Having a young child in school can be a mixed blessing for parents. You might be relieved that your child is in a routine and you no longer have to organize their day for them. But if your child has behavior problems, school can suddenly become a major stress point for you, your child, and your entire family.
If your young child is having trouble adjusting to school, you are not alone. I often hear from parents who are anxious and concerned about their young kids in school.
Below are the 4 most common questions parents bring to me about their young kids in school. Most parents have experienced one of these problems. The practical advice I describe can help you to solve these problems so that you and your child have a happy and productive school experience.
“My 5-year-old daughter starts kindergarten this year and we are terrified that she will act out. She was kicked out of two pre-schools due to hitting, biting, and other problems interacting with the other kids. She was aggressive throughout her toddler years, even towards teachers. I’ve talked to her about her behavior but we haven’t seen great results as she doesn’t seem to care. What should I do?”
First, I’d like you to think of your daughter starting kindergarten as a new beginning for both of you.
For your daughter, it will mean a new school, new friends and teachers, and a new environment.
For you, it will mean beginning a new chapter in your parenting life, filled with re-gaining control of your house, letting your daughter know that you’re in charge and creating an environment in which your daughter feels safe, secure, and ready to tackle kindergarten.
Many young children are aggressive, mainly because they don’t know how else to act in a situation that causes them stress or anxiety. Some children are naturally calm and can self-regulate their mood and actions. Others struggle with this.
Since your child acts out more, it is imperative that you assert your authority as the adult and that she knows you mean business.
This can be done in a loving manner in which you set behavior expectations and she learns how to calm herself. Start by talking to your daughter when she is calm. You can say to her:
“I’m so excited for you to start kindergarten! You will have a lot of fun at your new school. But before you begin we’re going to do some new things to make sure you have a great year.”
Then, create a rules chart for school and hang it where she can see it. Ask for her input about what the rules are and add them to your list.
Some examples can be: “No Hitting,” “No Biting,” “Be Nice to Teachers,” “Be Kind.”
Explain to her that she is a big girl now, she is starting a big girl school, and she will have to follow these rules.
Next, create a “Good Behavior Chart” and arrange colorful stickers or pens where she can place a marking each time she is caught being good at school or home.
Try using one of the free downloadable behavior charts from EmpoweringParents.com.
Using a behavior chart and stickers will encourage her to react differently and motivate her to exhibit good behavior because every kid, even strong-willed ones, love positive reinforcement.
Explain to your daughter that when school starts she will have the opportunity to place a sticker on her chart if she shows she can follow the rules.
After collecting so many stickers your daughter earns a reward, which can include staying up 20 minutes later that night, extra storytime with you, an opportunity to watch a movie, or anything that you think she would like.
If behaviors persist, talk to the teacher immediately. This shows the teacher that you are motivated to help your daughter change. Teachers are more likely to work with your daughter and help her along if they know you are on board and taking measures to help her overcome this obstacle.
Notice when your daughter behaves nicely and praise her. It’s just as important that she knows when she is doing well as it is that she knows when she is not.
“My son is going into first grade and we are really worried about his social group. Last year he was very quiet and seemed to be lagging behind the other kids in social situations, like making friends or playing at recess. He only got invited to one birthday party the entire year even though other kids seemed to be getting together more frequently for parties and playdates. This breaks my heart and I want this school year to be better.”
It is really hard to watch your child not be as socially active as other kids, especially when it appears they are being excluded. All parents want their kids to fit in and be accepted.
But I’d like you to consider a few things. First, have you talked to your son about how he feels about his social life?
Many times when kids hang out with just one or two other children parents assume they are miserable, when in fact many kids prefer one-on-one play over the manic hustle and bustle that often goes along with young children’s playgroups.
So make certain that your son views this as a problem before you assume it is one.
Second, during these tender years, many parents project their childhood anxieties onto their kids as they navigate through school.
It is not uncommon for parents, who may have struggled socially or were shy, to see their children’s social situations as problematic, when in fact it has more to do with their feelings around how they were treated by peers during their childhood.
A question then to ask yourself is, “Is this my child’s problem or mine?” If it’s your problem, don’t make it your child’s problem. Just pull back and work on yourself.
Lastly, consider that your child may simply have a different temperament than you. Introverted, reserved or shy children tend to feel overwhelmed in large groups and prefer the quieter play of one buddy.
Having said that, if your child is struggling to make friends and is unhappy, now is the perfect time to help him.
Consider inviting one or two kids over that your child connects with for after school or weekend playdates. Try to do this regularly and get to know the other parents so your child can get invited to their houses as well.
