Help, our shy and sensitive daughter is struggling to settle at kindy

Dear Jenny Hale

We chose our three-year-old daughter’s preschool very carefully as she is a sensitive girl and can get anxious easily. Loud noises bother her and if she gets hurt, she won’t let anyone attend to her. We were delighted when she initially settled in quite well.

However, the good start is over and she is now struggling to stay settled and worries about going. Each day, she asks us if today is the day she has to go. Even on the way there, she is unhappy and tense and if I stay she just seems nervous about where I am and when I am going. The teachers assure me that she is okay when I have gone, but I still worry about her and wonder if there is something else I could be doing to help her settle in and like it there more. My husband has also dropped her off but it hasn’t made any difference. She clings to him too.

She is also like this when we go to someone’s house or to a party. Jessie won’t say hello to anyone and that just makes it harder for her to connect with the people we are visiting. She just holds on to us and refuses to participate. I can tell she really wants to, but just won’t let go. We have used lots of bribes and threats to get her to join in – and at times I have been upset with her because she misses out on the fun. I am probably extra-frustrated by this because I see myself in her – this is what I was like at her age and it took me years to ever really settle into school.

Jenny’s tips

It is tough on everyone when a child finds preschool or school a hard place to settle into. Some children are just going to find it harder than others, especially if they are more sensitive to new places, routines, people and the unexpected. Patience and calm will help, while bribes and threats will only add more tension.

A great place to start is helping a child get over the barrier of saying, “Hello” to the teacher or person you are visiting. Once they can do this, it is much easier for them to connect with the other things that are going on. Once they have done something brave they can feel confident about joining the shared activity, or talking to a new friend. Keep in mind a child may not want to greet anyone, but you can firmly and kindly guide them. Once they have conquered a greeting, watch them go!

Let Jessie know you expect her to respond to the teacher and if she refuses, gently let her know that you will both just sit on the bench outside kindy until she is ready to say, “Hello”. No huffing or puffing or bribing is necessary – but it will help if you can stay kind, firm and calm. Children are amazing. They will work out if this is what you really expect, or if you are just hoping will work. It may take a few trips back to the bench and could feel awkward, so let the teacher know your plan. Jessie will sniff out your resolve in time.

The clock is a great help for making the transition to your leaving. Let Jessie know you will stay for five or 10 minutes. Show her what five minutes means and point to the clock or your watch so she sees that you are following a system.

Help Jessie with this big transition by making a book with a few pages showing the different stages of going to kindy. Your own drawings are all that is needed – photos work well too. Draw the steps that are involved – getting into the car, driving, walking in, then waving goodbye to mum or dad. Read the story over and again. The final page can be a flower with petals that Jessie can colour when she has managed to wave or say goodbye to you. You might like to include a picture of a prize she might get when the petals are all coloured. This helps keep a child focused on the good things and less anxious about leaving you. When the flower is completed, celebrate with something special like a trip to the park or an ice cream.

The outcome

Jessie’s parents felt more confident just by having some new ideas to try and some practical things to do. They had got caught up in talking too much about kindy in the hope that Jessie would understand and just get on with it.

Both of them were stunned by the short amount of time it took for Jessie to make the big step of saying hello and goodbye to her teachers. They had anticipated a stand-off period so were blown away by how quickly she picked up the new routine. Jessie’s mum observed that not only was she greeting her teachers, but she was also talking to the other children which she had not been doing before. It was like a domino effect with Jessie finding her voice, engaging with new children and new activities and even answering questions at mat time. Jessie’s parents were over the moon. They could not believe their ears when they heard their once shy, tense and anxious child say one day at pick up time “I love kindy now, Mummy, and I didn’t cry.”

It was like they had a new girl who had grown more confident and was happy to go to kindy, happy to have friends over and even happy to join in at party time. The relief was enormous and there was reassurance that although Jessie may always be on the shy side, she wasn’t missing out on the good things life and kindy have to offer.