It may come as a surprise, or it may be something you’ve secretly dreaded.
It often happens during the moments when you’re picking up your child at the end of the preschool day, when the teacher asks you to stay just a minute or pulls you aside.
What is it?
It’s when the preschool teacher says, there’s a problem with your child’s behavior.
Even if you’ve secretly feared it might happen, it still feels awful, or even shocking. No mother likes to think of her child as a problem, yet that’s what is implied. No one gets called aside to be told what a good model he or she is for the other children. Or if it does, it happens much too rarely.
Of course, hearing that your child is having trouble in school is alarming. While you’re waiting to discuss the issues with his or her teacher you’re likely to imagine all kinds of horrible problems your child could be causing.
- Is she hurting other children?
- Is he using bad language?
- Is he grabbing toys from others?
- Is she being disrespectful to the teacher?
Some of those scenarios may be happening. Or it may be that some behaviors that happen at home are not a problem there, but are a problem in the school environment. Or behaviors that are a problem at home are also a problem at school. Until you get clarity, It’s best for you and your child if you can stay calm and curious until you have the opportunity to talk with their teacher.
Young children’s have problem behaviors when they haven’t mastered the skills they need to be successful. Instead, they tend to do what has worked for them in the past, or what feels natural to them, or what feels fun.
Here’s what is usually true:
- Parents love their children and want to teach them how to have fun and succeed in any setting: home, school, and everywhere else. They understand their child better than anyone else.
- Preschool teachers are fun-loving, gentle, creative people who want their students to succeed. They understand child development and generally have reasonable expectations for their students.
Even though both those cases tend to be true, problems can still arise, and when they do, there are reasons for them. Here are some examples of behaviors that can cause problems in the preschool classroom.
Your child doesn’t understand what behavior is appropriate and expected
Especially if this is your child’s first experience at school and they are young – 3 years old or younger – it’s unlikely they’ll know what kind of behavior is appropriate and expected. Learning all the rules at school, the new routines, and spending time with children they aren’t related to are all new. It may take a child months to understand and apply ‘correct’ behavior at school. And even then they won’t behave “appropriately” all the time, because they’re kids!
- Maybe ‘rough housing’ is allowed or even encouraged at home, but is banned at school.
- ‘Lining up’ is probably a foreign concept
- Sitting in a group and attending to a teacher-led lesson has lots of rules attached, all of them new
You may need to find out from the teacher what routines your child is having trouble with, and reinforce those routines at home by practicing and talking about them.
Your child hasn’t learned the skill to successfully handle some situations
When a child’s behavior is problematic it’s because they haven’t yet learned the skills they need. They aren’t being ‘naughty,’ or ‘stubborn,’ or any of the other negative labels we sometimes place on little ones. They just haven’t yet learned some skills like:
- how to take turns
- how to ask for a toy
- how to express disappointment and frustration
- how to use self-calming strategies when they feel unsafe – when they’re exhibiting the ‘fight or flight’ response
When children haven’t mastered skills, they’ll often engage in behaviors that cause disruption and upset.
- grabbing toys from others
- disrupting a group activity so that no one can enjoy it
- running away or having a tantrum when it’s time to do something that’s not preferred
- pushing, shoving, hitting and even biting
This particular school setting isn’t a good fit for your child
This may be the school where all his friends go, but it may not be the best match for your particular child. If you have a high energy child who chafes at sitting tasks, he may not be at his best at a school where the emphasis is on academics and completing worksheets. He may do better at a school where outside play is part of the school day even when it’s rainy or cold. If your child digs his heels in if he’s directed too much, make sure there are times for free play and choice in his preschool. If your child is learning school rules and routines, but still not following them, it may be that the classroom just isn’t a good match for him. You can find that out by talking with the teacher and perhaps observing – i.e. volunteering – in the classroom.
Your child may have developmental delays that are interfering with his ability to learn skills
Children who are delayed in their development often exhibit problem behaviors. Children can be delayed in several areas, or in only one area, so it may be difficult to tell whether a behavior is due to delays. However, here are some examples of possible delays and resulting behaviors:
- a child with a language delay may be unable to ‘use their words’ to get what he wants, so he might grab instead
- a child who is disruptive when the teacher is reading a book to the group may not understand enough of the story to keep his attention, so he makes his own fun instead
- a child who hits hasn’t learned self-calming skills to use when he or she feels frustrated or angry
When the problem is spelled out, what do you do?
Talking with the preschool teacher will give you a better idea of the kind of problem behaviors your child is having at school, and this will help guide you in how you and the teacher resolve the problems. Calmly listening to the teacher’s description of the behavior can prove enlightening, if painful.
It’s nearly impossible to not feel defensive during a difficult meeting.
Meeting to talk about problems with your child’s behavior is always difficult. As a mother, it’s natural to take on responsibility for everything your young child does. Is your parenting failing your child? What have you neglected to teach him? Why is your child having trouble when other children aren’t?
Your first instinct might be to find fault with the teacher’s methods and expectations, or to defend your child’s behavior by blaming the other children. Although this response is natural, it may prevent you from learning about your child. Do your best to listen, even if it’s very hard.
- Breathe, breathe, breathe.
- Take notes to give yourself something to do
- Recognize that it’s okay to feel surprised, upset, angry, and any other emotion you’re feeling
Sometimes the teacher will expect you to respond with solutions right then, or will offer suggestions for the classroom and for you to follow at home. She’ll of course be more prepared for this talk then you will be.
If they sound reasonable and you’re in agreement, the both of you can try those suggestions and schedule a follow up meeting after you’ve implemented them for a while. If you’re not sure, or you aren’t able to think as clearly as you’d like – remember, it’s perfectly okay to be upset if the problems are major or simply a surprise – arrange to meet another day so you can think about what she’s shared with you.
How you address problem behaviors depends on what they are.
If the classroom is just a poor fit for your child, you can decide whether to make a change.
Preschool teachers are often experienced in recognizing developmental delays. If she suggests this as a possible cause for problem behaviors, consult your pediatrician or the local school district for the Early Childhood Special Education office in your area. They can do screening and testing to determine whether your child does have delays, and can provide services to address delays if your child is eligible and if you desire services. There is generally no cost for these services.
Sometimes behaviors continue to cause problems in spite of your efforts. Or you may have questions and concerns, but not know where to find answers. It’s hard to parent young children! Seeking out someone who is knowledgeable in child development and behavior – and who isn’t a know-it-all relative – can give you the support and compassion you need to best help your child.
Most of all, give yourself grace.
When you understand why your child is having trouble at school you’ll be able to start finding a solution. It may be fairly easy, or it may be more difficult. Either way, the more information you have the better, so that you can start helping your child learn the skills he needs to be successful at school and everywhere else.
Check out the Resource Library for information on: ages when developmental skills are learned, child temperament, Conscious Discipline, and more.
Do you have a story to share about a meeting with your child’s preschool teacher? Did it go well, or was it challenging? What was the best – or worst – part? Share your story below!
I hope all your preschool teacher meetings are helpful.