If your child wants more friends but lacks the social skills to make them, help him develop these skills. Review how to introduce yourself, how to ask someone to join in a game, or how to share. Tips for making friends can include: request a play date after school, form a team at recess, or pinpoint kids who have shared interests.
Lastly, make sure your child is not annoying other children. Many kids who lack social skills do things inadvertently that make it difficult to form friendships. Your child may be overly bossy, he may not want to share, or he may be overly sensitive to his surroundings. By gently but honestly discussing potentially annoying behaviors with your child, you can help him create a better environment for making friends.
“My child has a hard time focusing. He’s going into 3rd-grade this year and I’ve heard there’s a lot more reading and writing and that they have to do math every night. He’d rather run around the room or color than do any of the above. Does he have ADHD and do I need to get him tested”.
There is no exact answer to this question, as it will take time to figure out if your son truly has ADHD or is just a typical 3rd-grade boy with a lot of energy.
Most boys this age prefer to run, jump and play than sit still in a classroom and learn. Nevertheless, being able to sit still is a necessary part of his development. Help him improve this skill.
Start by having a conference with his teacher. Tell the teacher about your specific concerns. This will allow the teacher to observe your son’s behavior and academic progress, input that will be imperative if you do have him assessed by a professional.
Also, if your son’s 2nd-grade teacher is still at school, see if she can join the conference to add her perspective. Whether your son has ADHD or not, the skills he will learn from you and the structure he gets from his teacher will aid him throughout his education and development.
Next, create a plan that will help your son get organized. Many times the issue for young kids with focus issues isn’t necessarily a diagnosis of ADHD, but a lack of organization. Buy him a day planner that he can write assignments, notes, or things he needs to do at home, such as getting a permission slip signed.
It helps to have the teacher sign off on his planner each day to ensure he has the right things written down or to add anything he might have forgotten.
Also, have your son clean out his desk, backpack, and cubby area once a week. Set a day each week when your child stacks notebooks, organizes pencils, throws out papers, gets rid of old assignments, and brings home water bottles or plastic containers.
At home, set aside a quiet space for your son to do school work and have the necessary materials (pens, pencils, sharpener, paper, etc.) available.
If your son is high energy, allow him a cooling-off period after school so he can run around, relax, and have a snack before he starts his work.
Try to be as consistent with his work routine as possible, explaining that he is to do his work each day at the same time. Break his work into small segments, setting a timer for each. For example, you can say:
“I’m going to set the timer for 20 minutes and need you to sit and finish your math. When the timer is done you can take a 10-minute break.”
Then set the timer again for his break. This makes homework more manageable.
As always, make sure your son is getting enough sleep each night, has minimal access to electronics and television during the school week, and has at least an hour each evening that is electronic free before bedtime.
“My 5-year-old daughter never wanted to go to pre-school and now that she is entering kindergarten, not only has she said she won’t go, but she is terrified about starting at a new school with all new kids and teachers. How can I help her adjust?”
Starting kindergarten may be one of the scariest moments of a young child’s development. Most parents aren’t too crazy about the idea either.
It’s a rite of passage for a child to leave the safe, comforting nest of pre-school to enter a large school with multiple grades and larger classrooms. The good news is that most children adjust perfectly well, even if it takes a few weeks or months.
If your child has not yet started kindergarten, look into whether your child’s school has a kindergarten orientation that she can attend. Ideally, an orientation will give her a preview of the classroom as well as a tour of the school itself.
If there isn’t an orientation you can call your school, explain your child’s needs, and ask for a private tour.
Many schools arrange get-togethers for kindergartners before the school year beginning or throughout the first few months of school. Ask if your school does this and, if not, consider starting such a group. Your school should also have a list of kids in your child’s class and it could help to call a few parents and ask if they’d like to get together to help kids get acquainted before the year begins.
At home, there are many things you can do. First, talk about kindergarten in glowing terms, as in, “It’s nice that in kindergarten you’re able to have such a cool playground at recess!” or whatever benefits the school has to offer.
Try to get your child excited about becoming a “big girl” and going to a “big girl school.” You can create an “I’m a Big Girl Now” chart that lists all her new responsibilities related to going to school. Some examples are: get dressed; eat breakfast; get your backpack ready; get buckled into the car; go to the classroom every day.
Each time she completes a task on the chart allow her to put up a sticker and after earning so many she gets a reward.
Lastly, try to keep a consistent schedule at home once the school year is underway. This should include the same bedtime each evening, nutritious meals and snacks, limits on how much access she has to technology, and enough exercise through play or sports.
The first few years of school can be both exciting and harrowing for kids and parents alike. Experiencing a few bumps along the way is a normal part of starting something new, so make sure to give yourself a break if you and your child struggle a little in the beginning. With a little effort and preparation, you will find that you have the tools to help your child succeed.
Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.