All parents have experienced the dreaded preschooler meltdown. You’ve tried all your usual methods of soothing your child and they’re not working. How can you kindly and effectively help them move on?
“The first thing to do is to acknowledge the child’s feelings,” says Maddy Perez, an experienced preschool teacher at The Natalie G. Heineman Smart Love Preschool. “Once they feel heard and understood, you can try other strategies to help them transition out of that difficult emotional space.”
Strategic transitions: make moving on fun and engaging
Your preschooler is enjoying playing at the park and you tell them it’s time to go. Strong feelings ensue. Now what?
Navigating transitions can be tricky terrain for preschoolers, but with a little creativity, it can become an adventure, says Perez. “At Smart Love, rather than saying ‘Come inside now’ we will help kids ease into the transition by having them first play one big game of hide and seek. Once the game is over, they know that outdoor playtime has ended.”
If a child is struggling with a transition, Perez suggests giving them a choice about something. “I may ask the child if they’d like to hold my hand as we go inside, or if they’d like me to pick them up. When you offer kids choices in a difficult moment, they are not only more likely to transition smoothly, they also feel empowered in the process.”
Use empathy as a bridge to moving on but don’t stay “stuck”
When faced with a child who is resistant to change, empathy becomes the bridge that eases the transition, says Perez.
“For example, I may have a child in class who wants to play one more game but we have to move on to the next activity. In that case, I will listen and empathize by saying something like ‘I know you really like that game. But now it’s time to have lunch.’ Tell them that they can come to the game later, but now we have to switch gears. And then, follow through. Be sure to come back to the activity later. That builds trust.”
Empathy is important, but Perez says it’s equally important not to stay “stuck” in the negative emotions.
“It helps to be decisive when dealing with a child who’s not coping well with a change. Listen and hear them out, but then help them by taking them to the next activity. Once you’ve made the effort to hear them, it doesn’t help to keep focusing on the child’s negative feelings. They need you to help them change course.” When you support the child emotionally, they internalize your kindness, guiding them on how to take care of themselves and others in the same way.
Also important? Don’t make a distressed child feel rejected by walking away from them. That may make them feel even worse. “I like to keep kids nearby if they are struggling with a change,” says Perez. “That’s the time to make them understand you’re there for them.”
Set the stage for success with proactive planning
A little planning goes a long way in preventing difficult transitions from happening in the first place, says Perez. Giving kids a routine is key to reducing challenging behaviors later on.
“Parents can help kids understand what the day is going to look like. Then, do your best to prepare your child for that day. Your child’s moods, whether they are hungry or tired, are all going to affect how they can transition from one activity to the next.”
Another important factor? Your reaction to the behaviors. “Kids will mirror your emotions and your reactions,” says Perez. “It will help kids to stay calm if you are calm, too.”
Identifying and coping with underlying causes
Sometimes, difficult behaviors are manifestations of deeper issues.
If you know that your child is dealing with something new or distressing to them, let their teachers know. Plus, be sure to manage your own expectations for their behaviors. Often, a child who copes with things easily will be thrown off by big life changes like moving, a new baby in the family, a family illness or other issues.
Perez advises being open and supportive, especially if things escalate despite your best efforts.
At Smart Love Preschool teachers help children with losses by nurturing a positive and care-giving relationship with each child. When children trust that their teacher understands them and their needs, the teacher/child relationship acts as a bridge to self-regulation – allowing for them to re-engage in the learning.
“It’s helpful to change rooms or spaces when a child is having a really difficult time. This is something we do at preschool and it doesn’t feel like a punishment to the child. We explain that they just need a little extra help, so we are changing spaces.” Children come to know that spending extra time with a teacher is a positive experience and it feels good.
You can do the same at home – change rooms, go outside and remove the child from the situation. This can be enough to change the energy and get your child on a more positive track.
Perez believes that a loving approach will help your child cope with many situations. “My best advice is to be available, to listen to kids and be open with them. The main thing children want when they are struggling is to feel like you care and that you understand them.”
For more information about the nurturing programs at Smart Love Preschool, visit smartlovefamily.org.