The preschool session started with big hopes. You found a nice place, snagged a spot, signed all the paperwork. Maybe your child got a first little backpack or new shoes. And then you hear:
“He’s having trouble controlling himself.”
“Kicking and biting aren’t acceptable. ”
“Too much disruptive behavior.”
“Has trouble following rules.”
“We’re sorry, but this doesn’t seem to be the right place for your child.”
And just like that, out? Expelled at the tender age of 2, or 3, or 4?
Yale researchers have found that preschoolers are kicked out at three times the rate of school-age kids. “This is a big problem now that happens way too often,” says Stephanie Agnew, parent education coordinator at Parents Place in San Mateo, California. It happens more often to 4-year-olds than 2’s and 3’s, other experts add. Most are boys.
Wait, what’s going on here? Basically, schools have grown less tolerant, Agnew says. Insufficient teacher training or staffing is a large factor, early education experts say—often, schools are ill-equipped to prevent issues from becoming problems. Add to the mix more academic pressures at ever-younger ages, less free play, more home stressors, and undiagnosed ADHD, autism, or learning disorders.
Sweet kids are often just caught in a bad fit, Agnew says, in a program that doesn’t support them to grow or meet their developmental needs. One scenario she sees a lot: “Parents feel that preschool is a time for kids to learn to sit still, recite, and follow instructions—but that’s just not true. All these rigid programs do is create kids who don’t like school and act out to get the attention they’re craving. They develop behavioral problems and are made to feel bad about themselves.
“If you’re 3 and feel like you’re a bad kid or a troublemaker,” Agnew adds, “God help you. So much in life is self concept and believing in yourself.”
Building kids up, rather than knocking them down, is why U.S. Department of Education guidelines urge that expulsions and suspensions in early childhood settings be “prevented, severely limited, and eventually eliminated.”
Little consolation if it’s happening to you, though. You may be tempted to embark on a mad dash to get your so-called troublemaker into a replacement program somewhere. But Agnew and others recommend starting with this process:
Step 1: See for yourself what’s going on.
Problems seldom happen out of the blue, with just one strike knocking a kid out of preschool. Ideally, a teacher should be communicating with you about any behavior(s) before there’s an issue. Visiting the classroom gives you a chance to see your child in action and bring your own insights to the conversation.
What helps: Bring along an objective professional to observe, Agnew suggests—someone who may be able to help you understand what’s happening in the classroom. He or she might see certain triggers to incidents (during activities when your child feels left out, for example) or whether the teacher redirects your child before certain behaviors become too physical or just waits for your child to get into trouble and then steps in to punish him.
Step 2: Ask the school’s advice on how to work through the real issue at hand.
A good preschool cares about kids. They don’t just want your child “out;” they want him or her to be able to succeed. If you switch to a new school without understanding and addressing the underlying issues, they’ll never get resolved and show up again and again. “The more a child gets kicked out of schools, the worse it is for him or her,” Agnew says.
Identifying the issues isn’t about finger pointing. Focus on next-steps, not blame. Sometimes the changes that stem from these conversations can help a child remain at the school and do better.
What helps: Ask the teacher for guidance on how to work with you and your child. If you’ve used an outside expert, he or she should weigh in, too. Would it help your child feel more comfortable if you were in the classroom more? Would a shorter day work better, or fewer days per week? Are their skills that you can work on at home, such as patience or self-calming, and can the school suggest ways to do this? Are any outside evaluations recommended?
Step 3: Pause for a reality check.
It’s easy to feel defensive when your child is being described in less-than-glowing terms. If you’re resisting what you’re hearing, do two things: First, trust your parent instincts, which tend to be pretty powerful. But at the same time, don’t entirely close your mind and your ears to what’s being said.
It’s possible that your child behaves this way in only the school setting and never at home. Okay, what is it and what can be done about it?
It’s possible that your child has an attention or developmental issue even if you don’t think so. Okay, have you had the evaluations that can help clarify that?
What helps: Make sure the teachers feel supported and that everyone has the same goal: keeping your child’s happiness at the forefront. Be honest with yourself about what the issues are, so you can more successfully find a better fit.
Step 4: Now you can evaluate the options.
If day-to-day approaches aren’t working, it’s worth throwing these ideas into the mix:
Consider less school. “Some kids can’t handle such long hours in preschool or group childcare,” Agnew says. “A part-time nanny can be a good solution and very helpful to a full-time working family in other ways, as well.”
Consider being more present at school. Although this isn’t feasible for every parent, and may not address the problem for every child, it’s worth throwing into the mix in some cases.
Explore programs that might offer a better fit. Remember there’s a huge range of preschool styles. Many (some would argue most) active preschoolers just don’t belong in an environment that involves a lot of sitting still and pre-math or pre-reading drills. They need more time outdoors, where they can be physically active. Ideally, preschool should be the time to focus on social-emotional skills: taking turns, cooperating, listening, compassion, being a friend.
Think about class size, too. Large groups can be over stimulating and disorienting to some children. The Foundation for Child Development recommends no more than 10 kids—preferably fewer—per teacher.
Whatever you do, Agnew says, don’t lie about your child’s history. “When you find a school with space for your child, be up front about the challenges he or she faced in the previous school to make sure the new school understands and is willing try their best to meet your child’s needs.”
Also, think about whether preschool is necessary at all if your child is under age 4—at least right now. Although there are social benefits to attending preschool, your child might do better with an attentive nanny or babysitter for a while longer.
As hard as it is, hearing that your child is being shown the preschool door isn’t the end of the world. More likely, it’s a chance to make some adjustments that will put your preschooler on a path that keeps him or her excited and happy to take that backpack and new shoes into the classroom every day. “No school is great for every child,” Agnew says. “Your job as a parent is to find the one that’s great for YOUR child!”