Pre-School Nightmares?

Hi Ellen,

Two weeks ago, my daughter who is almost 3, began going to preschool 2 days per week from 9-12.  We spent months gearing up for this big event and she was extremely excited about going.  She met her teacher last April and since that time every time we drove by the school she’d gleefully proclaim “There’s my school!  Hi Miss Laurie!!”  Since the school is very close to our home we’d walk there in the evenings and she would admire the playground while talking about looking forward to starting class.


She’s had three class sessions thus far.  The first day she was very excited and went right in.  She didn’t cry, wasn’t afraid, gave the teacher a hug.  I was very relieved and happy since this is the first separation she and I have had in her entire life.  After school she gave me a detailed account of everything that happened during the day and still seemed very excited about the experience.  On day two she asked me to stay and play with her when I dropped her off.  I told her that Mamas aren’t allowed to stay at school and gave her a kiss good-bye.  She seemed ok with it and began playing as I left.  That day after school she told me about her day but did so with less detail and enthusiasm.  On day three, she absolutely did not want to go.  When we got to the school she clutched on to my neck and begged me to stay.  She still didn’t cry as some kids do but it was very hard to leave her.  When I returned to pick her up that afternoon the teacher walked out with her and asked me if I knew of a reason why she had not wanted to stay that morning.  I didn’t.  She proceeded to let me know that my daughter “had an accident” that day and urinated in her pants. This is quite alarming to me since my daughter has NEVER had an accident since becoming potty trained a couple of months ago.  My little girl can hold it and does routinely when we’re out and about running errands, etc.  After getting in the car I asked her what she did during her day at school and she gave me very superficial answers with little detail. I asked her about the “accident” and she said her teacher was nice to her and didn’t get mad.  I thought to myself, “ok, a bump in the road, nothing to be worried about.”  Then later in the day my daughter started crying and told me that she doesn’t want to go back to school.  When we passed her school in the car she cried out “I don’t like my school!”  I tried not to pressure her too much trying to get more information so later I brought it up and asked her why she doesn’t like her school any more.  She replied very directly that she doesn’t like Miss Laurie, her teacher.  When I pressed for more information as to why she began crying and told me she didn’t want to talk about it.  I asked if the teacher was mean or if something bad happened and my daughter completely clammed up and wouldn’t discuss it.  At first I thought maybe the “accident” was the turning point but upon further reflection I’m afraid the “accident” is a symptom of my daughter’s uneasiness and unhappiness at the school since she’s never had a problem like that anywhere else.  One other note: my little girl is amazingly articulate for an almost 3 year old and can communicate very clearly and very specifically which is how I’ve been able to talk to her so much about her excitement prior, experiences for the first two days, etc.


I’m distraught and don’t know what to do.  On one hand, I realize children have difficulty adjusting to school and do not want to pull her out of the class thus preventing this adjustment.  However, my daughter was SO EXCITED to go there, the drastic turn-around is alarming.  Coupled with her out of character refusal to talk about why she doesn’t like her school or teacher, I’m worried that something bad has happened and I’m afraid to send her back.  Please give me some advice!




Dear Lauri,

First of all, it sounds like you did everything right in preparing your daughter for preschool. You definitely covered the bases. Good work! But even when you do everything right, things can go wrong. Not your fault, it’s just life.

Sometimes toddlers think going to preschool is a great idea until the reality sets in that you won’t be going, too. Then all hell breaks loose and they loose all interest. Some kids breeze through the adjustment period while others struggle a bit (or a lot). There is a wide range of normal here. But I have to admit that the situation you describe makes me a little uncomfortable, too.

Your daughter’s reaction sounds like it’s a bit more extreme than the norm. It could be a combination of her personality and the fact that you have never been separated before, or it could be something else. Very hard to tell. The bottom line is that you need more information before deciding what to do. And since it’s impossible to find out from a three-year-old what is truly going on at school, you are going to have to do some investigating.

I would talk to other parents (current and past) whose children have gone to that school. Ask lots of questions about how things are handled, what the teacher is like with the kids, whether their children had any negative experiences, etc. But more importantly, I would focus my attention on the teacher herself.

See if you can meet privately with her and explain your concerns. Let her know that you are baffled as to why  your daughter won’t go back and see if she can shed any light on what went on those first three days. Also ask about the “accident” and try to get her take on what precipitated it. Let her know that this is extremely unusual behavior for your daughter and that you are concerned about it. Ask if there are any children in class who your daughter had problems with and find out how the problems were (or were not) handled.

Then, ask if you could come in to volunteer a few times so that your daughter can start again with a strong sense of security knowing you are there. Let Miss Laurie know that you will be happy to help out in whatever way works best for her but that at this point you need to see that your daughter is comfortable at school before you can be comfortable yourself.

Hopefully, she will be agreeable. Then, explain to your daughter that Miss Laurie asked you to come in to help and that you are very excited to go. After spending time there you may see that all is well and and figure that your daughter was just missing you those first few days. In the meantime, she will have had a chance to get familiar with the people and the place with you close by for comfort and security.

If, on the other hand, you hear horror stories from the other parents; or Miss Laurie is resistant, or doesn’t allow parents to come in as occasional helpers (especially given the situation); or you don’t like what you see once you get there, you might want to find a different pre-school and chalk the whole thing up to experience. If that’s the case, make sure the next one has an open door policy regarding parents and start off by visiting together several times until your daughter feels good to go on her own.

And just remember, this too shall pass! Good luck and let us know what happens.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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2 responses to “Pre-School Nightmares?”

  1. Hazel M. Wheeler

    Reading Lauri’s question reminded me of a couple of things I noticed in my own years as a preschool teacher. Ellen has many good suggestions, and I just wanted to add one or two more thoughts…

    Sometimes, when children begin preschool, they become so engaged in playing that they forget to stop and use the potty. It might be worthwhile to mention to the teacher that the child needs to be told (not asked) to go use the toilet every so often. I did notice that, at the beginning of the school year, the many activities of our day so engaged the children that there were frequent accidents, sometimes from children who really had toileting down pat at home.

    Another thing to consider is that preschool is Work for children who are just starting out. The routines we have at home work so well, and likely allows the child much room for independent choice. While there should be Free Play times scheduled into a child’s preschool day, it is work to follow the group through the day’s transitions (gatherings, handwashing, toileting, snacks and other group times) and to do what the teacher is asking as the teacher asks. Over the years, I have had several youngsters in my group who really needed a few months of attendance before they could come into preschool without tears. They were learning a whole new way of being at school. I also want to reassure you that as the time passed, these children thrived in the preschool environment and began playing in groups, which is another serious effort on the part of young children.

    My own son went through several weeks of “I don’t want to go to school” as his wonderful teachers moved him away from parallel play and into group play. So I do understand, too, how it is as a parent.

    Preschool is both a challenge and a wonderful opportunity for growth. Growth isn’t usually easy, is it? Children do learn a valuable lesson, though, when a parent does the research in discovering what might be the cause of a child’s upset, and if there are no red flags, continue in encouraging their children to explore these safe, new situations. One of the least spoken-of advantages of preschool is that the young child gets to experience other adults (besides their parents or grandparents/family) as being dependable, empathetic and caring people. To learn that people other than mom or dad can–and want to– help them is a huge reassurance as they move toward kindergarten.

  2. Rachel Zahn

    Those comments are invaluable, Hazel — thank you. It’s so helpful to see it from the viewpoint of a teacher who’s followed the transition with so many children. We tend to forget that school, even preschool, is the equivalent of a job for us grown-ups. Remember the last time you started a new job, and how much adjustment that took?

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