Preschool teachers are often fabulous at nurturing independence, cooperation, patience, and self-control in young kids. Why? They've developed an arsenal of tactics for dealing with kids of every possible personality. And they don't get bogged down by mommy guilt. Here are their classroom-tested tips for solving common behavior issues like getting little kids to share, listen, clean up, and more.
"My son has a tantrum whenever one of his friends starts to play with his toys."
- Let him hide his favorites. Meltdowns happen when a child feels he has no control over a situation. Before a get-together, let him choose a few toys to stash away. "That gives him a say in the matter and makes him more inclined to share his other things willingly," says Terese Parker, a teacher at the Kirkwood United Methodist Preschool, in Kirkwood, Missouri.
- Lead by example. When two children in her class fight over a toy, Deborah Field, a teacher at the Temple Beth El Preschool, in Swampscott, Massachusetts, tells them, "Actually, that's mine, and I'm letting you have a turn because it makes me happy." She suggests buying a small truck that you designate as "Mommy's toy." Then, if your child won't let a buddy use his things, offer the friend "your" toy -- and say how nice it is to watch him play with it.
- Create a sharing story. Staple several pieces of construction paper together, and make a picture book. On the first page, show your child refusing to share and his friend frowning. Then show him pondering the options, such as offering a different toy or taking turns. The final entry should be a picture of the children playing together nicely. "Read it every day," Parker suggests. "It will give him cues about how to behave, and soon he'll make the correct choices himself."
Why Preschool Matters
"My daughter gets distracted and seems to have no attention span for books."
- Timing is everything. "Don't try reading right after school, when your child needs time to wind down," says Kelly Pfau, a teacher at the Protestant Preschool, in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Instead, crack open a book when she's in a calm mood, such as after a nap or before bed.
- Make it interesting. "Children become excited when you bring a story to life for them," says Ellen Marks, director of the Beth El Preschool and Kindergarten, in Baltimore. Try making paper-bag puppets and acting out the story, or use different voices for each character.
- Choose the right titles. Make sure the books aren't too old or too young for your child. Look for ones with fun illustrations, bright colors, and interesting story lines.
"My son wants everything 'now' and has no patience."
- Distract him. For a younger preschooler, use his short attention span to your advantage. "To a 2-year-old, something can seem incredibly urgent, but once you divert your child with a favorite song, toy, or snack, he may forget all about it," Pfau says.
- Help him understand time. You can't make a 3- or 4-year-old forget what he wants so easily. At the same time, he's not ready to grasp concepts like "We'll go to your friend's house in two hours." Instead, break down time into units he can relate to, such as how long you usually spend at the playground. "If it's a matter of days or weeks," says Pfau, "cross off each day on a calendar together so he can physically see how long it takes."
- Make him deal with delays. It's important for your child to learn he can't get everything the moment he asks for it. Constant reinforcement of this message ("I'm sorry, honey, but you'll just have to wait until tomorrow for your presents") will help him start to accept this. And when the much-anticipated moment finally arrives, be sure to praise your child by saying, "Wow, you did such a wonderful job of being patient."
"My daughter always clings to me at parties and playgroups."
- Be the early bird. "We ask parents of a child who is particularly shy to arrive a little earlier than the other kids," says Field. "That way she can get comfortable and perhaps even connect with another child before the classroom fills up." The same strategy should work just as well for your child's social events.
- Ease her into things. If your child refuses to let go of your leg in a social setting, slowly walk her toward a building-block set, a playground sandbox, or something else she enjoys. Then pick up a block or a toy shovel yourself. "When she watches you getting involved, she'll probably want to join in," says Kimberly Patterson, a teacher at the Cornerstone Center for Early Learning, in St. Louis. Once she does, you can step back slowly.
- Don't push it. Be respectful of your child's reserved personality. Forcing her to jump in when she's uncomfortable may cause her to retreat further. "Accept that she may be just as excited to observe what other kids are doing as she would be to take part," Marks says.
"My son wont put his toys away when I ask."
