Skipping a Year of Preschool

We have recently had some discussions with our preschool about whether our 2-1/2 year old son should be moved up a class. Cognitively, he strikes us as very advanced: he mastered his alphabet almost a year ago, has been counting to twenty fairly consistently for 6 months, and consistently masters many tasks (puzzles, name recognition, etc.) very quickly. However, his “executive function” and self-regulation skills are more typical for kids his age, and he has trouble sitting still at the right times. We are a little concerned that some of his control issue may stem from boredom with subject matter that he has mastered long ago, and that he is modeling his behavior on the younger kids around him. We know that preschool is more about socialization and self-regulation than with the alphabet, and we don’t want to sound like the stereotypical “nightmare parents,” but how do we work with our school and teachers to make sure our son receives appropriate intellectual challenges while getting the support he needs with his self-regulation? How do we know whether his behavior is developmentally appropriate or stemming from boredom? —Skip

This is a question I’ve helped a number of families address over the years. It sounds like you’re aware of a lot of the relevant issues—namely, your son’s needs, both intellectual and emotional. Let me try to answer in a couple of ways: from a child-development perspective; from the perspective of a preschool teacher; and from what you should think about as parents.

Early childhood educators often talk about teaching “the whole child,” a short-hand phrase for the combination of the various “developmental domains.” Basically, you can talk about physical development, cognitive development, and socio-emotional development independently, but it’s important to remember that these domains interact with each other. Any time you’re trying to teach in one domain, you’re always teaching something in the others too, and the most effective teaching addresses all of them at once. But just because all the domains are connected doesn’t mean they all develop at the same pace.

As you’ve noticed, some children put a lot of energy into cognitive development and let the other domains catch up later; it’s also common to see  children who develop physical skills remarkably quickly but take much longer to build language and social skills. That’s not a better or worse way to develop than all at the same pace—it’s just the way some kids are. All of that is just to say that even if your son is “ahead of the curve” in one domain, think about what he’s still learning in others.

On the question of whether some of your son’s negative behaviors are being picked up from less-mature children around him, that’s certainly possible. Groups of children, like any other groups, have their own cultures, and those cultures can be positive things like sharing or acceptance of diversity as well as negative things like bullying or not listening to teachers. (For reading on children’s culture, read William Corsaro’s fascinating and entertaining gorillas-in-the-mist approach to the preschool classroom, We’re Friends, Right?)

But it’s much more common that repeated negative behaviors in a child are a sign that some of his needs aren’t being met. It can often take some detective work to figure out the connection between the un-met need and the negative behavior (for tips on this, see this article I wrote for NAEYC on observing children). But an easy question to ask is, does your son show negative behaviors at school that he doesn’t show at home? If so, there may be some aspect of the preschool environment that isn’t meeting his needs.

And all that being said, it’s entirely developmentally appropriate for children between the ages of 2 and 5 to have trouble with self-control and patience. If you’re really worried that your son is unable to sit still, ask your pediatrician, but your brief description doesn’t make me think he’s anything other than a normal, healthy two-year-old with a little bit of energy.

So that’s the developmental perspective. As a teacher in the classroom, I think all the time about meeting the needs of “the whole child.” Even more, I think all the time about meeting the diverse needs of a group of children. Every classroom is “mixed-age”: a classroom of “all 2’s” has some children almost 50% older than others! Someone is always the oldest, and someone is always the youngest. And kids are always growing, so an activity that’s perfect in September might be all wrong in April. A smart teacher plans curriculum that is adaptable to a wide range of developmental needs and skills. For instance, activities that are self-chosen allow children to find the level of participation that best suits them. Open-ended materials (like blocks or clay or sticks and stones) can be used at increasing levels of sophistication as a child grows and changes. There are many techniques good teachers use to adapt to the changing needs of individuals and groups—Montessori schools and schools inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach often pay particular attention to this issue.

So how should you be thinking about this stuff, as parents? The first thing to do, which it sounds like you’ve done, is to simply open a dialogue about it. Ask your teachers, generally speaking, how they address the diverse developmental needs of different children in a single classroom. If you’re seeing behaviors in your son that you don’t like, ask if they’ve noticed the same behaviors and how they are approaching them. If you worry that some of his developmental needs aren’t being met, tell them, and give them an opportunity to make appropriate changes if need be. And make sure you approach the issue with compassion—we teachers are as sensitive to critiques of our teaching as parents are to critiques of their parenting!

If, after talking about the problems and trying to make changes, you feel like your son’s needs still aren’t being met, then yes, by all means, move him to a new classroom. And if that’s the case, the sooner the better, so he has the most time to adjust to the new environment and expectations.

But remember: smart kids will stay smart. You don’t need to worry about that. Contrastingly, self-regulation skills need to be learned and taught, and a preschool classroom with sensitive, attentive teachers is one of the best places in the world to practice those skills. They’re the hardest skills to learn later on, so better to spend more time on it now, while you can. (See my blog post about executive function.)

Finally, I’ll mention that even if there are all the reasons in the world to move your son ahead a year, remember that he’ll be moving into a group of children who are as much as a year more developed than he is in their social skills, and every one of whom will have received a year more social-skills teaching than he will have. The children in an older class are likely to have spent at least a year together building relationships and friendships. I’ve seen extremely smart, competent children skip a year of preschool only to spend the next six months trying to feel comfortable socially. That’s not to say it’s always like that, and that good teachers can’t do a lot to mitigate it, and that it wouldn’t be worth it. But social challenges would be part of the bargain, so you’d have to be prepared for that.

Only you and your teachers can decide if moving ahead a year is right for your son—and sometimes that is the right choice. But in most cases I’d try as much as possible to meet his needs in the classroom he’s in first.

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Need more personalized help working together with your child’s teachers? I can help!

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One thought on “Skipping a Year of Preschool

  1. Lisa November 30, 2012 at 4:37 am Reply

    As the parent of a high school senior, I would also suggest that parents look ahead to middle school, high school and college. Do you want your 10 year old in middle school? Your 13 year old in highschool? Your 17 year old going off to college? Concern over social development, maturity and readiness shouldn’t end at preschool.

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