Rachael Rachael, a mom of two daughters, is a freelance editor and writer who enjoys gardening and dreams of keeping chickens in her suburban St. Louis backyard. In her spare time, she helps to edit her husband’s science fiction books. Read more of Rachael's work at www.rachaelsjohnston.com or contact her by emailing rachael@mumblingmommy.com.

From circle time to centers, preschool is a complicated, wonderful, difficult, and memorable experience. This is the fourth piece in Mumbling Mommy’s series about preschool. Previous posts discussed the benefits and drawbacks of preschool, how to know if your child is ready for preschool, and how to select a preschool.

My daughter has a little friend at preschool, and my husband and I have a code name for her: The Big K. She is not a physically large child. It’s her behavior that looms large.

The Big K is immature compared to the rest of her classmates, the teacher confided to me after the girl had a minor meltdown over sharing blocks while I was volunteering in the class one morning. She is apt to burst into tears when she doesn’t get what she wants, cross her little arms, pout, and loudly proclaim, “No!” However, her classic calling card is tattling when other children accidentally bump into her or brush against her. “He hit me,” she will whine while pointing at the often oblivious offender.

My daughter really likes The Big K, and I can see why. When she’s not having a tantrum, the girl is quite friendly. It’s common at drop-off time to hear her say, “Hi, Megan! We’re playing with dolls. Do you want to play with us?” My daughter loves to say hello to other kids, but preschoolers are fickle little people and not everyone says hello back. Megan likes The Big K because she readily interacts with her.

Unfortunately, a few weeks into the preschool semester, Megan started coming home with more than just glittery art projects and songs about the months of the year. She has always been, and generally still is, better behaved than a lot of children we know, but my husband and I noticed some defiant behavior that hadn’t been there before, including the telltale crossed arms and the haughty proclamation of “No!” It’s the great contradiction of preschool. Many parents send their children thinking they will learn good social skills, but instead their behavior worsens. The article linked to above states:

“Preschoolers need to learn empathy, compassion, patience, emotional self-control, social etiquette, patience, and an upbeat, constructive attitude for dealing with social problems.

These lessons can’t be learned through peer contact alone. Preschools are populated with impulsive, socially
incompetent little people who are prone to sudden fits of rage or despair. These little guys have difficulty controlling their emotions, and they are ignorant of the social niceties. They have poor insight into the minds and
emotions of others (Gopnik et al 1999).

Yes, preschoolers can offer each other important social experiences. But their developmental status makes them
unreliable social tutors. A child who copies other children may pick up good habits—-but she may also pick up bad ones. And peers do not always provide each other with [sic] right kind of feedback.

When a child offers to share his toy with a caring adult, he gets rewarded with gratitude and praise. He also learns that he will eventually get his toy back. When he offers to share with a peer, he may not get rewarded at all.”

So what is a parent to do? It is enough to make homeschooling look appealing, but even homeschooled children cannot remain completely cloistered from their peers. You can prevent or lessen the effects of peer-induced behavior problems with a few tips:

1.    Limit the amount of time your child is in preschool or group care. While children can make great academic gains in preschool, one study showed that behavior problems increased corresponding to the amount of time spent in preschool or child care. Two to three days per week is fine. Five days a week for a 3- or 4-year-old is probably pushing it.

2.    Model good social skills for your child. Parents, not peers, are the best social tutors. In the process, you’ll help your child learn to make good friend choices.

3.    When your child comes home with bad behavior, view it as a teachable moment. Talk about why behavior like sassing or sticking out your tongue is not nice, and tell your child, “We don’t do that in our house.”

4.    Try not to vilify the peer who is a negative influence. Instead of saying she’s a bad kid, you might make a statement of observation like, “I noticed Sarah has a hard time keeping her hands to herself” or “It looks like Matthew is still learning how to say nice things to his friends.” Focus on the behavior that needs to change.

5.    If your child has become fast friends with the class ruffian, try to find out what makes this kid so appealing. Perhaps he shares your child’s love of soccer or tells hilarious jokes.

6.    Volunteer in your child’s class. Find out what goes on, observe how the kids interact, and observe how the teacher handles the class. You’ll be better able to identify and address any problem behaviors that crop up at home.

Be attuned to your child and be involved. Talk to her and know what goes on in her class. After several frank discussions with our daughter about what is and is not nice behavior, we saw an improvement, and Megan began to spend more time playing with other better-behaved girls in her class. It will always be an ongoing process, though. That’s part of raising children.

The Big K still thinks Megan is the best thing since fruit snacks were invented. About once a week The Big K skips up to me at pick-up time and asks if Megan can come play at her house. I politely say, “Not today” or “Didn’t you two play together all morning?” There is nothing wrong with saying no to play dates, and yes, I can still shelter my daughter a little bit!

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Category: Education

Tags: behavior problems