All you Need is a Star
The Rascal’s relationship with preschool is “It’s complicated”. After being home with me for almost 3 years, he was used to pottering about doing his own thing both indoors and outdoors. I was in two minds about sending him to preschool when he finally qualified for his one year of ECCE placement. Especially with a new sibling on the way. Was it too soon to restrict him with a more rigid structure to the day? Would the benefits of socialising outweigh the negatives? When I discovered we had a child-led forest school literally ten minutes drive from the house it sounded like an ideal choice. We paid a deposit to put his name on the waiting list and then we had a long wait to see if he would get a place.
All summer as my stomach grew bigger with Boo, we were still unsure if there would be a place for him. Should I prepare him for striking out on his own in September? Or for traipsing about baby groups where he would suddenly be the oldest by a very large gap? It was only a couple of weeks before Boo’s due date when we finally got confirmation that there was a place for the Rascal. We didn’t know until Boo finally arrived 2 weeks late, but the Rascal’s school experience would start literally the day after his father went back to work from paternity leave. Not exactly ideal timing. We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
The initial visits went well. He soon left me and Boo to explore the natural landscape, barely looking back. Even the first few shorter days went reasonably well. He’d settle after a little while and get distracted by something. I’d leave and pick him up later. He was a bit slow to settle some days, but things were still going okay. Then the full days (3.5 hours) began. It all started to go downhill…
Ever tried to walk out the door when your child doesn’t want you to? Ever tried to walk out that door with a heavy newborn in your arms and the other child wrapped around your leg holding on for dear life? Some days it took an hour for me to extricate myself without him tackling me on the way out. I couldn’t plan for doing anything on my ‘free’ mornings with Boo because I never knew how the preschool drop-off would go. At pickup he was a different child. Full of chat about his day. Telling me about the activities he’d done. But mention going back, and he was adamant he wasn’t going.
Month three into this and still no sign of him ‘settling’ in. We tried everything. I took him. His father brought him. The softly, gently approaches. The tough love methods. Nothing worked. I spoke to the preschool and agreed that they would have someone available to physically take the Rascal at the door. Drop-offs became fast, but very painful. As soon as the car made the turn onto the school road the objections would start. “I’m not going to preschool. I don’t like preschool. Don’t make me go to preschool. I don’t like my friends there”. Once his seatbelt was opened he’d make a dash for the far side of the car. I’d catch him, scoop up both him and his bag, and carry him to the door. He kicked. He screamed. He begged, “Please don’t make me go!”. Then the carer would help to prise his fingers from my clothes and I would walk off to the sound of a total meltdown. Avoiding the gaze of other parents as their children skipped happily in the door.
He employed evermore imaginative tactics. “I can’t stop hitting my friends” was an admirable attempt, but not a claim I believed. Then he offered to sit in the car all day rather than go in. It was impossible not to feel like we were doing the wrong thing by over-ruling him when he was so upset about it. The carer said he was fine within minutes each morning despite the histrionics. But that was the part I got to witness. I’d swing from feeling like the worst parent in the world at the start of the day, to feeling like this was something he had to get over for his own good as he bounced back out the same door at the end of the day. Even delegating mornings to Brodie didn’t diminish the guilt and worry.
Then one Monday morning Brodie cracked under the pressure of the daily breakfast face-off. “Go to school without a meltdown and you’ll get a present at the end of the day”, he said. And guess what happened? That little fecker pranced in the door with a smile on his face. Not even a backward glance. The first thing he said at pickup was “Where’s Daddy? Where’s my present?!” He got a little dinosaur toy from my stash of second hand toys and was delighted with himself. Not only that, but he didn’t once start his usual “I’m not going to preschool tomorrow” tirade. Instead it was, “What present am I getting tomorrow?”
Bribery is bad. We all know that. But… it is an effective short-term solution, even if you pay for it later. Still, it wasn’t a solution I wanted to repeat every week. Given a choice between bribery and epic tantrums every morning, bribery was going to win out. The lesser of two evils was to bring back the reward chart system, though I’m not a huge fan of it. So I showed him the calendar, and drew a coloured star in the Monday box. We made a deal to do something nice after he got 5 stars. Something that isn’t a present, no matter how much he suggests it.
4 days later and he was getting his last star. He happily settled for a croissant and some tv as his reward. Not only does he run into school in the mornings talking about getting his star for the day… he insisted on going into preschool one day rather than stay home sick. So much for all the Mammy and Daddy guilt. For wondering if he just wasn’t ready, or if the socialising he was doing was worth the trauma. Forget gently settling him into the school day, or trying to appeal to his limited logic. Ultimately it turns out that love is not the answer after all. All you need is a star. My kid will do almost anything for a star.