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Transitions: Starting Pre-school Can be Hard


This just in from a mama whose eldest child just started pre-school and after a few weeks isn't very settled in.  Anyone have experiences to share with her?  Constructive guidance?  Thoughts on integrating young kids into immersion programs??  She writes:

My son started preschool 3 weeks ago.  My husband and I analyzed ourselves into a black hole about where to enroll him (can you tell he's our first child?).  He is a sensitive soul, and has a lot of trouble with transitions.  But he's also friendly and wants time to play with kids his own age.   I could have (and maybe should have) enrolled him in a gentler school.  One that is just for preschoolers, with small classes, one that starts later in the day, lets them move at their own pace, lets them focus on playing and learning the things they want to.  That probably would have been the better match for his temperament. 

But I really, more than anything, want my kids to be bilingual.  I won't go into all the reasons I thought that was all-important, but I will say that I specifically decided to enroll him in an immersion school even though I knew it might challenge him more socially.  Maybe 3 is too young for that, I don't know.  I could totally design his life around his sensitive temperament, but then I would never be challenging him to step outside his comfort zone.  His temperament is so foreign to me, I'm not sure if I'm helping him or hurting him by not being more sensitive to his sensitivities.  Two disclaimers: he only goes 3 mornings a week, and I've specifically designed some time away from work and his younger sister so he and I can have a whole morning alone together once a week.  He also gets some evening time alone with dad.

He's been in school for a few weeks now.  He has 10-12 kids in his class on any given day, with 2 teachers.  He gets lots of loving care, but the environment is definitely more chaotic than ours at home.  The preschool is part of a larger elementary school, so he's already been exposed to an assembly (of sorts) and picture day, both set him back tremendously (lots of crying and looks of terror).  The first week he actually did much better than I expected.  I dropped him off, he went straight for the toys, and seemed pretty ok with me leaving.  Starting in the second week he was crying and clinging to my leg all morning. He'd actually start at home, refusing to eat breakfast, get dressed, do anything that involved getting ready to leave.  Then the whole way in the car he talks about how he doesn't want to go to school, he tells me the "kids do bad things (to him)".  Then we get there and have long jags of crying and clinging. 

I've tried staying a while, thinking maybe if I sat with him he would get more comfortable so I could leave without the drama.  It didn't work.  Only seemed to prolong the inevitable.  I've tried dropping and just going.  He cries, the teacher says for about 15 minutes, and then he calms down.  When I pick him up he's always happy, seems to be having fun, and frequently doesn't want to leave (though he wouldn't want me to leave again either)!  Maybe I just need to help him make friends?  Schedule some one-on-one play dates with kids in his class so he can feel more attached/comfortable? 

Do you have a kid that struggles with transitions?  Did you go through this around school?  Or anything else?  Did anything help?  Have you ever been in a situation where you decided to switch schools?  Or drop school?  If you did, how did you know it was time to make that choice?


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I have been in a situation where we switched schools, and while I don't think it was due to my son having a sensitive temperament, I DO think that when they are telling you they don't want to go to school, there IS a reason. If I were you, I'd lurk around to figure out what it is and involve the teachers. Perhaps the other kids are doing/saying something that makes him feel bad and that is something that should be addressed by the school. What are the "bad things" that the kids do to him?

My son was 2 1/2 and not totally verbal yet, and still, he had very clear things to say about what was going on at his school. Due to a number of factors I didn't pull him out right away but in hindsight, I should have done it right away. He is now in a much better environment, and I couldn't be happier. So if you son continues saying kids are "doing bad things" to him, I would absolutely listen. He probably isn't making it up.

I have one of those kiddos, sensitive, quiet, serious, overwhelmed in crowds. I have found that I have to move slowly with him and let him call the pace once I've decided he's going to do something. I choose pretty carefully what we do, because he does need that constant exposure out of his comfort zone but too much and it does more harm than good. It can be really tough when I look at some of his friends who can just jump in and do anything. But I wouldn't want him to be anyone other than himself when it comes down to it.

I have to wonder in your situation if it really is too much all at once. I can't imagine putting my little guy in one of the pre-K programs at the grade schools quite yet. He's 4 and in his second year of a co-op preschool. It's working for us but he still gets upset over transitional kinds of things, like why his mailbox had to move from last year to this one. The type of program you describe would so not work for him! Without sounding harsh, I guess I would suggest you ask yourself if it's worth the upset to make it happen now when the reality is, he's only three. He has a lifetime to spend in school. Backing up a bit and finding a setting where he can just play with little ones his age might be a good first exposure so he can gain some confidence.

