Q:My 5-year-old son is generally well behaved at preschool. He is bright, and the teacher is always praising his work. Occasionally she also lets us know when there is a problem in class. For example, he has a hard time transitioning from play time to learning time. When I ask him about this, he says learning is boring. After his teacher informed me of the issue, I brought it up to him before bed. He became upset, stating repeatedly he did not want to talk about it. I told him he wasn't in trouble but did need to try to follow his teacher's instructions. He got angry and starting yelling, "I hate you!" I tried to take this in stride, letting him know that I could tell he was upset, but acknowledging feelings has never worked well for him. He quickly morphed into sadness, crying, "You don't even want me!" I held him while he cried and repeatedly told him that was not true. I let him know that of course I love him and Daddy loves him and we want him, and once he was calm I left the room, and he went to sleep. It seems to me he is quite sensitive and takes criticism deeply to heart. He will be starting kindergarten next year, and I am afraid these types of scenarios will only become more frequent. How do I support my son while also addressing these issues?
A: In my coaching work, I run into this scenario often. One would think that after years of seeing this, I would feel more patient with it, yet I struggle. There are layers of useless information, miscommunication and lack of understanding of childhood development in scenarios such as this. I am not blaming you or the teacher for this. Everyone is doing their best, and everyone believes they are doing right by the child. But it's not working (obviously).
First, if I could climb to the top of a mountain and scream this, I would: An average 5-year-old boy does not constantly "transition well," especially when it comes to moving from play time to learning time. Let me be clear: Play is learning for a 5-year-old. Other than gaming on a device, almost every form of play is how a preschooler learns. Play-based preschools are working from this theory and purposely set up scenarios in which the children are learning about letters, numbers, science and language in playful situations. In fact, the data is becoming increasingly clear that young children suffer when they are pushed into academia too early.
That said, there are children who are legitimately distracted and need more help, but I am not convinced this is your son. Does he always have a problem transitioning or is this an occasional issue? Either way, his distractibility is not misbehavior. He may have an attention issue or he may have an executive-functioning problem, but it is more likely that he is simply 5. He is so bright that he clearly tells you he doesn't like learning; it is boring. He is right! It is not developmentally appropriate for him to sit and do mundane tasks.
Our next problem is that you take this "misbehavior" and try to, hours later, correct it. A 5-year-old doesn't live in the past, often doesn't remember the context of what happened, and hence only feels the shame of displeasing his teacher and mother.
Moreover, you don't fully understand what happened at school. Do you know every detail of why your son was distracted and bored? There are so many extenuating circumstances that it is ludicrous to expect a 5-year-old to tell you: "You are right. Even though I am bored out of my skull and the work sheets are dumb, I should proceed from the playground to my desk like a robot."
A 5-year-old is an emotional creature, not a rational one. Your son is so sensitive that if he senses he is letting you down, this is too much for him to bear. But when he expressed that he didn't want to talk about it, you pushed him further into shame by requesting that he listen to his teacher. I am guessing, though I could be wrong, that what is happening is the teacher already corrected him in class (maybe shaming him), and you are delivering a secondary shaming, made even worse by talking about it at bedtime, when he is ready to rest. Your son, trying to tell you he didn't want to talk about it, dissolves into anger and tears. The "I hate you" and "you don't even want me" statements from him are the signs he cannot cope with the shame he is feeling, and you need to stop pushing.
Before everyone jumps down my throat for being too hard on you, let me give you praise: You didn't punish him, yell at him in front of his teacher or lecture him. That is good work from you. Plenty of parents think punishing a 5-year-old six hours after the fact will teach the child something. It won't. He will learn only that you are disappointed in him. Also, you stayed with your son and tried to understand his emotions while also allowing him to cry, and you didn't shame him for his statements. This is a deeply empathetic move, and you should feel proud of how you reacted.
So, how do you move forward?
1. Stop talking to your son about his school behavior. It just provokes shame. Instead, ask curious questions such as, "How does your class go from the playground to the room?" But do not try to correct his behavior hours after it has occurred. Moving backward is not useful.
2. Ask the teacher to put her worries into writing to give context, frequency and duration. Ask how your son compares with the other students and how easily he is redirected. You need information, and this will clarify the situation. Maybe your son is all over the place, or maybe the teacher doesn't understand the average mind of a 5-year-old.
3. Look into a class, book or group that teaches you about the development of a preschooler. I always suggest "Rest, Play, Grow" by Deborah MacNamara. So often we use rational brains to help an emotional child, and we miss the mark. If your child is actually struggling with attention, it is important to know what a child needs to mature.
4. Although this may seem insignificant, do not address difficult things with a sensitive child at bedtime. This is a time, for all humans, when we are winding down and want to feel physically and emotionally safe. If your son perceives that you are ashamed or disappointed in him, this hinders that feeling of safety and comfort. For a 5-year-old, the nighttime routine should be cuddly, full of books and smiles. His little brain has given all it could for the day; don't ask for more.
I am confident you can put a stop to these kinds of interactions. Remember, 5-year-olds are playful and inquisitive humans. Don't treat him as if he ought to be a robot. Good luck.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.