If your preschooler got a report card, she'd likely be a straight-A student. Her teacher says she's helpful, attentive, and kind to her buddies. But around you, she turns into someone the school wouldn't recognize: cranky, argumentative, and needy. How can your child be so sweet during class and so sour the minute she gets home?
The short answer: The group dynamic of school encourages young kids to fall in line with their peers and try to please their teachers. They can only maintain this model behavior for a few hours, though. "Kids need to let loose when they leave the classroom," says Jennifer Zebooker, a teacher at the 92nd Street Y Nursery School, in New York City. "It's natural for them to push the boundaries with Mommy."
At-Home Headache: Your child shared beautifully during preschool, but now he refuses to give his little sister a turn with his trains.
Teacher Tip: Instead of telling a 3-year-old that he must share, ask if he'll take turns. "Say, 'I see you don't want your sister to touch your trains right now, but will you let her play with them when you're done?'" suggests Johanna Booth-Miner, a director at Live & Learn Early Learning Center, in Lee, New Hampshire. This approach gives your child a sense of control: He gets a chance to use the toy for a while, and he'll (you hope) feel better about handing it over when he's ready. If he still says "No," try giving him a time limit: "Wow, I see you're really having fun with that train. You can play with it for five more minutes, and then your sister gets to use it." Be sure to give him a one-minute warning before his time is up.
At-Home Headache: She learned to go to the bathroom and wash her hands by herself at school, but she always seems to ask for help when you're around.
Teacher Tip: Bring out your child's independent side by mimicking the kid-friendly environment of her preschool, advises Karen Klein, coordinator of the Reibman Children's Center at Northampton Community College, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Keep a child's-eye view in mind throughout the house: Set up a stool by the bathroom sink so your child can wash her hands on her own. While you're at it, install a coat hook that's low enough for her to reach. And keep water-filled sippy cups on a low shelf so she can help herself. Be sure to praise her when she finishes the task: The more enthused you are about her independent behavior, the more psyched she'll be to act like a big girl in the future.
At-Home Headache: She always sat quietly through storytime at school, but she suddenly gets fidgety whenever you try to read her a book.
Teacher Tip: In class, your child has circle time at the same hour each day, so she's comfortable with the routine. Establish a similar regimen at home by starting with a snack, then making a craft or doing a puzzle together, and finally reading a book. Take a cue from teachers: "End an activity before your child loses interest, so he doesn't get bored," says Cecile Thorne, a teacher at Marie Reed School, in Washington, D.C. Don't worry if she can't sit still for an entire Curious George book. It doesn't mean she has an attention problem. Try reading half of it now and the other half at bedtime.
At-Home Headache: When the teacher asked your child to do something, she hopped to it. But when you make a similar request, she ignores you.
Teacher Tip: Look for ways to give your preschooler choices. At cleanup time, teachers let kids decide how they'd like to get the job done ("Would you rather pretend we're jumping frogs or galloping horses as we put things away?"). Giving your child options will make her feel empowered and encourage her to cooperate, says Zebooker. At naptime, see whether she'd rather skip to her room or take a piggyback ride, so she feels she has some say in the matter. Try a similar strategy when she's reluctant to leave a playdate: Ask if she wants to give her friend a goodbye hug or a "thanks for having me" high five.
At-Home Headache: Your child made the transition from free play to work time with no problem during class, but he has a tantrum whenever you need to leave the park or end a playdate.
Teacher Tip: "Kids this age find quick changes difficult to deal with," says Sharon Wolfson, director and teacher at the Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim Early Childhood Center, in Silver Spring, Maryland. "It helps if you get them prepared for the next activity." For instance, you might say something like, "You have time to color in one more picture before lunch." This will give her time to adjust to the idea. Ease into new activities by talking about what's going to happen next and giving your child something fun to look forward to ("After this we're going to play games at home and then make dinner. Would you like to help me cook?"). Always commend her when she switches gears smoothly.
At-Home Headache: She waited patiently for recess and snacktime at school but makes a scene if she doesn't get what she wants from you -- right now!
Teacher Tip: "Kids this age can't grasp the concept of time," says Elaine Francisco, a teacher at the Franklin D. Roosevelt School in Daly City, California. Instead of telling a 3-year-old that class will be over in half an hour, a teacher might use a diagram that shows where the clock's hands will be when Mommy comes to pick her up. Use cues at home too. Explain time in segments your child can easily comprehend ("Daddy will be ready to take you to the park very soon -- in the time it takes to watch Dora the Explorer").
Originally published in the July issue of Parents magazine.