Question:  My three year old just started preschool three days a week half days. It is only his third week, but he continues to act out at school, spitting on children, not keeping his hands to himself and throwing tantrums. Is this normal?

Myrna Shure:  While it is not unusual for some children to feel anxiety or even somewhat abandoned during the first days of preschool, the behavior your child is displaying does appear to be a cry for help of some kind. Your goal is to help him feel comfortable at school, and excited about being there.  

During calm moments, perhaps at the dinner table, ask, “Did you play with anything at school today that you like a lot?” “Did you play with a child you had a lot of fun with?”

After asking questions that are positive, you can try, “Did anything happen at school today that made you feel mad (or sad)?”

Letting the child talk about how he feels at school might give you some insight into why he behaves the way he does.

Then say, “Sometimes when you’re in school, you get very angry, and sometimes bother other kids, or whine and carry on a lot.”

Now ask, “How do you think the kids feel when you hurt them, or bother them?” “Can you think of a different way to tell them how you feel?” “How do you think your teacher feels when you whine, and cry, and carry on?” “Can you think of a different way to tell her what you want?”

A three-year-old might not be able to answer these questions right away, but you’re planting a seed to help him think about what he’s doing.  

And very important – ask him what he’d like to do when you are together at the end of  his preschool day, and within reason, follow through. That will give him something to look forward to. But when you take him to school, it is important that you not stay too long or he will feel your own anxiety about leaving, which alone can make him feel anxious. Give him a big hug, talk about what you’ll do when he gets home, and leave. It won’t be long before he feels fine.