Our 3.5 year old is a bit disruptive at play school. Specifically, doesn’t listen, can be boisterous and a bit rough in play. Is a reward system combined with him knowing that we’re asking the teacher how he’s doing every day, appropriate and if not, could you advise?

The 3.5 year old brain isn’t mature enough to deal with complex emotions. The transition from home to school brings with it complex challenges that never existed before. Suddenly, after three years at home you have to sit with a group of children, remain still, listen to teacher, follow unusual directions (learn to relate to new adults, sit in a circle, hold hands with a partner while walking, raise your hand if you want to talk) that challenge the child’s brain in new and unexpected ways. This can be totally overwhelming for some children.
Those children who have problems adjusting to this new strange world of pre-school education often end up labelled as “difficult”, “immature” or “challenging”. How well the child can adjust depends on the child’s previous experiences at home and in the community. An only child will now have to share the limelight with many others. A youngest child will have to learn how to fend for herself and discover that others won’t anticipate her every need. A child who has been pampered discovers that adults will not always be at the beck and call.
Another factor in this adjustment and transition is the child’s temperament. Temperament is the inborn, genetic makeup of the child’s personality. Some children are born easy to rear. They are easily soothed, not easily startled by stimuli, sleep regularly, eat on a schedule and are cheerful and bubbly. Some children are born with the opposite temperament and present to their parents and carers the sharp edges of a prickly personality. These children are more prone to have difficulty making the transition to pre-school.
When a child has difficulty navigating the emotional and interpersonal complexities of pre-school it is the responsibility of adults to help them. Step one is to teach them a “feeling vocabulary”, the words that label our emotions. When we give children words we give them the ability to talk out problems instead of acting them out. We say to children “Use your words.” But no child can use words they do not have in their vocabulary. Every pre-school should have the development of a feeling vocabulary as part of their curriculum.
Guiding a child in play activities is another part of the teaching process of young children. The ability to interact in playful group activities begins with the ability to interact in partner activities. Some children can’t make the leap to group play and interaction without being guided in appropriate play skills with a partner. When a pre-school educator guides a child in play with a partner (sometimes by being the play partner themselves) they help develop important skills that will extend to group play in time.
The use of external rewards systems such as star charts and behavioural reinforcers can be helpful to a child who is making mistakes in getting along with others. The objectives should be chosen carefully and it is best to work on one thing at a time with young children. The reward should be given as close to the desired behaviour as possible. Waiting to long, such as the end of the week, is an eternity for a three year old child. Keep it simple and keep the goals focused and you won’t go wrong.
Good communication between school and home is vital. The nature of this communication is critically important. If the first parental contact is negative you won’t get the sort of results you want. Far too many parents are bullied, harassed and traumatised by negative comments from teachers. The golden rule of parental communication is simple: make 3 positive comments for every critical comment. That is the road to excellent parent-teacher cooperation. Using a home-school communication book that focuses on the behaviour outcomes desired is an excellent tool in helping children adjust to the pre-school setting.
Your child will learn how to cooperative and play appropriately with others if you and teacher work together towards a common goal: helping the child be happy in school.

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