The Summer Before Kindergarten

Your child is “so excited” to start Kindergarten ~ so what’s with this clinginess, baby talk and tantrums of the past?

“He visited his new school and totally LOVES it.”

“She’s really trying to read! 

“He CANNOT WAIT to go to big-kid school.” 

With evidence like that, no wonder you are shaking your head. What are these sudden, summer tantrums over “nothing?” Clinginess like two-year old days? Baby talk that’s driving you bananas?

Your child could be feeling ambivalence about kindergarten. Let’s get our magic 8 ball.  Your child’s predominant statements may indicate “signs point to yes.”  But your child’s regressive behavior may invite you to “concentrate and ask again.”

Ever had two feelings at the same time?  Of course you have ~ it’s part of the human emotional condition. Love to go on vacation, dread the long drive.  Want that new phone, but ugh, the learning curve. How easy it is for us, however, to forget this basic tenet when it comes to kids. Children can have more than one feeling at a time. But they don’t know this fact and are confused by multiple feelings themselves. Their mouths may say one thing, but their bodies act out another. Everyone is confused.

For every independence striving, there is anxiety.

“I want to … but will I be able UofR Rush Rhees libraryto?”  The little 5-year-old, having left the familiar safe rooms of a preschool she’s attended for up to three years, is indeed excited. And scared to death. The thought of the new grade can feel as intimidating as towering university columns.

Just because he saw the campus and classroom, adores his new teacher and has a couple of good buddies there … change is hard. And young ones do not have a long remember-able history of managing changes that turned out okay.

“Kindergarten-me” was terrified about grown-up words. Adults read me engaging storybooks featuring a recurring word: “particularly.” Spoken with eloquence and inflection. Made me shiver. How in the world would I ever be able to pronounce that word? Growing up clearly required it. Maybe staying little was the answer. “Beth, pay attention,” said the teacher, unaware of my paralyzing angst. Your little one could be harboring silent worries like this. Memories such as these flowered my path to becoming a child psychologist.

So, how to manage regressive behavior in the summer before Kindergarten?  

  • Park your logical brain.  It will only stall your efforts to look through your child’s eyes.  One feeling stated is one feeling stated.  There can be additional feelings too, that are contradictory.

  • Take a little walk back in time.  How did YOU feel the summer high school ended? No matter what your plans ~ college, work, or “no idea” ~ you likely had nostalgia for the place and life-stage you were leaving, and anxiety about what lay ahead.

  • Think to yourself:  Ending preschool is like being a senior ... looking ahead to the future.  Seeing the younger students, feeling older, knowing you are leaving. Heck, we give preschoolers caps and tassels now in in mock graduation ceremonies. Not so make-believe.

  • Notice and ask:  Talk to your child ~ “I know you’re feeling excited about Kindergarten.  Do you know people can have more than one feeling at the same time? I wonder what other feelings you might have.”  Validate and accept the feelings – don’t dismiss or whisk them away. Normalize and give reassurance that adults will be there to help, every step of the way.

  • Draw a feelings heart.  Get a bunch of markers, outline a heart, and color it in with  patches of color ~ each representing a feeling and its relative momentary “size.” Draw your own heart first, choosing colors to stand for feelings you have right now: tired, sad, excited, worried.  Invite your child to draw his or her own.  Don’t worry about percentages or doubles (same feeling represented twice) ~ rather than a pie chart, it’s a feelings-identification exercise.

“Child-Sight” can help you through this developmental transition.  Child-Sight is a process I teach parents ~ to look through their child’s eyes, informed by child development secrets and brain function facts.  Simply recognizing your child may have multiple feelings about Kindergarten is the beginning of Child-Sight. It’s an eye-opening pair of glasses that helps you change your view and what you think, say & do.

Try using Child-Sight on your ambivalent Kindergartener!  Watch the regressive behaviors fade away as they begin to step into the Big Kid Shoes at their feet.

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The Child-Sight Treatment Model is Dr. Onufrak’s integrated program of child therapy, blending cognitive-behavioral play therapy with her Parent Toolbox of strategic support solutions.  
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Regressions: Back to a Safer Time

Regressions – what are they all about? A child with clear speech returns to baby talk  … a potty-trained child reverts to accidents.  Many parents are concerned and frustrated by  backward steps.  After the triumph (and convenience!) of growth forward, regressions can perplex and annoy adults.

Behavioral regressions are temporary steps backward to a safer time, to take a break from uncomfortable challenge. It is a coping strategy. Coping is anything one does to try to manage an uncomfortable state.  Development is tough work!

We adults can no longer remember growing on so many developmental dimensions at once. An adult-world analogy might be: starting a new job (cognitive), resuming exercise (gross motor), learning a foreign language (language), taking piano lessons (fine motor), and mastering a new cell phone (emotional – haha!) all at once.  You too might fall back on an easier skills while your muscles were sore and your brain tired.  You might even throw down your complicated new phone and cry!

Grown-ups may call-out regressive behavior: “Why are you talking like that? You’re a big boy now,” or “Why are we having accidents? You’re not a baby anymore.”  The assumption is that a teaspoon of embarrassment might jog the child back into age-appropriate behavior.  But such responses miss the child message – which is, “I’m anxious, I’m overwhelmed right now, this growing up thing is hard.”  When a child sends a message that is missed, the response is often anger – either internalized (as resentment) or demonstrated (acting out).   Shame never feels good. What to do instead?

1)   Notice the regression and ask yourself, why might this be happening at this moment?  Coping with younger sibling in his life? Working hard on one developmental task (toilet training) may temporarily leave less energy for work on other tasks (puzzles. language, emotional regulation).

2)  Check in with your child.  “Jordan, I notice you are using your younger boy talk lately.  I wonder if something is bothering you today.”  Few young children can answer  How, Why & What questions. So offer your guesses in “wondering” statements like, “I wonder how you are feeling about baby sister these days.”  Offer support and understanding statements. “Yes, I’ve had to hold sissy a lot after dinner.” Your child may offer, “Yeah, and Daddy doesn’t tuck me in like you do!”  

When your child shows a regression, take the cue – something is taxing her capacities.  Child growth does not emerge in linear lines. Knowing this allows us grownups to accept and observe regressions, interpreting them with gentle acceptance and support.