Parenting Tips: What Should We Do If My Kindergartener Hates School?

This year, one of our sons is starting kindergarten. Being a second-born, he was "raring to go" to school; he talked about it incessantly over the last few months. When asked if he likes school, he replies, "I don't LIKE school. I LOVE it!" But the J-Man already knew his teacher before school started; she was his older sister's teacher two years ago. J-Man also had been going along for school pickups and drop-offs for the past couple of years; he'd had the chance to slowly get used to the school environment. It helped a lot. But his older sister was more tentative, when she started school. She had to learn the routine from scratch, and didn't have an older sibling on campus to help make her feel more at home. It took her quite awhile to get into the swing of things. For awhile, we fretted that perhaps we had chosen the wrong school, or she wasn't in the right classroom, despite the fact that her teacher was a gem.

I've gotten several emails lately from parents in a similar situation. "My child just started kindergarten. She acted like she was excited to go, but now that school has started, it's a real battle. Although she attended preschool with few problems, she's now clingy, whiny and tearful every morning. Her teacher says she does well after I leave, and when I pick her up, she's fine. But the next morning, all I get is crying, whining, and begging to stay home. What should I do?"

Of course it tugs at our heartstrings when our little "Big Kid" wants to stay home with us just a while longer. Their tears are surprising. We doubt ourselves, and argue over whether we made the right choice. "Maybe she's just not ready yet," we wonder.

But by and large, the protests put up for parents at the beginning of kindergarten are temporary, normal, and not cause for undue concern. We can help our kids get through the transition more easily if we remember where they are developmentally, and have reasonable expectations.

It's important to understand the developmental issues of a kindergartener. A 5 or 6-year-old still has, in many ways, a preschool mind-set. We expect a kindergartener to be a "Big Kid" and go to the "Big Kids' School", yet emotionally, they're still more similar to the squirrely preschoolers they were last year. Kindergarteners don't care much about social norms, fitting in with other kids, or achieving well academically. But our current system of education in the US asks them to do just that: act like a "Big Kid". Yet we can't realistically expect them to behave that way until sometime in 1st or 2nd grade.

So, what to do? Luckily, most kindergarteners have a rough time for a few days (or few weeks) at most. Then, they're off and running with the pack, happily ensconced in their classroom, with their teacher and new friends. Here's what to keep in mind until then:

Talk with your little one about school. Listen to her fears, and clarify any confusion she has about the day. Understanding the flow of the school schedule will help her feel like she knows what'll be happening after you leave.

Be positive, and don't entertain a discussion about possibly staying at home. Say, "I know you feel scared. But your teacher will take care of you, and I will be there to pick you up right after school. I know you can do it. You might be scared sometimes, but you'll have so much fun, too! What a big kid you're getting to be."

Rely on the teacher for advice and guidance. She (it's usually a "she") is an expert at this, and goes through this every year with several of the kids in kindergarten. She'll have suggestions for how to best handle drop-offs. Usually, this involves a cheerful goodbye, a quick kiss -- and then a purposeful exit.

Hold your own concerns in check until you've given your child (and the teacher) a few weeks to settle in. If your child is still upset about going to school, then it's time to schedule a sit-down meeting with the teacher to explore what might be going on. You'll also want to observe the classroom in process -- unobserved by your child, if at all possible. Even a few minutes watching her will help you decide if her protests are just meant to test you -- or if she's really unhappy there.

Most of the time, kindergarten fears and tears evaporate within a few weeks. By then, we're left tearfully wondering, "When did my baby get so grown up?"

What are your experiences with kids starting kindergarten? Care to share?

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert