Helping a 2 ½ year old like preschool

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Hi, I know you have a few answers about this on your web site, but my problem is a little different. My son doesn't mind going to preschool, but after about half an hour he looks for his parents (usually my husband drops him off and we're both very careful to tell him when we leave and say "good-bye"). Then he starts to cry for about half an hour. Eventually he calms down, but about an hour later he starts to cry again. When we come to get him, he is ready to leave immediately (he's sitting there crying, with his backpack on). It's only been a few times, but I'm very worried.

He's 2 1/2 and is in preschool 3 hours, 3 times a week. I thought he was ready, because he was starting to really want to play with other kids at the playground. He's an only child, so I want him to have good

socialization experiences with other kids. He's very verbal and intelligent, so we've tried "explaining" it to him, but it doesn't seem to help.

My husband advocates letting him cry his way through it, but I'd like another solution. We could stay at the school for the a few times to make him feel better, but my husband feels that will just start the separation anxiety process all over.

Are there any ways to explain it to him? Or should we stay until he's comfortable through a whole session or two? Or should we just let him work through it on his own?

Thanks for any help! You will make a worried mother, father, and sad little boy feel better. Becky



Hi Becky,

My name is Mary Hughes, and I am one of the Certified Positive Discipline Associates who answer questions from the Internet. Just a quick bit about my background, so you know I can relate well to your concern. I taught preschool for over 30 years and am a mother of three, and a grandmother of two, aged10 and 9. I also have taught parenting classes since 1968 (even before I had my own kids ... because of my background in Child Development, some young Moms talked me into sharing what I knew about how young children grew and developed physically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally!) I'm happy to share some insight on how children react to being away from their home/parents, and give a few suggestions as to what you might do regarding your son's preschool experience, both from a personal – and professional – point of view.

  1. First of all, I always consider the safety of the children. Is your son in a quality preschool that you researched using quality indicators for early childhood? Do you know what their discipline policy is? Do you like and trust the teachers, and know what their professional qualifications are? Does he feel safe physically and emotionally at the pre-school? Are they doing age-appropriate activities? Is there a balance of indoor-outdoor; active-quiet; child-initiated activities such as blocks, water play, reading corner, music, etc.? Is he bored, or unhappy due to the program itself? In other words, is your son able to choose activities he likes to do there, or are the children always in a large group doing teacher-initiated art projects, etc.? Please check the rating of the preschool with families who have utilized their services, check with your state's Child Care Resource and Referral system ...and check with for more information on quality education for preschoolers if you are not knowledgeable about it.
  2. Let's look now at being away from home/parents/family from your son's young age! It's one thing to have playmates over to your home – and quite another to meet a sea of new faces in a non-familiar place, as well. Much depends on the child's own temperament, and that of the people he interacts with – and also the setting in which he experiences these new people. Some children warm up to new places and faces very easily – others are much slower to catch on to feeling safe in a new place with new people. Most Dads expect their sons to be like their favorite quarterback in a football game – to rush in and take to it all with fervor! Especially if Dad is easy-going, flexible, comfortable with new people, etc. And it is understandable that most Dads expect their boys to be tough – and to tough it out! That's something expected in our American culture for males ... at least until parents understand that temperament has little to do with gender! So, I would invite you to get a copy of the "Positive Discipline for Preschoolers" and check out the interesting information on temperament in Chapter 7. Just these few words here may be enough for both of you to see that your son's temperament may be partly able to explain his reaction to preschool.
  3. Another piece of understanding comes when you look at a child's development at 2 ½ years of age – 2 year-olds have little experience with meeting new people and being in new places ‘alone' to draw upon for confidence-building. Always before, Mommy or Daddy or Grandma, or someone he has securely bonded to has been with him, more than likely. His ‘experience level' as an ‘independent person' is as a novice just now. And these first steps he is taking will help pave the way for how he handles new faces and places in the future; so your concern for how you handle this is warranted, and sensitive, and to be applauded! You want his first experiences to be firm ones – ones that will serve him well throughout his life as a person who is growing and developing.

