Ask the Child Psychologist: Fear of the Preschool Teacher
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Children being afraid of their teacher is a fairly common occurrence, especially at the beginning of the school year. You may also see some fear of the teacher after breaks, such as a long weekend or winter vacation. Parents have to walk a thin line between teaching their children to have a healthy wariness of strangers, yet making them comfortable with trusted adults. Young children do not yet have the brain development to make the fine distinctions between categories that older children do, nor do they have the years of experience needed to develop an intuition for sensing the difference between safe and suspicious.
Many preschools have an orientation day where the children can meet the teacher and get a sense of what the classroom is like so that they are prepared for the first day of school. Make sure to attend this orientation, and perhaps go even further by asking the teacher if you can return one more time to quickly visit the classroom and spend some time playing on the playground. The more you prepare your child for the start of school in a way that is positive and optimistic, the easier the first day will be. However, even children who are well-prepared for school may exhibit some fears of school and/or the teacher. Here are some suggestions for helping a child who is scared of his or her preschool teacher:
- Do not try to brush off her feelings by saying, “You’re not really afraid,” or ‘Your teacher isn’t scary!” When you tell children that their feelings are incorrect or inappropriate, they learn to doubt their own emotions and may become anxious about expressing those emotions to others. Instead, listen to your child and show her that you understand by reflecting what she says back to her, such as, “It sounds like you were very upset at school today.” Make sure to stay calm and do not fuel her fears by getting upset or blaming the teacher.
- On the other hand, do not let her dwell on her feelings or show her that she will get an excessive amount of attention when she shows fear. Listen to what your child has to say until you think that you really understand what she is feeling and why. Then reassure her that you will work together to find a solution to her problem. Tell her (often) that your job is to protect her and that you will not let anyone hurt her.
- Your child may be afraid because the rules at school are different than the rules at home. Talk about why the teacher may have a rule (or a way of enforcing it) that seems scary merely because it is different than what your child is used to.
- Do not be afraid to approach the teacher for help. The preschool teacher should have experience in dealing with children who are afraid of her, and she should not be offended or take it personally. Take care not to sound accusatory or to blame the teacher – just explain what your child has said or done to indicate fear, and ask for her advice about how to handle the situation.
- Ask the teacher if you can come in a few minutes before school starts so that you can spend some calm time together getting adjusted to the classroom environment. However, when school starts, make sure that you give your child a kiss, tell him that you love him, and walk out the door. Do not get caught in a pattern of staying too long or taking him home because he starts to get upset when you leave.
- Give your child an easy phrase to say to herself, such as “I’m okay,” or a short song to sing to herself when she starts to feel scared. You will be helping her develop skills for soothing herself when she feels anxious.
- There are many great books about children dealing with fears about going to preschool. Ask your librarian for some recommendations. Read the books together and talk about how the main character feels and how he or she deals with fear.
- Sometimes fears that show up at school can be a reflection of issues that are occurring at home. Think about what was going on in your child’s life when the fear of the teacher began. Did any major stressors occur in the family? Make sure that changes in routine are kept to a minimum. If any conflict between other family members exists, try to keep loud arguments and hostile comments away from your child as much as possible. Give your child lots of positive, one-on-one attention so that he does not feel like he has to express fear in order to get you to notice him. In addition, make sure that you allow some extra time for getting ready in the morning so that your child does not arrive at school already in a state of stress.
- While it may be unlikely, it is certainly possible that your child really does have something to fear about the teacher or the school environment. Ask if you can volunteer in the classroom so that you can get a sense of how the teacher usually interacts with the children. Talk to other parents to see if their children have any fears about school. Approach the preschool director to voice your concerns, but again, take care not to make accusations. Frame the conversation as worrying about your child and wondering what might be going on in the classroom to trigger the fear your child is experiencing. If you are seriously concerned that your child’s fear is a result of something about the teacher or the school, and not a general fear of school or separating from you, you need to remove your child from the environment immediately.
If you have talked to the teacher and tried some of the suggestions above, but the fear still seems to persist for many weeks without seeming to lessen in severity, consult your pediatrician or a mental health professional for assistance.