Alright, you’ve got a 4-year old, they’re deep in the limbic leap- and everything new or unexpected is being treated like it’s going to end them.
If you’re unfamiliar with the limbic leap, I’ll give you a quick synopsis here, but I really suggest you go find my episode on the limbic leap and give that 20 minutes of your time because we go a lot more in-depth there. Basically, around 4 the part of our brain that is responsible for our safety our amygdala goes through this wild growth spurt.
It triples in volume and because of that it’s super sensitive and active, which means it lies to us and perceives anything new or unexpected as mortal danger.
Your 4-year-old literally thinks anything new or that they weren’t anticipating is going to kill them. It’s not rational the limbic system, which is where the amygdala is in the brain has no access to reason. It can’t do that.
This means that for 4-year-olds consistency and predictability are a big deal because those are the indicators that show them that they are safe.
Anything new or unexpected is potential danger, anything familiar or expected is old news.
This causes a huge problem when you have large life changes in that 4-ish year old year.
It’s an unfortunate truth that often 4-year-olds are experiencing big life changes like getting a new sibling, moving, or starting a new school.
Parents often time these transitions specifically like a 3-year age gap is actually a really great spacing of kids, but that means there’s an infant in the house when you have a 4-year-old.
Often parents will specifically plan their move, especially big moves, when their child is 4 so that it’s before they officially start school.
Then you have the fact that in many areas of the world, here included, children start kindergarten at age 4 or 5- which is a huge shift from daycare.
New, unexpected things…are often a fixture of a 4-year-old’s life and it’s just really bad timing.
Clearly, the word about this is starting to spread because I’ve had a tonne of parents realize in the last week or two that omg if school is ending, that means we’re on the clock to school starting for my kiddo…and there’s no way they’re ready. They’re melting down all the time, they’re being defiant, they’re really struggling with the current situation…how in hell am I supposed to make kindergarten a positive experience for them?!
Here are a few things you can start doing now that will make September easier for you both.
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First: Start exposing them to their evironment
Take them to the school, and start playing in the yard a couple times a week. Walk around the building.
If you can, see if you can just go walk the halls with them some schools are open to the public for events or camps during the summer and you may be able to pop in just make sure if there is a camp or something going on, you ask first.
Start making the school building familiar by exposing them to it on a regular basis.
Think of when you go for a job interview or you’re going to an event in an unfamiliar place. You probably scope it out first.
If you’re anxious like me, you probably show up way early so that you can get the lay of the land.
If you’re seriously type-A you might even do a dry run.
There is nothing more anxiety-inducing then feeling like anything unexpected might kill you so do the dry runs.
If you have photos of the inside of the school, or you did a tour at some point, use those photos and make your child a picture book and talk about the school and the routine over the summer.
I have a client whose son started kindergarten last Septembe and she was completely blindsided when her son had a total destructive meltdown on the first day of school because his daycare was in the same building as the school so she thought oh this’ll be no big deal.
When he got off the bus and there was a stranger standing there leading him to the opposite side of the building, he freaked out because nobody had prepared him for that.
He took a school bus to daycare!
He was expecting his old, familiar, comforting routine and suddenly he was being guided to a playground he’d never spent time in, he was being given new rules and responsibilities that he wasn’t prepared for and he lost it.
Talk about what will happen at school, visit the environment if you can, and make them as familiar as possible with it as you can.
Second: Practice the skills they will need
Even if your child has been in daycare since infancy.
In daycare, it’s a care situation, the staff is expected and permitted to support your child in doing care tasks like keeping track of their stuff, feeding them, helping them put their outdoor gear on, toileting, co-regulating, etc.
In school not only do they generally not have the staff available to support your child with those things…most classrooms have 1 teacher to 15 students.
Here in Ontario you’ve got one classroom teacher and one ECE to approximately 30 kids. They don’t have the manpower to support your child with those things.
They also aren’t allowed to support your child with those things unless they have an IEP.
They can’t help your child in the bathroom!
They often aren’t allowed to touch your child’s food.
Your kiddo needs to be able to do these things themselves as much as possible.
If they’re self-reliant, they won’t get danger signals from adults “withholding” things they need.
When I was an early interventionist I was in a kinder classroom with a little boy who was completely blind.