Our daughter is 3 years old and also just started preschool, though it is in the same facility that she has been going to daycare for the last year, 3 days a week. Each time she has moved up a classroom (2 yrs to 2 1/2 yrs, 2 1/2 yrs to 3 yrs and now 3 yrs to 4 yrs) she has had a hard time letting me leave. Her anxiety seems to have more to do with her trusting the teachers than it does with her relationship with the other kids. Once she has bonded with the adults in the room (which seems to take her a good three weeks) she seems to have no problem with goodbyes. I would really try to talk to the teachers - maybe schedule a meeting so that you can talk to them sans child and find out what they think is going on. You also may want to talk to other parents and get their input.

I have been there and was reluctant to pull my son out for many of the same reasons but when I finally did I was so happy! Listen to your child and to what you really are feeling too. There is plenty of time for him to be challenged in this life I see no reason to push it. I ended up keeping my son home after I pulled him out of his previous preschool and i really wish i would have listen sooner to his complaints because i think it has taken awhile for us all to get over it and i so wanted his first experience at school to be a good one. This fall he is 4 and started at a new school and LOVES it. It has made my husband and I realize how important it is to trust those feelings and respect the little ones feelings too. The school just simply was not a good fit and I think he was a little young. I am so happy with school now. Good luck! i really know how hard this can be.

honestly, if I were you, and if I could swing the time at home with him, I'd just take him out of the school for now. it's clear that he's reacting badly to the social setting; some kids just aren't ready to socialize at that age. my six-year-old, everett, had a similar experience in preschool at 3.5; he's never been shy, but he *is* sensitive and emotional and had a really hard time in preschool, always in a battle of wills with the teacher, crying and dragging his feet and not wanting to go. it was the same sort of thing: 'the kids are mean to me,' even though that clearly wasn't true.

though I could see arguments for both sides of this issue (challenge him vs. honor his needs), in my opinion, you've got to proceed at the child's own pace with socialization. he's telling you what he needs, and right now, preschool isn't it.

I think you're only helping him by being sensitive to his sensitivities. my developmental pediatrician, my couples counselor, and my occupational therapist would all agree. in my observation dealing with special education teachers and counselors at PPS and MESD, the world of education is moving far more toward the collaborative approach in guiding these challenged kids. it's very gentle, positive, and patient, meeting children at their level and waiting for them to catch up on their own time. you won't find it much in general education as those teachers were trained (in many cases) decades ago, when a trip to the principal's office was supposed to strike enough fear into troublemakers' hearts to cure 'em of their problematic behavior. sometimes, it's just that the kid doesn't have the skills -- whether those be calming skills (everett) or socialization skills (your son).

I totally feel for your statement that his temperament is foreign to you; it can be a heart-wrenching struggle to parent a child whose problems are *so* not the ones you've ever had trouble with.

Could it be the immersion aspect of the program? My daughter goes to an Chinese immersion program in MN and it took her awhile to get the language and to love her school. Figuring out how to ask to use the bathroom, more food, and getting along with kids who speak a new language took awhile. Add a new environment, new kids, and missing home its alot for a small kid. When she gets home she is exhusted from the learning and refuses to speak chinese with her father. She started the school at 16 months and we saw some regression in her language and social skills. One small sugestion, talk about how to ask to use the bathroom, ask for drinks, ect......They will figure it out on their own but it might make life easier.

The fact that it is an immersion program caught my attention also. Has he been exposed to this language before school? What is his skill with it? I have talked with adults that went to immersion programs as kids - some loved it from the start but there are some that cried everyday. If he is in full immersion that might be part of it.

We are also raising kids bilingually and really believe in it. I would figure out if it is the language thing and if it is try to give it some time. If the language is really hurting a guy that has issues with socializing with others then you might want to find another program for now. While starting early is great, starting in an immersion program for kindergarten will work too.

My oldest went to preschool in a Portland Parks program that has a Spanish bent. I would not call it immersion because it was Spanish focused with a lot of English spoken. In many ways it was a good fit because it built on the foundation that she already had but was very comfortable.

