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Ask the Experts

How Can I Help My Preschooler Be More Attentive?

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

My 4-year-old daughter recently started preschool. This is her first time in school. Her teacher says she has problems listening and following directions. I don't notice these behaviors at home. How can I help her be more attentive in school?

Answer:

At four years of age, children are full of energy in many different ways. Physically they show dramatic increases in motor skills, meaning they can run, jump, climb and skip faster than ever. They need frequent opportunities to engage in physical activity to burn off excess energy. They can draw, color, cut and paste with greater efficiency than ever before, increasing their interest in all kinds of crafts and art. Cognitively their thinking abilities have grown to the point that they enjoy pretending, and they especially love to explore and ask questions about absolutely everything. Socially 4-year-olds are very interested in other children. They are eager to play with new friends, using all of the skills mentioned above. As such, starting your daughter in preschool was a terrific idea! This school year she will learn many important skills that will serve her well when she starts elementary school next year.

Listening, paying attention and following directions are among those important skills; obviously, your daughter will need them throughout her school career. However, because she is young and has not been in a structured school setting before, it's not surprising that these skills are not well developed. It is relatively early in the school year, and your daughter may still be a bit overwhelmed and over-stimulated with all of the exciting opportunities she is faced with each day.

Ask your daughter's preschool teacher to clarify what she meant by the comment. For example, does your daughter fidget during floor activities such as story time, or rush through one activity so she can move on to the next? Such behaviors are normal for her age. Or is she disruptive, such as showing aggression towards others or blatantly defying the teacher's directions? These would be legitimate concerns.

You mentioned that you have not seen these troublesome behaviors from your daughter at home; if you have rules in place for her and you set limits when she misbehaves, then you probably do not need to change anything you're doing at home right now. However, if your daughter is indeed disruptive or aggressive at school, or if her behaviors continue as the school year progresses, schedule an appointment with her pediatrician to get a medical opinion and rule out any physiological issues. Be sure your doctor includes hearing and vision screening in his evaluation.


Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

12/9/2011:
"I have the same problem with my child who will be 5 in Jan. This is his 2nd yr in preschool. He is constantly on the go in class. He has his great days but then he has days he is horrible in class. At home is stays active and such but does farely well with us. I try different rewards for him if he has a good day. If he acts up I talk to him about what he did and why he shouldn't do it and also encourage him to do lots better. "
07/8/2011:
"i am looking for a full day pre school in queens ny,(laurelton, queens village cambria heights area) public or private "
04/26/2010:
"my 4 year old son is in preschool for children with behavior problems,we have a problem with his spitting and hitting the other children he is very sociable and likeable but the spitting is a problem any suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks"
02/26/2009:
"My four year old son is very energetic and does find it hard to concentrate on things for very long, which is normal for his age. I did however have him tested for autism since the teacher thought that he was showing some signs. The test came out negative on all spectrums. They did however find that he was several years behind developmentally and with his speech. Having such testing done can help the school provide your child services after performing an Action and Review or ARD. Most school districts provide occupational and speech therapy at no cost to the family. You may want to look into that if there are no other explanations."
02/23/2009:
"My son just turned 5, and started pre-k in Oct. He is not moving forward but yet backwards. He is being disruptive in the class, very aggresive towards the other children, and was suspended from class. Everyday is a terrible day for him in school. He spends more time in the principles office then in the class room. I am not sure what to do at this point. What or where should I turn for help? Concerned parent"
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