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School Day Drama

Feb27

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Dear Amalah,

You’ve helped me before and you were so spot on with the advice. It took about 8 – 12 weeks until life settled down again and now brotherly love abounds (unless someone steals a toy from the other but such is life).

I’m hoping you can help me again. In a recent post (can’t find the link) you alluded to the fact that there was some time when Noah disliked going to school. I work part-time and my children go to daycare 3 days a week. Every single “school” day my 3 1/2 year old fights going. Sometimes there are full on crying fits trying to get him into the car, but most days it’s just verbal complaining. Every single day we pick him up from school he is having fun and doesn’t want to leave. I know he actually enjoys school. Next year he’ll be going to pre-k which is a full-time program.

I am a huge nerd and really loved going to school. I want my children to enjoy going too. Do you have any tips on how to make him look forward to going to school in the morning instead of dreading it so much?

Give it time, time and more time. Also: TIME.

Also also: IGNORE BUTTON.

Your son’s morning fits really don’t have that much to do with school. Or his actual feelings about school. Obviously not, because the issue ends at the daycare door. More likely, he’s throwing fits in the morning because:

1) It’s a big transition, and transitions in general are not exactly a 3.5 year old’s favorite thing. In that moment, staying home with his bed/toys/snacks/TV/whatever sounds easier, and therefore better, so cue the noooooo I don’t wannnnnaaaa script.

Usually extra warnings about what’s coming up next can ease transition anxieties, but I’ve found with my kids that keeping them focused on the individual bits of their morning routine works better than prematurely bringing up the S word (i.e. no bright and cheery “time to get up for SCHOOL” as you yank the covers off his head). We use a star/reward chart for both Noah and Ezra and I swear, about half of the behaviors and tasks on it are morning-related. Get out of bed, get dressed, brush teeth, shoes, backpack, out the door on time. Tantrums or excessive whining about any of those things mean you don’t get a star; not getting enough stars for the week means you don’t get whatever reward you chose for the week.

2) It’s the morning, and he’s tired and cranky, and school is simply the convenient scapegoat for his bad mood. I am not a morning person. I was never a morning person. Despite being a fellow huge nerd who enjoyed school, I was (according to my mother) a HUGE PAIN IN THE ASS every school-day morning for YEARS. I protested and whined and dragged my feet and argued about clothing and breakfast and every step I had to take down the stairs because life was so hard and noooooo I don’t wannnnnaaaa. Once I got on the bus and completed the transition — and encountered human beings who were not my mother (and who would not put up with all that whining crap) — I snapped out of it.

So of course, I ended up with two non-morning children of my own (and one baby who is all IT’S FIVE AM LET’S PARTY YOU GUYS). My mom swears that putting a tape player in my room and letting me wake up to my favorite music was a huge help. I basically act like a human snooze button, and go in and start the waking-up process about a half hour earlier than I actually need them out of bed. Ezra likes to roll back over and doze during this window, while Noah likes to have the choice between staying in bed and getting up early and having some time to play before school. And during this process, I basically tune out any sleepy crankpot complaints about their schools, because the sleepy crankpot complaints are so obviously NOT about their schools.

3) The part-time schedule is making it harder for him to settle into a routine. When Noah first started preschool at three years old, I originally enrolled him in a 3-day program. The teacher made it no secret that she much preferred kids to be enrolled all five days, because they adjusted and settled into the classroom much faster. I had a lot of…cough…issues with that teacher so I hesitate to hold up her advice as worth all that much, but I do feel like there’s some truth to it. My kids do much, much better (behavior/anxiety-wise) when they go to school/camp/whatever every day instead of part time.

I’m not suggesting you bump up his enrollment to full time since you don’t need to or anything — just putting this out there as a potential reason his adjustment period is lasting so long, and to reassure you that next year’s full-time program may actually be easier simply because it IS a full-time program.

4) He’s three and a half, and he’s good at it. Terrible twos? Please. Three is the WORST. They are still just as tempestuous and irrational as young toddlers, but are verbal enough to trick you into taking their complaints seriously. Ezra sometimes complains about going to school because he’s heard Noah complain about school, plus transitions/morning/adults putting demands on him and robbing him of his own scheduling autonomy noooooo I don’t wannnnnaaaa.

I know this sounds horrible but I just ignore it. Completely. All of it. Whatever complaining he does falls on deaf ears and I continue to focus on getting him dressed or point out something interesting during the car ride. He no longer has any separation anxiety or anything — he’s just kind of being a cranky jerk, you know? And I also know he’ll outgrow this stage and be his usual charming, easygoing self once he understands he’s not getting a rise out of me by stomping his foot and telling me “I HATE SCHOOL.”

I admit I was concerned for the first several months of this school year about Noah — but because it was so out of character for him to fight with me SO HARD about school, plus he is six and going to all-day kindergarten (where they expect a TON out of these little kids, gaaaahhh) as opposed to a three year old whining about having to maybe do a craft at daycare. (Not to mention we have a ton of extenuating stress about special ed placement/programs and whether Noah was in the right environment and/or having his IEP upheld, etc.) Ignoring his complaints about mean teachers and bad days felt troubling, because I had my own doubts about his school and teacher and was struggling with the preschool-to-real-school transition myself. (The difference in parent-teacher communication and your knowledge of just what your kid DOES all day is staggering and unnerving.)

But he was fine. He really was. He just needed time. He needed more time to adapt to a new routine and new expectations (and time to figure out the benefits of meeting those expectations). I needed more time to forge a good relationship with his teachers and get a feel for the lay of the kindergarten land, so to speak.

