My preschooler's behavior and skills have regressed

By Dr. Joseph Gianesin, Behavioral Consultant


My 4-year-old son has always been very advanced for his age. Recently I placed him in preschool, and he seems to be regressing. He does not want to follow instructions, and says very negative and aggressive things. His writing skills have not improved. If I read a book to him or sit him down with a workbook, he quickly memorizes what's in the book, and loses interest in reading it again. He refuses to sit still to learn and doesn't follow my or my husband's verbal commands. Surprisingly, he does follow the instructions of his teachers.

He just took the Gifted & Talented Exam and ranked at 75%. Not what I expected since I was only able to go over the practice test with him once because he memorized the answers.

I don't know how to help my son maximize his potential. He loves to build things and puts puzzles together in record time, but self- control, focus and discipline are the main concerns. My husband and I are not very good in the discipline department. We are yellers.

I'm afraid for him to start kindergarten with his disposition. We placed him in soccer and karate but to no avail. Should we get him evaluated? His pediatrician says he is fine and advanced for his age, but I'm still worried. Please let me know what we can do to help our son.


The key to answering most of your questions has to do with your son's age, gender and developmental milestones. In the first part of your inquiry, you state that your son "seems to be digressing, says very negative and aggressive things, and that his writing skills have not improved even though he has demonstrated to be advanced for his age." This is not unusual for a 4-year-old boy. Many 4-year-olds develop at different rates cognitively, behaviorally and physiologically.

If your son is entering preschool for the very first time, he is likely being exposed to a variety of behavior patterns on the part of the other children. You can't (and shouldn't) protect him from that, as this is his time to learn how to navigate socially with other children his age. Remember that it has been just a year or two from having established any independence from you. You will recall the terrible two and threes where he discovered the word "no." His negative attitude and aggression is normal for his age group.

Some current research demonstrates that boys and girls develop cognitively very differently from one another. Their brains are wired differently. A wonderful and compelling book on boys to read is Michael Gurian's The Minds of Boys. In it, he describes a preschool teacher's response to boys at his age. He relates that boys are much more active than girls, less willing to sit still and listen at story time, or complete worksheets when working on letters and numbers. Boys want to play, and everything they play is loud. Boys at this age are developing their gross motor skills and love everything kinetic. Michael Gurian suggests that schools and parents begin to make the environments more 'boy friendly' by providing work spaces and areas for lots of movement.

You mentioned that he recently took the Gifted and Talented Exam which leads me to believe you want to challenge him, and have him make the most of his potential. It is a little early to make any clear assessments of a 4-year-old child's potential. There is enough pressure these days on young children to do well academically in school, so relax and enjoy his active nature and inquisitive mind without too much expectation. If he is as bright as you think, reading and writing will come easily to him, and he will excel when he is developmentally ready to do so.

In your question, you state that he does follow the instructions of his teachers but that your main concern is his focus, self-control and discipline. I suggest that you and your husband take a parenting skills class that will help you learn to set limits without the yelling you describe. I have always liked the program "Parent Effectiveness Training," which is easy to learn and seems to calm the whole household down. You might even talk to your son's teachers or observe them in the classroom to see how they get him to follow their directions.

Lastly, this is a wonderful age to enjoy your son's rambunctious zest for life. Soccer and karate are great, but I suggest you delay these activities until he's a little older and can benefit from them. Most programs like these work best for ages 6, 7 or above. First, he needs to learn to play and share with other children. Piaget referred to this as parallel play and interactive play. Watch him develop from playing next to another child ("parallel play") to sharing toys and interacting ("interactive play"). This shift in his behavior will be an indication that he's ready for group activities like sports.

Dr. Joseph Gianesin is a professor at Springfield College School of Social Work. He has more than 25 years of experience as a child and family therapist, a school social worker and a school administrator. Along with his academic appointment, Dr. Gianesin is a program and behavioral consultant for public schools in Massachusetts, helping them develop and manage programs for children with significant mental health problems.

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.