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My preschooler is not participating in activities

By Debra Collins, Family therapist

Question:

My 4-year-old is enrolled in a summer activity, and the teacher informed me that she has not been participating in some of the games. She stands with her arms crossed and will not play. This is not the first time this has happened. I am a stay-at-home mom, and I always have her participate in activities with other children her age, and she loves it. When we go home, she talks nonstop about the things she does.

I talk to her about being slow to participate, and tell her that by the time she finally is ready to play a game, it's time to go or the game is over. I tell her it is rude to make people wait on her. My husband says she is shy; I say no way. To me, that is rude and unacceptable behavior, and when I have pushed her to go play or talk, she will. What should I do?

Answer:

One purpose of preschool is to learn how to have appropriate peer relationships. You do want her to be cooperative and follow rules, schedules, and instructions, because those skills are necessary for a positive experience in kindergarten.

I think that both you and your husband have valid points. It appears that you want her to learn social skills, which involves cooperation and good manners, and your husband wants to take into account her temperament. A four–year-old doesn’t necessarily grasp what “being rude” is. She may only understand that she is uncomfortable with a particular situation but does not comprehend what she is feeling or how to tell you or her teacher. It is good that she reports liking school overall, so it may be that there is something difficult for her with certain activities or transitions.

Your daughter probably does better with you because she knows what to expect and your presence is comforting. You can ask the teacher to guide her through a new activity to encourage participation.

Her teacher can also help her by making sure she understands the activity. See that there is enough time to transition. If the children don’t have a choice of games or activities, then having clear rules about nonparticipation is helpful. This way she is not disruptive but is also not forced to join in. The teacher might suggest alternative behaviors.

You can play school at home, which often reveals what the trouble is. Then you and the teacher can come up with solutions.

Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

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.