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Unhappy Child in Kindergarten

The Kindergarten Transition of Doom

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

So. Yes. My daughter has been in Kindergarten for all of 3 days. I realize that’s not very long for her to adjust to a new environment, teachers, rules etc., but she hates it so far and I feel guilty because it’s kind of my fault.

When she was in preschool last year I asked a few of the parents which kindergarten class they were putting their kids in next year, AM or PM? They were on the fence so I went ahead and made the decision that PM would suit ME best. I also have an almost 2-year-old who naps in the afternoon and the thought of having a few hours to exercise, shower, clean the house etc. sounded fabulous. Well, it turned out that every single one of her little friends ended up in the AM class. By the time I realized it, the AM class was full and she couldn’t be moved.

She’s very sensitive and shy and does not like change. She’s also very girly and there are only 4 other girls in the class and 20 boys. The principal says this will help her build confidence and resilience and part of me knows she’ll make new friends and adjust, but I can’t help worrying that this will set the tone and she’ll hate school from here on out. What can I do to make this transition easier for her?


Feeling Selfish and Guilty

So. First off: Dude. Duuuuude. Cut yourself a break here. This is not your fault! This is called “real life,” where we quite often make decisions based on things like “convenience” or “money” or “having a few hours to yourself to shower/clean/breathe/regroup.” You were faced with a choice that (on the surface, given the information you had at the time) seemed like an even coin toss, so you went with the option that had a slight edge in the scheduling department. That’s not selfish. I probably would’ve done the exact same thing.

And second, I am acutely aware that this is like the pot counseling the kettle, because I personally tortured myself for YEARS over a bad preschool call I made for Noah. Like you, I picked a program that fit my life, schedule and budget, and kinda just assumed it would be a good fit for Noah, I mean, it’s PRESCHOOL, what could go wrong? And then I was overwhelmed with the idea that it was my “fault” that the school ended up being a (stupendously) bad fit, and I regularly beat myself up for continuing to send him there because of “selfish” reasons like…needing to work AND care for a newborn — solo, with no additional childcare — during those hours. And like you, I worried that I’d basically “ruined” school forever for Noah and omg omg omg.

I guess it’s a testament to my growth as a person that now I mostly look back on it all with a shrug, because we did the best we could. The experience got us back on track with early intervention and special education and prompted us to reach out to additional resources and BLAH BLAH, it ended up being a good thing. (Kinda. You know.)

Noah, for the record, has zero memory of any of it. Nor does he have any memory of the first couple months of kindergarten, which he hated — HATED — with the heat of many angry suns. His memories of kindergarten are all good, a complete revisionist version top to bottom. From his second-grade vantage point, kindergarten was easy. (No, it wasn’t.) Kindergarten was fun. (A word he never, ever uttered to describe it, not even once.) He never got in trouble in kindergarten. (HAHAHAHAHA.) I think it took him until after Thanksgiving to really get into the groove — though there were still many, many mornings of woooeeee and I don’t wannnnna. Then I’d watch the bad mood evaporate the second he got around the other kids at the bus stop.

Kids are really, really resilient, and I think three days — hell, three MONTHS — is probably a bit premature to sound the alarm of I HAVE RUINED EVERYTHING. And the whole mental exercise of imagining the “what ifs” of her being in the morning session is useless. Don’t do it. I know it’s tempting and hard to resist but it’s USELESS. Give her time.

And give her time and space at home as well: Resist peppering her with faux-cheery HOW WAS SCHOOL TODAY WAS IT AWESOME questions. (You know, like coming home from a job you don’t like but are trying to make the best of. You probably won’t feel like getting the third degree over every detail the second you get home.) You’ll likely only get negative answers, or (if she senses your dismay over hearing bad reports) she might feel pressured to fake it. You obviously want her to feel comfortable telling you about issues and problems and feelings, but you also don’t want to have the adjustment period bleed into her time at home by pressuring her to rehash all of her grievances.

If you haven’t already, stock her bookshelf with lots of books about going to school, making new friends, etc. I don’t know how the school’s attendance works but you could always inquire about a waitlist for the A.M. session (kids change schools, get identified for special ed, families move, etc.), but mostly just keep an open mind here. Kindergarten IS an adjustment, and there always will be an adjustment period. A girly girl learning to interact and hold her own with boys is a good thing, so is learning to make new friends and adapt to a new routine. As long as she’s not being excluded or picked on by peers or overlooked/ignored by the teacher, giving her time and space to find her own footing at school is a good thing for you, because you’ll probably be in this spot again in future school years. A shy, sensitive child is just always going to find the back-to-school transition to be difficult, especially once there’s no A.M./P.M. choice to make and her classroom/teacher placement is more luck of the draw.