In Canada, children bring their lunch and snacks to school and eat in their classrooms and I remember the teacher shaking her head on the first day- because I spent snack period helping all the typical kids open their snack containers.
While my little blind client easily opened his own because we’d practiced and think of it a lot of these skills are basic needs.
Children get panicked when they’re hungry, because that amygdala goes “OMG we have restricted access to food and we’re so hungry- we’re going to DIE!!”
Or if they need to pee and they can’t get their own pants off, they rightfully panic about wetting themselves.
Or if everyone else is heading out to recess and they can’t get their shoes on, they panic about being left behind.
So you want to work on those skills so that they aren’t in a situation where their lack of skill is going to create a feeling of being unsafe.
-Toileting independently- if your child can’t get themselves on the potty yet, or they can’t wipe their own butt now is the time to start working on that.
– Opening and closing their own lunch and snack containers- serve them their lunch and snacks in the containers or bento box they will be using at school. Buy them now. They’re cheaper now anyways.
– Practice putting their own shoes on and taking them off. Most schools require children to change their shoes in the building. Two adults cannot be helping 30 children put shoes on and off 3-5 times a day. If your child can’t get their shoes on or off by themselves, get different shoes. Slip-ons are the best.
-Putting on their own jacket and zipping it up. Again 2 adults, 30 kids. Practice the zipper. And any other outdoor gear they may need. Canadian moms we’re trying on their snowsuits in August anyways. Yes, I know if you live in the south that sounds insane- but snow suits go on sale in September and are usually sold out by November, and the closer we get to snow the more expensive they get. So while you’re trying on their suit- get them to do it up! Don’t help them!
– Packing their own bag. Kids have a lot of stuff to remember lunch bags and note totes and hats and mitts and neckwarmers. Practice putting all those things into their bag and shutting it and getting it on their own back.
– Identifying their own name. They don’t have to be able to write their own name, but they need to recognize it by sight. If you have a child with a vision impairment, start practicing recognizing their name in braille.
I’m sure there’s more but those are the big things.
If they can do those things then it’s much less likely they’ll be in a situation where they feel unsafe because they’re relying on a stranger who is way outnumbered to meet their basic needs.
Which means they’ll stay much calmer.
Third: Identify and start practicing their weak executive skills every day just for 10 minutes.
Those executive skills are the tools we use to do literally everything and as I said in daycare, at home, the adults in their lives often really compensate for their weak skills.
This will not be the case in school the demands on their skills are much higher in an educational setting.
Which means they’ll have to use those skills much more frequently and weak skills require a lot of energy to use.
While they might have been fine using their working memory 3 times an hour in daycare, if at school they have to use it 6-7 times an hour, that’s going to train their energy way faster.
Depleted children are dysregulated children.
This the primary reason for children having massive behaviour events at school.
Their skills are weak compared to the demands that are being put on them and when we’re low on energy when we’re depleted and therefore dysregulated our body is going to prioritize safety over everything else.
If everything new and unexpected is considered dangerous…can you see the perfect storm this creates?
One of the most impactful things you can do to make your child’s transition to school easier, is to give them a jump start on practicing those skills.
The more we use a skill, the easier it becomes just like anything, right?
The more you do it, the more familiar it becomes, and the faster and easier it is to do.
Identify their weak spots, and practice using those weak skills every day.
Now if you don’t know how to do that I strongly suggest you come and join us in ParentAbility because that’s what I guide you through.
First getting your child regulated, and then identifying the skills that are dysregulating them and making them stronger.
Calm, competent kids are well-behaved kids!
If you have concerns about your child’s ability to stay calm, or to use their executive skills at the level that school will demand then the time to start working on those is now, not in September.
If you wait until September you’re playing catch up already. Get out in front of it now. Be proactive about it.
If you’d like to learn more about ParentAbility, I have a free class that’s available at the link in the description that will explain how all these factors interact in a bit more depth so that you can make sure this is actually the best fit for your family, and if the way I do things and teach these things makes sense. You’ll have the opportunity to join us immediately after the class.
I hope that you feel more prepared to prepare your 4-year-old for their transition into school. If you start now you’ll be in a fantastic place by September.
Any questions you have about how to apply this to your family or any of the concepts come join us in the Parenting Posse and we’d be happy to support you!