My little gal took 6 long weeks to settle into preschool last year and then she LOVED it. It's been the best thing for all of us. She is very clingy and it was a hard transition for her, but we really both needed a little space.

One thing that I think helped my daughter was giving her a sticker on her hand each morning (we go 3 mornings/week). When we pulled up in front of the preschool I would let her pick out a sticker. Then I would put in on the back of her hand and told her that if she missed me during preschool she could look at the sticker on her hand and know I was thinking about her too. That seemed to comfort her a bit + it was a fun thing to do right before preschool.

I also found that the longer I lingered at preschool the harder it was for both of us.

Thanks for the feedback! It is so helpful!

It is a full immersion program, in Spanish, and my son has had very little exposure to Spanish before now. I do think the language part is a big change for him. In some ways I figured he'd be less bothered by starting school in Spanish than transitioning to it later - since he'd just assume everyone speaks Spanish at school. Maybe that was too much. I should spend some time teaching him how to ask to go to the bathroom. Though the teachers do respond to requests in English (and speak English), he does seem intimidated about talking to them...and the Spanish is the likely barrier. On the upside, at home he's already using some Spanish words around the house. The other day he asked me a question, and followed it up with "Comprendo Mom?"

The thing that makes my decision going forward less clear is that when I pick him up, he's happy. My husband (who, by the way, shares this temperament) says that he'd be more concerned about it if our son was really unhappy during the day, which he doesn't seem to be. The teachers say he's fine and participates during the day (though he can be quick to tears...and won't say anything in Spanish). At pick up he seems to be having fun. It's just the morning that's a struggle. Doesn't help that we have to be there by 8:15 either. Our family just doesn't work that well in the morning.

I'm inclined to chalk it up to transition, but I think I will definitely be more sensitive to what he's saying and reassess in a few weeks.

My daughter was at a childcare center 3 days a week starting at age 1 until she reached age 3. During the first month she would cry when we dropped her off. She did this each time she "graduated" to a new class. I realized that what she needed was a good relationship with the teacher - someone she could really trust. This took about a month to develop. Once she felt safe and developed a bond with her/him, it was much easier to drop her off.

It was also a priority for us for her to be bilingual. So when she turned 3 we switched to a Mandarin immersion preschool. She had a very, very, hard transition. Her former childcare center was very "child centered" and nurturing. The new school was much more academic, she was the youngest child, and the language was all new. This time it took several months for her to adjust.

I also questioned pulling her out and putting her back in her old school. She started last January. I told myself that if she was still miserable by June, I'd switch schools. During the first few months I felt like such a terrible mother. "What have I done?" Fortunately, things got better and she stayed.

Well it's now been 9 months and she's doing great. She's learning so much Chinese, she loves her teachers, and has made good friends. It's not the best school in the world (wish it was more child centered and nurturing), but we felt that it was the best place considering our priority for her to be bilingual.

I think it's a really good sign that your son is having fun when you pick him up. I would just listen to your gut - it will tell you what's best for your son and your family's priorities.

I would personally just take him out too. I think the benefit he derives from a warm, comfy, cozy, mommy environment far outweighs anything he can get anywhere else. There's absolutely no real reason to push him if he's just not ready.

My daughter also has a sensitive temperament and is slow to transition to new environments. Like some previous posters have mentioned, forming a bond with a teacher/adult at the school or daycare has been key for us, and that often takes several weeks and intense attention. Perhaps the teacher could make an effort to spend some extra time with him (though of course this may not be possible with a classroom full of kids), or you could have her over for dinner or something.

Another thing that has come up with my daughter: during the times that she says "I don't want to go to school/daycare!", if I probe with questions about why she doesn't want to, it turns out that is has nothing to do with the school but rather that she simply would prefer to stay home with me. I want to and try to respect her need for mama time, but the reality is that some mamas work outside the home and have other commitments. Sounds like you're already making an effort to spend extra time with your son, I'd say keep that up. If I were you I would fully investigate the comment that other kids are mean to him, but w/o specifics you can't know if its true.

I agree with those who encouraged you to listen to your gut re what your son needs and whether the mornings will get easier. One more tip that worked for us: I always promise my daughter that I will say goodbye and give her a kiss before I leave. That way I can hang out a bit if I/she wants w/o her worrying that I'm going to just walk out. And once I say goodbye, then it works best if I leave quickly. Good luck!

