Getting Through a Terrible Preschool Year


Nathaniel’s last year in preschool was horrible. There’s no other way to say it. He’s in kindergarten now, and I had anxiety over the summer–would this be a horrible year, too? At the same time, I knew worrying wouldn’t help, and that “worry is using your imagination to create things you don’t want,” one of my favorite wise things Ashisha (Mothering’s editor-at-large and resident sage) told me.

He loves kindergarten, and seems to have a new peace about not only school, but his place in the world. It wasn’t good for him to be one of the oldest kids in preschool. He was bored silly, and boredom generates a very naughty Nathaniel. He was consistently freaked out by random physical lashings-out by younger children who bit, hit and kicked. “He doesn’t hurt the kids back, but he breaks things in the classroom later,” I was told. I had a really hard time having a dialogue with the teacher, who didn’t have a phone at home and also did not use email.

He missed his aftercare teacher from the previous year, an angelic young woman who spent the whole aftercare period on a comfy couch with him, reading him stories, stroking his back, and giving him lavender foot rubs. I bet you twenty bucks that when he falls in love with a woman (if he falls in love with a woman) some day, she will resemble the lovely Kelsey.

One day in preschool, Nathaniel ran away from school with a pal and was found a few blocks away, throwing empty glass bottles into the street. I mean, nightmare! That scene could be made into a cartoon about what future juvenile delinquents look like.

Nathaniel stopped breaking things, but he started fighting back. At home, he talked a lot about being kicked, punched, and pushed. There didn’t seem to be a sense of cutting down on that. As if they were puppies, or bear cubs wrestling. Except that I could tell that he felt traumatized by it, and couldn’t relax and enjoy his day. I cried a lot. I cried because I felt for him, and I wished for him that he could avoid conflicts when possible.

Perhaps selfishly, but very humanly, I also cried because it seemed like my child was being seen as “the bad kid” and that made me feel like I had failed him. I cried because I felt like I couldn’t get through to the teacher, and that my concerns were being dismissed and that I was being punished by bringing things to her attention, because that was the only time she would give me a litany of what he had done. And she didn’t tell me beforehand, even though I had asked to know what was going on.

I went to the principal/the head of the school. I felt heard by her, and we even discussed moving him up into kindergarten for the last three months. But…it would rob him of a sense of closure, and not give him the chance to feel like part of an entering class. It might be too stressful and set him up for another uncomfortable school experience.

His dad and I started picking him up every day at 1pm. It seemed to help a lot, because he got more one-on-one time with us AND he missed out on the afternoon vibe, which seemed to get progressively wilder as the day went on. We gave him extra cuddles, and made his bedtime a stricter 7:30pm, so that he was well-rested. I also bought an amazing story book, Healing Stories for Challenging Behavior, by Susan Perrow. I read him stories each night that were captivating and delightful, and also addressed his challenges (bullying, grieving, feeling victimized, being uncooperative and destructive).

I also talked to his big sister about going easier on him right now, because he was having a tough time. Unchecked, she will do all of the classic one-upmanship older sibling stuff, but that was just adding to his load. We needed to support him, build up his confidence, and reinforce positive traits. I was very pleased that she “got it” and changed the way she spoke to him.

To help them both understand, I made up a thing called “friendship bricks” and “friendship smacks.” If you say, “I made this picture,” and someone responds, “I can make a better one,” or “I don’t really like it,” that’s a friendship smack. It undermines a relationship. If you say, “Good job!” or “It’s beautiful!” or even, “Tell me what’s happening in this picture,” that’s a friendship brick. It’s a brick in the wall of a friendship. I reminded them both of this whenever I heard friendship smacks going on in the back seat of the car or at home.

I thought about changing schools, but I also had a strong, deep intuition that he would be okay once he got to kindergarten. It’s a different environment, with different expectations, lots more to be engaged with, and older kids. I feel very committed to our kids’ school overall, and wanted him, in the coming years, to experience what his sister had. We just had to make it through three months. And things did improve, a lot.

We met with his kindergarten teacher yesterday for a routine conference. I had a tight feeling in my stomach. Would it be another upsetting meeting? It was not. His kindergarten teacher told us wonderful things. He’s busy, loves to build elaborate forts, with other kids and on his own; he can be set down next to any child in the class and he has a great time talking/playing with him or her; he is beginning to “sparkle” and his eyes are gleaming with a sense of mastery and enjoyment. He enjoys playing with kids a little younger than him and a little older than him. He’s having fun and he is thriving.

Last week, he told me, “Daddy gave me the striped lunch bag because he couldn’t find my cars lunch bag, and that made me upset, because I had that lunch bag in preschool and that’s when the younger kids were hurting me. I don’t want to see that lunch bag ever again. It makes me upset.”

I became suffused with a flash of bittersweet emotion. I felt proud that he was so lucid about his feelings and associations. I felt sad about the terrible year. “Sweetheart, if you want, I will throw that lunch bag in the garbage as soon as we get home.”

“No, Mommy, don’t do that. Just put it in the garage. I don’t want to use it, but I don’t want you to throw it out, either.”

And so I did. It sits on a shelf next to the extra coffee maker and the leftover paint. For some reason he wants to keep it around, but out of sight. Maybe he gets on some level that this experience was like a ring of a tree, showing growth and also, closure.

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on Wednesday, November 4th, 2009 at 11:45 am and is filed under mama on the spot, mama sadhana, review on the run.
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7 thoughts on “Getting Through a Terrible Preschool Year”

  1. What a beautiful essay. I loved it. “Friendship smacks and bricks” are some of the most innovative and brilliant parenting tools I’ve ever heard of. We don’t have a sibling to deal with, but I could share that with J’s teacher if he ever has problems with particular friendships.

    We also had a horrible first school experience– booted from nursery school for bad behavior, which turned out to be sensory issues (he hit hardest, but he also hugged hardest which no one seemed to put together). It took me a long time to build my self-confidence back as a parent– and J’s for all the “no-ing” he got during that first year and a half. Thanks for sharing Nathaniel’s story.

  2. Thank you for sharing this very personal journey as a mother — the “friendship bricks” is a tool I will start using with my 3 year old, who challenges me daily.

    I plan to find Perrow’s book, and add it to my resources. You touch upon that mothering guilt — feeling like a failure when your own child who is loved and is compassionate soul, acts out because an environment is making them uncomfortable and then is perceived as “that” kid. I have been baffled by our experiences so far with teachers and instructors who quickly praise the quiet/timid child while growing exasperated with my inquisitive/curious and certainly not quiet little girl.

    Keep sharing these stories, Candace!

  3. Thanks for sharing. being a parent to me is alot about staying connected through the challenging times with a sense of empathy for the child’s situation. We are all growing through the process. Sounds like Nathaniel (the name I would have chosen for my daughter had she been a boy–remember the witch of Blackbird Pond story?) is on his journey with some pretty cool parents/support people.

  4. I feel certain he’s going to have a better year. It is very unusual in that class, with that amazing teacher, for the kids to bite, hit, or generally create chaos. I trust her completely (and feel that way about so few teachers).

    It might be the hardest thing, ever, to see your child be unhappy in school and feel powerless about changing it. I went through that at the beginning of this year, desperately trying to get Max into another school. Luckily it has all turned out well and he’s settled in nicely.

  5. I agree, Jennifer. She is an extraordinary teacher and she manifests such peacefulness.

    I’m really glad to hear that Max has settled in nicely. I know the feeling you described–and it is so intense!

  6. Good! Thank you! I always wanted to write in my site something like that. Can I take part of your post to my blog?

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