Nearly all parents have been there. You wake up in the morning, and your child does not want to go to school. Maybe your little preschooler didn’t get enough sleep the night before, or maybe there’s some part of school they decided they didn’t like. But either way, this kind of mindset is sure to make the morning a challenge for both of you. Of course you want to listen to your little one and support their feelings, but you also want them to learn the value of following through on their commitments. So when it comes to motivating children in preschool, what is the best way to proceed? Here are a few ideas:
Pros and Cons of Motivation
Let’s say your child has suddenly become resistant to going to school. One of the first things you can do is try to find out if something is going on at school that’s upsetting them. Reflect what you see in their actions and what that tells you, then leave it up to them to elaborate. “I see your face getting red. You look mad about going to school!” Then wait, and see if they tell you why. Another useful thing to do is to pull aside your child’s teacher and mention the upset. Ask if there’s something new in the preschool curriculum that could have caused the behavior shift, or if something happened with the other kids at school that might be making your child uncomfortable.
If there’s nothing obvious happening externally that can be fixed, your child might just need some extra motivation. The novelty of school might have worn off and you may need to encourage kids with some extrinsic motivation. There are a few rules of thumb to remember when motivating your child. First, never resort to bribery. Do not use food or candy as a reward or engineer your kid’s behavior by promising something in exchange for going to school. This can set up dangerous habits and associations. A more positive approach is to reward with your words and attention. You can tell your child, “I can see that going to school is hard for you right now. School is a part of life, and I’m here to support you. I know you will get through it. You’re really brave.” Then, when you pick up your child, reinforce the same sentiment: “What a brave kid you are! You went to school and participated today. Let’s go to the park to celebrate.” This approach validates your kid’s feelings and also can help instill a solid sense of self-worth.
Bring School Home
Sometimes, it can be helpful to bring bits and pieces of the preschool curriculum home with you. This can make them more comfortable in areas that they struggle. Ask your child’s teacher if there are any parts of school that your child seems to like or dislike. If your little one is struggling with writing alphabet letters at school, you could introduce sidewalk chalk at home and work on writing letters on the sidewalk, in a fun and stress-free environment.
Or if your kid is drawn to play dough at school, you could further foster this creative streak by presenting them with modeling clay to try at home. And no matter what, it’s always a great idea to read with your kids at home. Reading books goes a long way in motivating children to learn, because it stimulates their imaginations and rapidly expands their vocabularies.
Keep the Dialogue Going
Whether you try rewards or bringing school activities home, the most important part of providing motivation for kids is to communicate openly. If your child is nervous about social interactions, empathize with them. Tell them about a time you struggled to feel included in a peer group, and how you got through it. Give them words they can use with their classmates, and offer to role-play a social situation. Or if your little one doesn’t want to do what the teacher asks, talk with them about why it’s important to listen to teachers and some strategies they can try to enjoy school more. Invite them to share their likes and dislikes, and don’t try to change their feelings. Simply reflect back that you hear what they’re saying, and try to be a valuable resource in helping them navigate the hard parts and celebrate the fun parts.
As you begin the school experience with your preschooler, remember that we all have off days. Children can especially have a hard time dealing with their emotions — so be patient. You might be surprised at how quickly the resistance passes, and how much a little intentionality and a lot of communication can change things for the better. Contact us if you’d like more tips, or to learn about our programs for preschoolers!