It's a hard transition for some kids on figuring out what to do by themselves in a new environment. So many questions would be in their minds: should I go over to the group of girls playing dolls or boys playing transformers? Who's that tall man or woman taking me away from my mommy/daddy?
I've been a teaching and activities assistant for kids ranging from preschoolers-8th graders. I saw a dad who dropped his shy daughter off to morning school. He pretended to leave out of the building, but he stood outside the building with his laptop until snack time. He had permission from my boss beforehand to sneak inside the classroom without his daughter knowing to see how she acts and behaves. It's an idea!

We had the same issues when my daughter was 3 and started preschool. She would cry and cling to me when I dropped her off but then the teacher said she calmed down quickly and enjoyed the rest of the morning. This went on from fall until close to Christmas. She slowly began to transition better in the morning after that but the first year she always wanted me to walk into class with her and then leave and was always a little clingy in the morning. By her second year (with a different teacher and some different kids) she was running into class all on her own and now in K she rides the bus to and from school and has no issues.
I think the change from being at home and going to preschool can be a "huge" transistion for kids and as long as your child is having fun after the initial morning issues I personally would not be too concerned. If he starts having behavioral problems at home and spends the entire time at preschool unhappy then I would be more worried.

Can your husband do the drop-off? My son cries and clings like crazy if I do drop off, but runs into school happy and excited if dad does drop off.

There are several language based preschools and in-home programs that would be the marriage of both your wish for immersion and your instinct that a smaller and gentler program might be better suited to your child's temperament. I understand that you are concerned that catering to the sensitive nature of your child will not provide him with the challenge of overcoming his sensitivity, but I would be concerned that you might be doing the opposite. In order for children to venture past their known comfort zones, they need to feel safe and secure at their base. If your instinct is that your son would be more comfortable and feel more secure in a smaller environment, then that may be the best place for him. Once he has conquered the small group, he may then feel better equipped to move onto the big school. I work with toddlers and goodbyes are hard for a lot of children, being tired and prone to tears in the first few weeks in common too, but fifteen minutes of crying after you leave is a really long time. I would say that kids in the throws of transition anxiety generally max out at five minutes of tears. Most kids forget they are upset the moment their parents are out of sight. As a parent and as a teacher of three year olds, I would urge you not to dismiss your instincts. At the very least, shop around and see if you can find an alternative program for him should things not improve over the next month.

I just pulled my daughter (not quite 3) from preschool this week after a 3 week trial. It was so stressful to go through.. Much to the director's dismay... It was just too much for her and every day I picked her up she was a mess when we got home (weepy, contrary) not her regular self. It was just a gut feeling that she is not ready for that kind of structure and amount of kids. I feel so happy that she is back at her Ukranian "gramma's" house. She is loved and so happy. There are only 5-8 kids thre and 2-3 adults so the ratio is better and the home situation is better for her. Ahhhh..I can sleep again

This is a really interesting thread. I don't know much about immersion schools, especially at such a young age. However, I have a very outgoing but incredibly sensitive 3 year old. I had a part time nanny that he never liked. He just sobbed when she came over. I worked out of the house and knew nothing bad was happening so I just chalked it up to being his own issue, not her...then she quit and I hired a new nanny. OMG - what a difference!!! Quite frankly, he just hated the first nanny and literally loves her replacement. Listen to your child and listen to your gut. If it feels wrong, it is. My son just started preschool for three days out of the week and the transition was tough. Lots of tears when I left. I stumbled across the book "The Kissing Hand" during the third week and it made a world of difference. He completely understood what was happening. He also had time to bond with the two teachers at school. Being the parent of a sensitive child, I personally (not judging) wouldn't put him in an immersion school. Remember what it was like to be the new kid at school when you were actually emotionally equipped to deal with it? It still sucked. I look at it the same way. It's hard enough as it is without throwing in another communication barrier. It sounds like it would work for other children but not mine. I moved here from Chicago and there were preschool age classes called Language Stars that you could enroll in. Great exposure for the young ones without the immersion...Just my two cents. I hope I didn't offend anyone! The one thing I've learned from being a mom is to never doubt what my son is trying to tell me. BTW, the school my son goes to is a progressive montessori and it rocks! Very small, incredible kids (not one bad egg in the bunch) and boy, does he learn a lot. I just love it. Your little one may do just fine in preschool - just not the one you're in. You will get through this...

