You might cringe if your child's teacher tells you that he hit another kid with a block or spit on someone, but take heart. "It's normal for a well-behaved 3- or 4-year-old to act unacceptably—even aggressively—at school," says Rebecca Dingfelder, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Durham, North Carolina. "They are trying to grasp how to get along in a group setting, and it often takes a lot of trial and error to figure that out." In addition, children this age are constantly watching their peers. If they see one child get away with something, they want to try it too. Learn to recognize common preschool misbehaviors and help the teacher nip them in the bud.
1. Acting Out
Preschoolers get frustrated easily, and they still haven't perfected using their words to express their emotions. So they're apt to lash out by throwing things, hitting, kicking, or even biting when they're upset. Your child's teacher probably dealt with the situation immediately and gave her time to cool down. However, many parents make the mistake of going home and punishing their child for what happened at school, says Dr. Dingfelder. "Preschoolers— especially 3-year-olds—don't have a strong long-term memory. If your child hits someone in the morning, she's probably forgotten it by the afternoon, and giving her a consequence will only confuse her." Instead, talk generally about what is acceptable behavior ("Use your words if you're upset") and what is a no-no ("You should never bite anyone"). If you see these behaviors at home, react quickly and consistently. Firmly tell your child, "No, we don't throw things at people," and then put her in time-out in a quiet room.
2. Oral Fixation
Kids lick—or spit at—other children out of curiosity, to be silly, or because they saw another classmate do it. "If the teacher tells you this happened, say to your child in a low-key, matter-of-fact way, 'Spitting is not good manners and it spreads germs,' " suggests Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention (Without Hitting Your Sister). A preschooler who's accustomed to using his mouth to explore his environment may eat dried Play-Doh or glue. But if it happens repeatedly, it may be your kid's way of getting a reaction from his teacher or from other students. Speak to your child's teacher about removing him from class if he tries to put something gross in his mouth, so he doesn't get the attention he craves. Also, in the morning, remind him, "Only food goes in your mouth." If he continues to eat weird stuff, talk with your pediatrician. In rare instances, this can be a sign of a severe iron deficiency or even pica, an eating disorder in which a child develops an appetite for abnormal substances.
3. Getting Physical
Preschoolers often hug and squeeze each other too hard. "Kids are exuberant and love to embrace their friends—but they often don't realize their own strength or that they are making another child uncomfortable," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. Talk to your child about personal space and tell her that it's okay to hug parents and siblings but friends should get a less-touchy greeting. Then come up with an alternate behavior, such as fist-bumping or waving hello. This is another opportunity to teach her about feelings and other people's perspective. Dr. Kennedy-Moore suggests that you explain, "Madeline doesn't like tight squeezes. It makes her uncomfortable. She'd be happier if you greet her with a high five."
4. Being Disrespectful
When it seems like your kid was rude, he probably wasn't intending to be insulting. He was most likely repeating a snarky or inappropriate phrase he picked up from TV—or you. "My husband and I had an inside joke that he'd call me 'Woman' when he wanted something. One day I got a call from my son's teacher that at snacktime he'd told her, 'Woman, get me a napkin!' " says Dr. Dingfelder. She explained to her son how things that are funny at home may not be appropriate at school. If your child does say or do something offensive—such as calling the teacher a name—talk with him about what language is appropriate in the classroom. Then help him write a note of apology, Dr. Kennedy- Moore suggests. "Have your child draw a picture with a note from you saying that he is sorry." As you talk more with your child about his behavior and set clear expectations, he'll be less likely to slip up in school and you'll have fewer of those calls from the teacher.