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Acting out before kindergarten — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My 5-year-old will be entering kindergarten in the fall and I’m concerned he has anxiety regarding this big change. This is causing him to regress behaviorally. He has bitten his sister and cousin, puts his fingers in his mouth constantly and when reprimanded for doing something naughty, he will drop to his knees and crawl to his room.

He is enrolled in a full time daycare/preschool and he will be entering kindergarten with friends from both the preschool and our neighborhood. He is used to a routine and a school-like setting. Is this baby-like behavior a cause for concern?

Mom of a 5-year-old, Not a Baby

Don’t miss last week’s column Tips for parenting from out-of-state during custody dispute — Good Parenting


Dear M5YONB,

These could be a cause for concern if biting, finger chewing and crawling are coinciding with anxious thoughts.

Acting like a baby can be a coping mechanism to relieve him of the pressure to act like a “big kid.” Regressive behaviors, such as finger sucking and crawling, are comforting. If he were a baby, his inner mind rationalizes, people wouldn’t expect so much from him. Biting is likewise a stress reaction associated with a younger age. But consider for a moment whether each of these behaviors has unrelated causes. Biting could be caused by jealousy or lack of skills to resolve interpersonal conflict. Mouthing his fingers could be due to hunger or boredom (or dental pain). Crawling to his room when reprimanded could be an overdramatic way of showing defeat or a self-protective posture against your angry words.

However, if you are seeing a consistent pattern of increased anxiety, you or another caring adult should calmly prod to see what his thoughts are about kindergarten. Assuming he confirms that embarking on the next phase of his education has him in a tizzy, proceed gently to expose the specific fears.

Eliminate the fear of the unknown by dispelling any misconceptions and filling in his gaps of knowledge. What does he think the classroom will have in it? What activities (among those he already knows from preschool) does he think kindergarten will have? What will the daily schedule be like? What does he think his teacher will do? Anything you can’t adequately describe or explain should be taken note of for you to address at a later time. Hopefully by the first day he will have had almost all his unknowns made known, and his fears reduced.

Visit the playground and classroom. Start with a very brief visit then come back for longer and longer stays. A public school playground is generally open to the public when school is not in session. And, unless there’s a renovation going on, school buildings have summer hours, so make a plausible excuse to pop in (just to see the kindergarten wing is a valid reason). And at the next pop in check out the bathroom, then the cafeteria, then the library. Think of – or ask about – any other aspects of his new surroundings that would be “foreign” to him help him to get familiar with each one, and as best as you can. Say, “Hello” to his future teacher, or at least any kindergarten teacher there.

Arrange a play date with a recent kindergartner in the neighborhood. Steer the conversation to reassure your son, through the words of one who has been there, that actually kindergarten is a lot like preschool: art, stories, songs and playground time; but it will also have new experiences for him to look forward to. Have your “expert” tell your son about what else he can expect such as field trips by bus and learning to read.

Share your efforts to reduce fears, increase familiarization and build motivation with your son’s current teacher. Since the whole group will be transitioning they may already be having activities and discussions to prepare for what is coming. The teacher can also help to secure good friendships among classmates who will be separating by connecting parents to one another with contact lists. A late-summer family picnic is a nice way to celebrate the friendships that have been made during the past school year and a prime opportunity for grownups to swap phone numbers to keep these friends connected. Offer to help with these suggestions if the preschool doesn’t already put them into practice.

Cement the relationships he has with children he will be in school with — hopefully at least one or two who will be in his new class. Age 5 is a key time for friendships to flourish as they are becoming less and less dependent on adults — to help with a tangled shoelace, to admire a drawing and to make play time fun — and more and more on each other. Typically a 5-year-old has advanced socially from side-by-side play with any available child to surrounding himself with a small handful of chums that reinforces who he is and what he likes to do. Good friends bring out the best in you. Make the most of his out-of-school time over the summer to bond with potential classmates.

There will be difficulties ahead as he adjusts to new surroundings, routines and relationships, so strengthen his courage with allies going into the fray.
A successful transition between preschool and big school, especially for the anxious child, should include familiarity with as many of the unknown factors as possible and the strength of the social bonds that will surround him when he is there.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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