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Helping preschooler learn to listen to teacher

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Hi Dr. Laura,
My daughter is 4 and strong-willed. We seem to have a good rhythm at home and we are already doing what your website recommends to foster a good relationship and work with her rather than against.

She just started preschool. The complaint at school is that she is a "free spirit" and doesn't seem to hear her teachers sometimes. I know she can have a tendency to not do things on the first request, but I also know she is a good kid, and a good person. So, we have implemented a stamp chart to jump start her following them with a reward system. This is the only thing that works for her, because coming down with negative reinforcement only seems to make a behavior worse and just upsets her and brings her down. I wonder i you have any other suggestions?


Congratulations on having "a good rhythm at home" with your strong-willed daughter. That's a testament to your parenting!

Regarding your daughter not "hearing" her teachers sometimes: You are so right that clamping down with negative reinforcement will make her feel bad about herself and less likely to cooperate. It sounds like you've already established with your daughter the expectation that she needs to respond quickly to a request from a teacher, so she knows what she needs to do. Let's look at what could be going on for her that's keeping her from doing it.

First, your daughter has just begun preschool. Most likely, it's a bit overwhelming. The separation from home and parents, new expectations for behavior, rambunctious kids, high noise level, the cornucopia of books, toys, and stimulation...Kids respond to all this new experience in different ways. Some are quiet and withdrawn, some are hyper. Some protest the separation from parents. Some behave perfectly at school but fall apart once they get home. Some wet their pants, or the bed at night. Some push, hit, or bite their peers. And some "don't listen" which is a way of managing their anxiety by asserting some control over their body and activities.

It's probable that your daughter is trying to manage her stress level by limiting the demands on her and resisting transitions. As she feels more comfortable in the classroom, she will be more responsive to expectations there, particularly if the teacher can avoid making this into a power struggle. That gives us three important ideas about how to help her to make this transition quickly and positively.

1. Help your daughter establish a good relationship with the teacher, which is always the fastest way to get a child cooperating at school. Talk with the teacher about this. An experienced teacher will understand that the child needs to emotionally attach to her, and will find a way to give her a little extra attention.

You can also be helpful in the process. Much of any relationship is in the minds of the participants, so help your daughter develop a feeling of familiarity and affection for her teacher, regardless of what kind of teacher she is. Make the teacher a part of your daughter's life by talking about her. "I'm pretty sure that Ms. Williams will read your favorite book sometime if we bring it to school....Ms. Williams told me today how hard you worked on that project....Ms. Williams would love this drawing... Do you want to bring this shiny red apple to Ms. Williams?"

Take a photo of your child and her teacher together. Put it on your refrigerator and speak to it fondly. "Ms. Williams, you will be so impressed with what a great cleaner-upper my daughter is...Ms. Williams, do you love spaghetti as much as my daughter? Ms. Williams, we are so lucky to have you as a teacher, we love that classroom with all those toys and books!" As your daughter lives with her teacher's photo, she will begin to see her teacher as an important person in her life, which will help her to listen to the teacher's requests.

Note that it doesn't really matter what kind of teacher Ms. Williams is. Your daughter will begin to feel more connected to her, which will make her feel more comfortable in the classroom. Your daughter's developing fondness for the teacher will also help the teacher to respond more patiently towards your daughter.

2. Work with your daughter and the teacher on navigating transitions
. Imagine your daughter at school, engaged in a task. The teacher interrupts her with a request. Naturally, it's hard for her to shift gears. Most kids, especially those we call "strong-willed," find transitions tough.

Notice what helps your daughter with transitions at home. A two minute warning? Having you touch her or look her in the eye while you make the request? Being able to take charge of the "clean-up" process herself?

Then work with the teacher to formulate an approach that works for your daughter, one the teacher won't find burdensome. She does, after all, have a whole class to manage. But maybe if the teacher put her hand on your daughter's arm and looked her in the eye, your daughter would "hear" her?  Maybe your daughter needs a two minute warning, or the reassurance that she can return to her current activity at another time. Maybe she needs to know at the start of an activity how long it will last before the next one. Maybe the teacher needs to show her the chart of the day's activities, so she begins to know what to expect.

3. Help your daughter to regulate her stress level, both in and out of the classroom. Here's a challenging environment, and your daughter is regulating herself by focusing on a task. She doesn't respond immediately to the teacher because taking in that new demand jeopardizes her self-regulation in the face of the stressful environment. A better relationship with the teacher will motivate her to want to please the teacher, but we still need to help her with her stress level and self-regulation.

How? First, if the teacher can find other ways to help your daughter feel in control, she won't need to assert control in opposition to the teacher. This will also defuse the potential power struggle. Suggest to the teacher that she give your daughter a choice when she makes a request: "Do you want to clean up the crayons and wash your hands for lunch now, or in two minutes when we ring the bell for everyone to wash hands?" "Do you want to put the puzzle away yourself, or do you want me to help you?" Choices help the child feel in control, which helps her regulate her internal stress levels. Strong-willed kids especially need to be given choices, or they dig in their heels against external pressure. Notice that either of these choices is palatable to the adult. And notice that too many choices overwhelm a child, so only offer two simple choices.

If you can stay connected to your daughter, that will also help her regulate her stress level. Make sure that every day after school you have special one on one time with your big girl to hear all about her day, whether it's a 3pm snack or a long snuggle after lights-out. You might also give her a way to hold onto you during the day, like a laminated picture of the family or a paper heart with a love note. And of course be sure she gets plenty of opportunities for laughter, which will lower her stress levels. 

Create a calm household routine with early bedtimes and peaceful mornings; kids who aren't well-rested don't have the internal resources to be be flexible with the demands of the school day. It's also a good idea to explore whether your daughter has any fears or worries about school that are making her anxious. Finally, being sure that you're a few minutes early to pick up your child from school is a guaranteed anxiety-reducer (and being late is guaranteed to exacerbate a preschooler's anxiety level!)

Together, these three principles -- Strengthen your daughter's relationship with the teacher, Work with your daughter and the teacher on navigating transitions, and Reduce your daughters' stress level -- will help your daughter adjust to the demands of the classroom. I wish your daughter a wonderful school year!


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