his teachers, with whom he quickly developed a negative relationship. As a former teacher, I knew what Felix had become: that kid, the crazy disruptive one, the student you wished would be absent, since things went so much smoother without him in the class.

I say worse, because that negative relationship with the teachers contributed to his negative behavior in the classroom. First thing in the morning, the head teacher questioned me about how well Felix slept, or how he’d been behaving that day. She sometimes reminded him, with me as a witness, of some rule or expectation. “We’ll have a good day today, right Felix?” Picking him up, she’d pull me aside and deliver a report on what went well or, usually, wrong. The message seemed to be that Felix was a bad boy. And so, that’s what he would be in school: bad.

Interestingly, the girls, on a whole, seemed to have fewer problems in the class. They appeared more eager to follow directions, participate in art projects, and form relationships. Felix — at the time a boy who favored actions over words, liked roughhousing but was uninterested in making friends or doing art — didn’t fit in. In retrospect, we should have pulled him out, since it was clear that things weren’t going well. But we just kept hoping his behavior would change, and I think we felt embarrassed too. Like something might be wrong with him.

Things didn’t improve, and so we decided to give him a break for a year. My neighbor asking Felix about school was probably the most extreme example of another person shaming him for not being in an academic program or daycare, for just staying at home with either me or a babysitter. There have been other instances of this. Even kids have wondered “Why don’t you go to school?” School starts early these days. Too early, in my opinion.

Felix, by no means a dummy, has become aware that we don’t have playdates as frequently as we used to because most of his friends are in school. These past few months, he’s begun to ask about when he’ll go, which is what my wife and I had hoped. He seems to want to detach and be independent, have friends, not spend his whole day with dad. He’s growing up.

Next September, Felix is beginning pre-K. He’ll be attending a school that’s been around for decades, with a competent, experienced staff. He’s excited, but nervous too. “What if I’m naughty with my teachers?” he’s asked. As I’ve written before, his defiance continues. He still doesn’t like following rules, and when he doesn’t want to participate in some activity, no amount of peer pressure or coaxing changes his mind.

My wife and I have been encouraging him to talk about his feelings instead of acting them out, to use his words and not his body to communicate that he’s frustrated, bored, angry, or even excited. (Sometimes, he gets so happy he just has to throw himself at you in a hug, which is both lovely and, if you’re not ready for him, potentially throws you off balance.)

Given the opportunity to ask a question to Molly Skyar’s blog Conversations with My Mother, I asked about how to best prepare him for school in September. Skyar’s mother, Dr. Susan Rutherford, is a Clinical Psychologist with over 30 years of experience. She provides such expert advice to her daughter that Skyar decided to transcribe their conversations so that other people could glean nuggets of wisdom too. Regarding Pre-Pre-School anxiety, Dr. Rutherford advised:

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.

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

So it sounds like we’re on the right track with this talking and thinking about your feelings instead of acting them out physically. We just have to keep at it, and be consistent. We seem to be in a time of great change right now, where Felix is suddenly deciding to “be a big boy,” and as Dr. Rutherford positively notes, the fact that Felix himself is aware of the problem — that he’s nervous about school — means that he knows his behavior isn’t appropriate. With help, I’m sure he’s going to learn how to better express himself, and curb his defiant streak so that he can function within a classroom setting.

Some kids just need more time than others to be school ready. Especially kids who are physically oriented, or talk later than others, or have yet to develop empathy, or move beyond the obsessive narcissistic toddler phase — problems that in my experience seem to plague toddler boys more than toddler girls. In these cases, as Felix’s story shows, sending a child to school too soon can actually build a negative association with what should be a wonderful, positive thing in the kid’s life.

You can read more of Dr. Rutherford’s expert advice on Conversations with My Mother.

 

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