Yes, there’s a lot of change being thrown at her right now and change is HARD, whether you’re five or fifty.  But I’m honestly less worried about your daughter here and more concerned that you get yourself out of this over-harsh loop of blame you’re in. Keep her busy and entertained in the morning so she doesn’t fixate on the upcoming hours at school. Give her downtime afterwards and watch out for the hovering/leading questions. Let her feel her feelings about school but don’t inadvertently allow her to wallow in them. Make sure she’s getting enough sleep. Give her incentives for completing her homework so that’s a positive experience. Schedule playdates with her new classmates. And DEFINITELY get the lines of communication going with her teacher. I can’t tell you the number of times one of my boys has come home to deliver a highly-disturbing account of the social situation — no friends! I have no friends at all! no one wants to play with me and so-and-so is MEAN — and then when I talk to the teacher I get a different version of events (i.e. my kid wanted to play hide-and-seek and so-and-so wanted to play tag instead, the end. OMG THE DRAMA.).

But above all: Go easy on yourself. You’re both gonna be okay.

Published September 16, 2013. Last updated June 25, 2018.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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  • Ally

    September 16, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    Your column has been so relevant to me right now. My son has been in kindergarten for almost 4 weeks now and hates it. HATES it. We only have all day kindergarten here, so I think that is part of the problem. He has a very long day (it starts at 7:40) and he has quite a bit of homework each night. It is so hard seeing him so upset. Any suggestion would be great.

    • Kate

      September 25, 2013 at 5:34 pm

      A kid that age shouldn’t really be doing homework at all but you can compromise on 10 min (this doesn’t include time spent reading). Send the teacher this webpage from the National Education Association and tell her you’re stopping him at 10 min from now on.

  • Mona

    September 16, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    Ally- our son likewise started kindergarten a month back, and it’s also all day (7:45-2:45 anyway). Thank heaven he seems to like it fine, but- omg, we’ve been kind of surprised by all the homework. Like a solid minimum 30-45 minutes every night on top of the full school day. I guess he’ll be reading Russian novels by the end of first grade at this pace, but I’m pretty sure I left kindergarten with the maximum knowledge level somewhere around “don’t eat paste.”

    • Kat

      September 17, 2013 at 7:04 pm

      “Don’t eat paste” HA! Seriously, 30-45 minutes of homework? Is that the norm? I don’t remember having any homework until later, like 5th grade later. But perhaps that is more unusual than I thought. We have a toddler, so we aren’t on the kindergarten stuff yet, but I am already a little nervous. How will he sit still for that long??!

  • Jessica

    September 17, 2013 at 7:01 am

    Teacher pov here (also mom):  Talk to your school about expected amounts of homework and, at the same time see how long they’re taking to do the homework.  
    Sometimes teachers don’t communicate well on how much homework they’re each giving so kids end up with a lot.  
    And sometimes, an assignment will take a lot longer than it ‘should’ because kids don’t really understand how to do it (so they’re doing way more than they should).  I’ve had students do modified homework schedules because they have special needs, too.  Totally fine, just needs to be communicated.  
    If you think it’s too much, just take a look at it and see what’s most important and just send a note with the rest because…uh yeah.  Kindergarden.  Don’t eat the paste.  
    Oh, ALSO, if I can just chime in about the ‘4 girls in a group of 20’ thing…at that age?  Not so OK IMO.  So make sure the boys don’t drown out the girls for attention.  It’s really easy to get involved with a bunch of crazy boys, and the girls (unless they’re willing to join in) are kind of left in a dazed huddle at the back.  

  • Jean

    September 17, 2013 at 10:59 am

    I am the mother of a 4th grader and every single year, the first two months are a huge transition. Every year is a challenge and usually things click by November.