And it turned out Noah needed more time at home to decompress and just be for awhile. A LOT  of Noah’s “I HATE SCHOOL” nonsense this year was simply related to not having enough daily free play time. Once I made sure he got at least a couple hours every night to do whatever he wanted and lots of downtime on the weekends, school seemed less intrusive and annoying to him. I’ve always been careful to keep my kids from being overscheduled, but I guess it still managed to happen.

School was a huge adjustment for all of us this year, but he’s made it and I’m super proud of him. I don’t think he’ll ever be a kid who pops out of bed raring to go to SCHOOOOL YAAAYYYYY MY FAVORITE, but that’s okay. It’s just not his personality. It might not be your son’s, either, but it’s probably not worth stressing out about — especially at three years old! — or worrying that these morning tantrums are some permanent harbinger of educational doom. Your intuition will tell you when there’s really something to be concerned about going on, so in the meantime feel free to ignore the fits and/or hand him a banana in the car to keep his mouth too busy to whine about things.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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8 Responses to “School Day Drama”

  1. MR Feb 27 at 7:16 pm Reply Reply

    I laughed when I read this because I too have a 3.5 year old. Everything is “No, I don’t wanna!!!” I find my darling 3.5 year old says “no!” even more now than when she was two. Heck, if you ask her if she wants candy or to watch tv she will answer “No! … Wait, yes!” So, I just chalk it up to the age and take it with a gigantic grain of salt. That he LOVES school at the end of the day and doesn’t want to leave, means there isn’t some huge issue at school he is trying to alert you to. As Amy said, he is just protesting the transition.
    My daughter is also not a happy camper if women up (from nap or in the morning). We do something similar to Amy, but instead of music we go in and flip her light on half an hour before she needs to get up. Then we go in and say, time to get up, and she is her cheerful self (even if she still moves a little slowly). But if we don’t flip the light on and give her that half hour, it isn’t even worth saying hi to her for an hour and a half. She’s just a cranky blob trying to sit on your lap. Lol

  2. KimC Feb 27 at 7:26 pm Reply Reply

    I am just out of this age, the three. The amazing wonderful butthole-y-ness of three and yeah. Just the age. My darling girl became opinionated and threw fits, kicked screamed whined and just generally wasn’t someone you wanted to hang out with for most of that year, with some trickle down in the fourth year, but at 5 it is a different story enough of the time that it seems peculiar, So, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, at least. I am just dreading it when the second one, all sunshine and light- turns three. I heard someone say it once, it still makes me laugh-“whomever coined the term ‘terrible twos’ obviously shipped their kid off before they turned three” As far as getting through it goes, transitions are the big thing. Nothing happens without a warning and building up to. Sigh. Patience patience patience.

  3. Mona Feb 28 at 3:20 am Reply Reply

    Three (blessedly almost four) year old over here. Ditto ALL this. He’s awesome wonderful best funniest ever… hey who are you, you tiny jerk? All day every day back and forth at melt your face off speed. It’s SO reassuring to read this kind of stuff and know it’s the norm. Or at least normalish

  4. Susie Feb 28 at 10:39 am Reply Reply

    As my mother says, the terrible twos lead to the threatening threes and the fearsome fours. And then kindergarten. :-)

  5. Kim Feb 28 at 12:15 pm Reply Reply

    I’ve got a dreamy, slow to wake up kid, too, and she loovves school (the chipper, “School day!” works wonders with us.) But after two years of afternoon preschool (lovely, lovely afternoon preschool, worked so well for us) we did the morning session this year mostly to practice for kindy next year. (Practice for all of us. I am such a slow riser that I need a minimum of 1.5 hours to get myself out of the house in the morning, and I’m happier with 2. It doesn’t matter how much sleep I’ve had, I just move slow in the mornings.)

    What works well for us is a printed routine, with clip art visuals. My daughter clutches that thing like it’s gold, It isn’t foolproof, but it goes a long way to avoiding arguments, and we keep tweaking it (clothes on to the shoes before breakfast, etc.)

  6. andrea Feb 28 at 1:22 pm Reply Reply

    Tell us more about this reward chart system..  

    Is this something purchasable?  Or how does one go about constructing and more importantly implementing one?

  7. MR Feb 29 at 11:40 am Reply Reply

    Andrea, star charts can be really simple. I just take a regular piece of paper and draw lines on it to make a calendar grid. I usually just do the vertical lines first and add the horizontal ones as necessary so we can focus on a week at a time. If they do the desired behavior, they get to pick a sticker and place it on the chart. Once they have the predetermined number of stars, they get the predetermined reward. When we were potty training my first we chose little rewards at first and if she got two stars she got something small like a lollipop or something, and worked up. Towards the end, I took her to the store and let her pick out a purse (she picked Dora). We put it in the closet and that was her focus object for the week. Once she had a week of using the potty and no accidents, she earned her purse. She also earned a pillow pet once. The idea is to let them pick out the reward (within reason), and make them an active part of putting the stars/stickers up. That way they get the reminder and you can use it to practice counting too. The other thing is, for little little kids put the chart up somewhere everyone can see it for the reminder. And when people come over, make a big deal out of “Jimmy’s doing SO great with going in the potty!! Look how many stars he has!!” and let him overhear you. When they just “overhear” the praise, it is more powerful than you telling them directly. Hope that helps!

  8. Kira Feb 29 at 11:47 am Reply Reply

    Thank you. Your advice (as always) was spot on. He goes to daycare Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I took today off so I could do our taxes so we had a more relaxing morning and I didn’t hear a single word about not wanting to go to school. 

    I work long hours so that I can have Monday and Friday with him so going to school late isn’t an option, but I’m going to start getting him up earlier so he has more time to relax in the morning.

    Thank you again for your awesome advice, love all your columns.

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