- Create a kid-friendly environment. The child-size chairs, shelves, and coatracks at preschools make kids feel more confident about doing things for themselves, says Suzette Burdett, codirector of the Village Preschool Center, in New York City. At home, move your child's everyday clothes to the lower dresser drawers, and put coat hooks within easy reach. Also make jackets easier to hang by sewing a large fabric ring to the inside.
- Get smart about storage. Purchase inexpensive containers, and have him draw pictures of the specific items (such as books, stuffed animals, and puzzles) that go in each. Use these as labels.
- Whistle while you work. Turn cleanup chores into a fun activity by singing songs with your child as he puts his things away.
- Give him an incentive. Make a colorful chart listing tasks for your child to complete each day. As soon as he finishes an assignment, give him a sticker and show him where to put it. Then he'll be more willing to move on to the next chore.
"My daughter can't handle transitions."
- Give warnings. Since it's difficult for preschoolers to switch gears, Field uses a countdown clock as a visual aid. You and your child can make one at home with a paper plate and some markers. "I move the hand one number every minute, and when it hits zero, I say, 'Blast off—it's snacktime,' " she says.
- Have a competition. Kids love winning races, so challenge yours to hustle from one activity to the next as quickly as possible. "Try saying, 'Let's see if you can put all your cars away and come to dinner before I count to 20,' " Patterson says.
- Do the locomotion. If your child is reluctant to turn off the TV and get into the tub, make the journey itself a diversion by having her crawl like a snake or hop like a frog to the bathroom. Introduce new movements every time, such as stomping like an elephant, waddling like a duck, tapping on the walls, or pretending to hold a jackhammer as she walks.
9 Teacher Techniques to Try at Home
Your child's teacher runs a classroom full of kids every day. Feel free to use her expert ideas and strategies at home.
- Chore is fun: Preschool teachers are great at finding age-appropriate tasks for kids. If your 3-year-old daughter is in charge of napkins at school, make her home job placing a napkin at each plate at dinner and then throwing them away after you eat.
- Bin there, done that: In the classroom, most things that the children need are within their reach and very organized. Toys are at a child's level, separated into different categories, and labeled with both a picture and a name. If you set up your child's bedroom or playroom the same way, it'll keep everything neat and also give her the freedom to choose what she wants to play with without asking Mom or Dad for help.
- Art smarts: Limiting choices helps your child make decisions. If you let him choose from three paint colors instead of putting out all 10, you'll have less mess and your kid won't be overwhelmed by too many options.
- Visual cues: Use a large calendar or schedule with fun pictures to reinforce what day it is and what the family has planned.
- House rules: Many teachers talk about classroom commandments with the children and then post them in the classroom. Create a list for your house, hang it in a prominent spot, and refer to it when issues arise.
- Quiet, please:Have a signal to get kids to quiet down and pay attention. Find out how it's done in your child's classroom, or try one of the following techniques.
- The Classic: Teach your child that when you put your finger to your lips he should do the same. Sssh together.
- The Discreet: Use your two fingers to point to your eyes to let your child know you want her to look at you.
- The Fun: SOS! SOS! Before you had kids it might have meant "emergency," but now it means "Sound of Silence!"
Try to minimize any other changes going on in your child's life during the weeks leading up to school. If she's moving from a crib to a bed, giving up naps, or changing caregivers around the same time as she starts preschool, the experience could be more overwhelming than it has to be.
- Lolita Carrico, mom of Jaden, 5, and Jack, 3, and founder of ModernMom.com.
- Ellen Birnbaum, associate director, and Nancy Schulman, director of the 92nd Street Y Nursery School, in New York City.
- Walter Goldberg, 6-year-old Brooklyn schoolkid.
- Marie E. Jones, lead preschool teacher at the American River College Child Development Center, in Sacramento, California.
- Karen Reivich, PhD, psychologist, coauthor of The Resilience Factor, and mom of four.
Copyright © 2008 Meredith Corporation. Originally published in the November 2004 issue of Parents magazine, and the September 2007 issue of Parents magazine.