I have a sensitive 4 year old. I watched him go through the same thing. He went to a good school last year, but it just wasnt the right fit for him. He had good days and he was fine there, but never very happy.
After agonizing a long time about moving him, this year at his new pre-k (Peninsula park, n.portland) there is a wonderful teacher and simple learning environment that he loves. Its amazing to hear him say that he WANTS to go to school now. The teacher is older and experienced(has raised her own children) and just has a way about her that is so straightforward and comforting that it has changed his attitude about school.
I know its hard to switch but if you keep getting that uneasy feeling after you drop him off, listen to your gut.

I agree that it sounds like too much too soon. Not every child is ready at the arbitrary date of September in their third year. I recently moved my son out of a wonderful program because it was just too much for him. The teachers said he was fine while I was gone but from what I saw I realized that he was "coping." I think kids can learn to cope in any environment but it is our job to find one in which they thrive. Listen to your gut and listen to him. They know more that we think.

I agree that it sounds like too much too soon. Not every child is ready at the arbitrary date of September in their third year. I recently moved my son out of a wonderful program because it was just too much for him. The teachers said he was fine while I was gone but from what I saw I realized that he was "coping." I think kids can learn to cope in any environment but it is our job to find one in which they thrive. Listen to your gut and listen to him. They know more than we think.

I have not read all of the previous comments, so excuse me if I repeat something that was already said.

I have a kid who is sensitive to things, being in a large group, loud noises, too much physical touch, etc. I pulled her out of an excellent preschool last year after the first week. It was an agonizing decision because I did not have much support. The school was excellent, had a long wait list, and I really liked it!

However, once I put her in a home based preschool with just 6 kids, she did much better. Her anxiety level was down and she was excited to go to preschool everyday.

It was the best decision for her. She has plenty of time in her life to be socialized.

I run a preschool and have seen kids unhappy at drop off time for one of two reasons:
1) They don't want to be at school. Maybe they aren't developmentally ready, they are afraid of someone or something, they are coming down with a bug, or the school and classmates don't match their temperament,
2) They want to be at home with mom. Sometimes it's because she is at home with another sibling or daddy, or because she is going to be going to a favorite store, or just because she's mom and that's where the kid wants to be. (Or dad...)

I think it's really important to figure out which of these is going on, and then address that problem specifically. If it's the school, coming in to observe is useful, and asking your child to talk about it as much as possible, to find out the reason why it isn't fun. Because preschool is meant to be fun!

If the trouble is parting from mom, the most successful strategy I've seen is carpooling, especially if the parent who drops off has the more eager kid, so that the hesitant child says goodbye at home, and arrives with a friend, ready to play.

Every kid is different so there is no one best answer about whether to continue with your preschool, find a different one, or wait, but you definitely want to know what is really going on before you decide.

I haven't read all the comments, but I have a serious, sensitive boy who struggled terribly with transitions. I am a similar type of person myself. I put him in school because I thought he would need extra time socially to adjust before Kindergarten. My son wouldn't have been able to handle the language immersion thing unless he was already comfortable with the second language at home... he got easily overwhelmed with stimuli (still an issue at 2nd grade) and is an introvert. I put him in montessori because that program had the least amount of transitions (no every 15 minutute switching of gears to new activity as most of his half day was paced by him), the classrooms were quiet and peaceful which suited him, and because the every day of the week schedule would make it less confusising to his little "I love routine" self. That said... he had a terrible time adjusting! He cried for a month. Complaints in the morning till almost Christmas. Then again after Christmas break 2 weeks of crying. Also, I couldn't visit the classroom without it being too hard on him when I left. I was so miserable about it, and unsure what to do. But... I spied on him during the day and he was doing great. He made a best friend, he laughed alot, his teacher was a very kind gentle loving soul. He was always happy when I picked him up, not beat down, or overwhelmed. He went 3 years and just ended up loving it. So your kid might be fine, but will just take longer then the average kid to adjust and be easy to drop off in the am.

I think its great to gently push your child a bit, but also to recognize that temperament is born and unchangeable and to constantly swim against it will make a person miserable. I don't know how that plays into this situation, only you do, but I think its important to think about.

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