Every parent of a school-aged child knows just how exciting, sad, and surreal it is when your kiddos go from being home all of the time to venturing into their first solo social experience, preschool. This transition is inevitable and although it can be bumpy for some, if you work to keep communication open with your child's teacher, and support the skills they are learning at home, you can help to make it a strong foundation for them to build their educational career on. We sat down with Pittsburg preschool teacher, Debbie Peters, to get an inside view on how she recognizes early classroom struggles, how she brings them up to students and parents, and what parents can do to make sure their child is getting the most out of preschool.
Many preschool teachers are the first non-family member adults that interact with your children and are well equipped to notice challenges that should be addressed. "How well a child communicates with me and with their peers helps me determine whether or not a child needs extra attention"; said Peters. She went on to talk about how communication affects the child. "If a child doesn't have strong verbal skills it can cause them a lot of frustration. If they can't properly communicate to others about what they are thinking, or what they want it can frustrate them and in turn, they can lash out with physical aggression."
Peters also makes sure to notice how each child interacts with others throughout the school day. While playtime may seem like a time of relaxation and fun for young children, it is so much more. Having free play ignites and strengthens problem-solving, creativity, and social skills. The social skills observed during free play give teachers great insight into the development of the child. "Social-emotional activities like taking turns and sharing with their peers are skills learned and refined during playtime. Conversely, if a child is not interacting at all or is participating in what we call parallel play, just playing next to their classmates rather than with them, it indicates they may need some extra attention.
Another sign a child is having difficulties is reoccurring outbursts, or partaking in what some might consider "unruly behavior." When outbursts occur it is before a teacher to get down to the child's level, and remain as calm as possible". Peter's favorite and, in her opinion, most impactful tool is to redirect the child." As long as safety is not a concern I like to redirect the child's attention to get them to stop acting in a manner that isn't productive for the classroom. An example of this is if a student is doing something that is disruptive, but not a huge problem; like yelling really loudly in class, I will say something like 'can you sing your ABC's for me'. I know that this child knows their ABC's so redirecting their attention like this can make them stop the behavior.
It is important that preschool teachers are aware of signs or concerning behaviors that can point to the need to request a formal evaluation by a professional but it is equally important that parents are on the same page. Peters mentioned that the number one thing that can benefit a young student is open and honest communication between teacher and parent. Peters recommends starting off the year with a brief communication. "If a parent is really conversational with the teacher and were to tell me something like 'Hey, we went away for the weekend and got back really late last night so they may be a little tired today', it builds repour and helps me keep an eye out to avoid a challenging behavior before it starts " It is always good for a teacher to know how things at home may impact behaviors at school, but also now the teacher feels comfortable talking to the parents if a bigger issue were to arise.
According to Peters, open communication with a parent helps her feel supported like the parent sees them as being on the same team. If a teacher and parent haven't built a rapport the teacher can be very nervous to bring up issues that can be sensitive for the student or parent. "Go to all of the parent-teacher conferences or set up phone conferences if you have a tight work schedule. Interact with your child's teacher at drop off and pickups to get the conversation going."
If your child's teacher does approach you to talk about a need for a formal evaluation or support services Peters wants to remind parents to stay calm. "In my experience, the children don't know that they are getting a "special" service. If a speech therapist or other professional comes into the classroom to help a child, other children do not know that it is because their classmate is behind or having difficulties. Many students think these "classroom helpers" are really cool because they usually have new toys and games for the students they are working with. I've occasionally seen some children get slightly jealous that so and so gets to play with those fun toys or special person." I like to remind parents of these facts because even if it's scary to think that their child might have a delay or disability requiring extra attention, now is the time to do it.
Often children can outgrow specialists because of how fast young children pick things up. If this does not happen to be the case and your child requires a classroom aid or special services to continue it may be easier for them socially to have an aid in the first place rather than have them introduced at an older age. "Going to school in rural PA, I had a classmate who had autism and had an aid with him throughout school. None of us thought anything of the aid being in the classroom because someone had always been there with him and we were used to it. We just knew "George" had a helper."
Preschool is a time of fun, learning, and a lot of change. One of these big changes is your son or daughter being introduced to a school environment with peers and teachers. As a parent of a preschooler, it is important to connect their teacher to make sure they are getting everything they can out of the school year. It is also important if you or your child's teacher are concerned about a delay or social, emotional or behavior challenge that your child might have to act quickly to get ahead of it and adjust things accordingly to make sure your child is set up for a knowledge-filled, and fun school experience. While the ABC's and messily drawn pictures seem like fun and games, they are the building blocks to a successful education.