    I agree with Amy, give her some time to adjust. Kindergarden is a huge transition for kids. My son had a horrible Kindergarden teacher and he cannot even remember it now. Don’t worry, this will pass 🙂

  • sassygill

    September 17, 2013 at 11:53 am

    I agree that you should give her more time. My younger sister, who didn’t go to preschool, went into half day kindergarten already knowing her letters, colors, numbers, etc. Well she was so afraid of the teacher it was after Christmas break before she’d recite any of them to the teacher. Some kids just need more time to feel comfortable in their environment, and then once they do it’s like they figure it all out over night. She’ll get more comfortable eventually so long as you continue to be supportive and let her get there in her own time.

  • Susan:)

    September 18, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    My niece just started kindergarten a couple weeks ago and she’s gotten in trouble almost every day for talking at the wrong times and not listening to the teacher. Is this just an adjustment thing or is there something we can do to help her do better? She doesn’t seem troubled by it but we don’t want her getting notes home every other day saying she’s still not listening. I know it’s partly because she’s excited about having other kids her age to talk to and partly because she already knows how to read and a bunch of other things, so she doesn’t want to pay attention to boring stuff. But smart as she is, we want her to be able to follow directions and do well in a classroom setting.

  • Elaine

    September 19, 2013 at 2:30 am

    Yep I agree with Amy, give her more time to adjust – kids are indeed resilient. As for making friends, be creative! Have her join a Girl Scout troop with her friends from the other class – that way she will still be able to feel connected to them. 

    Also, FWIW, I was a shy, sensitive kindergartner in a class of 30 kids with 6 girls. I didn’t know a single person at that school when I started, let alone in my own class. My mom’s solution to this was to host one-on-one tea parties with each girl from the class so I could play with them without cliques (e.g., this Saturday we’ll have a tea party with Kristin, next Saturday we’ll have a tea party with Jessica, etc etc until I had successfully met and played with all the girls in my class). Something like this was easy enough for my mom to do with so few people and helped introduce me to new kids. 

  • Stephanie

    September 19, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Wow. Brings back memories! My daughter (now in 10th grade) had similar issues when she started kindergarten. She was 4 when the school year started, but according to state law, she could start school (the cut-off birthday in Michigan was December 1st; my daughter’s birthday is in October). She had gone to preschool for two full years, I had discussed with her preschool teachers her readiness for kindergarten, and we decided that she was ready.
    She absolutely loved school when she was in preschool, but hated it in kindergarten. She was very shy at that age, and, without going into excruciating detail, her teacher (and the principal, too) made matters worse. I beat myself up, I cried, I questioned my own judgement as a parent. But my husband and I (with the help of a very sympathetic school psychologist) decided to stick it out. And by January, everything was fine.  And, even better, my daughter learned some things about herself through that difficult transition. She gained some real confidence and learned to stick up for herself.  
    Kids are amazingly resilient. It’s so easy (especially with your first child) to think that you’ve ruined everything because of this one decision, but they will surprise you if you can let yourself step back and give them some room to figure things out for themselves.  
    Certainly, try to set up playmates (I really like Elaine’s idea, above) with the other girls in her class. Also consider encouraging her to branch out and make friends with some of the boys, too. Some of my daughter’s best friends through the years have been boys. 
    And definitely give her plenty of time to adjust. 
    For the record, my daughter barely remembers all of the brouhaha over those first few months of kindergarten. 

    • christine

      September 20, 2013 at 5:45 pm

      Along the lines of “encouraging her to branch out and make friends with some of the boys”, which I think is GREAT advice —

      I would be careful of reinforcing gender stereotypes at this age.  It sounds to me like the OP is indirectly teaching her daughter that she is a “girly-girl” and therefore will certainly be miserable around boys.  I have know a LOT of sweet, sensitive, artistic 5 year old boys and an equal number of rowdy, bossy, aggressive 5 year old girls.  The stereotyping by gender (especially in an anti-boy manner) is a pet peeve of mine.  I completely realize that boys are more likely to exhibit certain types of behavioral problems than girls, at this age, but I still don’t think that moms need to teach their girls to look down upon boys in their kindergarten community.

      Related, lots of studies have shown that female elementary school teachers strongly favor female students over boys in the classroom.  If this is true, a girl in a predominantly male classroom is likely getting more attention and praise than one in a classroom of more girls!!!  Always look on the bright side 🙂

      • Lisa

        September 24, 2013 at 1:17 pm

        This is the truth.  A class of 20 boys and 4 girls is more than likely going to be run by the girls, in my experience.

  • Jeanine

    June 17, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    Geez, I love your advice Amalah! And what a lovely name! Thanks sooo much for sharing your help sooo honestly