Question: Our 3-year-old just started preschool this week. His teachers tell us that he’s doing great, and he really seems to like it. But when he’s home with us, it’s a nuclear meltdown a couple times a day! Clearly this is a really hard transition for him. I don’t want to indulge his tantrums, but I also want to be sensitive and emotionally supportive. What can we do?
Answer: Starting preschool is a very exciting and important milestone for any 3-year-old. It is very common for the first few weeks of school to be a tumultuous time at home.
There are many new things that take getting used to. Teachers are friendly and welcoming, but they are not usually familiar adults who your child is totally comfortable with at the beginning. The classroom has many new things to explore and play with, and it can be a bit overwhelming at first to understand all of the options that are available. Being with other children of a similar age is fun, but it is also very challenging to learn how to share, wait, listen and take turns. And the preschool schedule also takes time to adjust to.
These are all very good reasons why your child might be exhausted when he comes home and why it’s harder for him to manage his emotions without a meltdown. Home is the safe zone, where he can be himself and “let it all hang out,” so to speak, after a hard day of school, rules and routines. He seems to be managing quite well at school, but when he gets home, he needs time to regroup, relax and re-establish control.
I am sure it is frustrating to see him melting down with you, but the good news is that it proves that he is truly comfortable with you and knows that he doesn’t need to try too hard to be sure that you will accept and love him. Usually this adjustment period lasts only a few weeks, but in the meantime, here are some suggestions to make the transition a little easier for both him and you.
1. Simplify life for a little while. Try to allow for down time after your child comes home from school. Keep his routine as consistent as possible. A nap would be great, but if he can’t sleep, at least give him some quiet time in the afternoon to rest and be alone. Don’t schedule many after-school activities, and even keep the weekends less scheduled until you see that his behavior is back to normal.
2. Make sure that his eating and sleeping routines are consistent. Some children don’t eat much at school and come home really famished, which makes them very cranky. A healthy snack in the car can give him the little bit of sustenance he needs to focus on sitting down for lunch or dinner when you get home. Also make sure that he is getting a good night’s sleep and that there is enough time to get ready in the morning so you are not too rushed getting out of the house. If you need to wake your child up to get to school on time, try pushing his bedtime back until he wakes on his own in time to get to school.
3. When you first get home from school, give him 30 minutes or so to acclimate to being home before asking him to do anything like eat or take a nap. A bit of time to just be home and play with familiar toys can really help to settle him down. He also might need to connect with you. Perhaps you can read a book or play a favorite game together. If you make the time to connect to your child first when he comes home from school, he won’t feel the need to act out as much to get your attention. Remember, he has needed to share the attention of the teacher with many children at school, and he needs to feel the focus of your attention for a little while to make him feel really secure again.
4. When he does have a tantrum, set the same limits you would even if he weren’t going through this transition, but try to be a bit more patient and understanding. If he needs to cry for a bit longer than usual, sit with him and let him know it is okay to be upset and that he will feel better soon. Sometimes children just need to cry to let some stress and emotions out that they can’t express any other way. Don’t give in to him to make him feel better, but give him a little more time to recover from the disappointment and stay connected with him as long as he is not taking his upset out on you by hitting you.
5. Lastly, look for opportunities to let your child feel in control at home. At school, he mostly has to follow rules and do what others tell him to do. At home, give him the chance to make some choices and to help you with little things that will help him feel as though he has control over his life: What would he like to wear? Where should we all sit at the table? What color cup would he like to drink from? Whom would he like to put him to bed? These small decisions will make it easier for him to take direction in other settings.
As your child gets more comfortable at school, it is likely that his behavior will settle at home. His emotions and energy level will return to normal, and then you can think about after-school playdates and other activities again.
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Stephanie Agnew, BA, is the Parent Education Coordinator at Parents Place in San Mateo. A graduate of Stanford University, she was a preschool teacher for more than 20 years. Email her at StephanieA@jfcs.org.