It is just as important that, as parents, we learn when to let-go AND when to hold on during the first steps our kids take out of our reach! Can you picture back to when your son was first learning to walk? This kind of reminds me of those first steps! You're tempted to guide his every move so he doesn't fall flat on his nose – but you knew that a safe fall on soft ground would do much to bolster his confidence, so you let him falter a bit. Somehow you knew that it was ok for him to fall down and get back up and try again ... and again ... And then, after some practice, he was walking on his own – remember? Well, this first preschool experience is much like those first walking steps away from you! You are right to trust your feelings ... and check them out before you re-act rather than act. Your husband's idea of having him ‘tough it out' could also be the best answer here. 

I want to share a bit about how I personally resolved this dilemma 27 years ago, as well as offer some possibilities for resolution in sharing this with you! When my twins (now 29 years old) turned 3, I couldn't wait to sign them up for their own preschool experience! After all, I already knew how much fun they'd have from the preschool teacher's perspective! Much to my surprise, Eric cried and cried every time I left him the first two weeks at this wonderfully educational place! Wendy, on the other hand, literally ran ahead to get in there first – they were in the same room, so I thought they'd be together and fine! Wendy couldn't wait to get there; and sometimes she even cried when I came to pick them up because SHE didn't want to leave her friends and teachers! 

This preschool only had 3 days a week – either in the a.m. or the p.m.; so I'd signed them up for the morning slots, which fit their energy levels perfectly. After two weeks, I made the decision to continue sending Wendy, but kept Eric home for that year. Had they offered a 2-day a week program, I would have backed Eric up to the 2-days/week, keeping Wendy at 3-days; (perhaps this 2-day a week is an option for you??) as it was, I offered to volunteer frequently in Wendy's group. So Eric got to play occasionally at the preschool; and we made it a point to have some of the neighborhood boys/girls his age come over for play-dates while Wendy was in pre-school. That way, Eric learned some social skills – but, more safely, on "his turf"! 

He really seemed to need that extra time alone with Mom, and by the next year, he was charging into the preschool room just as Wendy had done the year before. Research has shown that boys often mature socially and emotionally a little slower than girls during the preschool years, and because I knew that, I wasn't as leery about ‘holding him back' a year. (I need to share that I strongly disagree with the current trend of holding boys back in preschool rather than sending them on to kindergarten at age 5 so that when they are in high school they will be able to play sports better than the others a year behind them in the same grade. his, to me, shows a lack of confidence in a child's ability, and doesn't take into consideration the whole picture, developmentally.)

If going two days a week is NOT an option, perhaps a play-group where you are there is an option. As a teacher, I always invited parents into my room at any time – so staying with their children for a bit and playing is always welcome in a quality place – I also believe it is important for children to KNOW you will be back. Slipping out unnoticed is not a good option – saying, "Good-bye, honey – have a fun time playing. I'll be back at 11:30 to pick you up and we can talk about what you did at school then." The teacher should also be working with your son – helping him to know what time you will be back, making a picture time-line of the activities of the day, and helping him see that ‘after outside-time Mommy will be here to pick you up.' The teacher could also have your son create a picture for you. Maybe one that shows you something he enjoyed doing while at school. Maybe he'd like to tell the teacher some words to write on the picture to you – or create a little "good-bye-hello journal" where he writes how feels (actually the teacher writes while he dictates to her!) – sad that Mom isn't here; happy to play trucks with Mark, my new friend; happy about the snack; and etc. There's also a great Hap Palmer CD called "Baby Songs" and one is called, "My Mommy Comes Back to Get me..."

So, in closing, I think there are lots of options – and taking a problem-solving approach to this challenge will help prepare you all for the many coming challenges of growing up. A compromise between you and your husband's ‘either-or' suggestions can be found, and I know you will make a wise decision. It is a difficult job to be a parent today, and I want to encourage you to continue parenting in your loving, caring way, and enjoying the many exciting challenges to come in each stage of your son's life.

With encouragement for your journey,

Mary Hughes

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