Help my 4-year-old learn to love daycare
July 19, 2010 9:56 AM   Subscribe

I recently started a new full-time job. My 4-1/2-year-old hates daycare. What can I do to make this better?

I recently started a new full-time job. I had been working part-time freelance, but felt like I needed to get my career back on track. After applying for a great, great many positions, I was lucky enough to land interesting work for one of the best companies in my field. There are down sides, including a overlong commute (usually about 70 minutes; up to 90 minutes when traffic is at its worst), but given the state of the economy and my recent spotty work history, there is really no question of giving up this job.

My two daughters are M, 4 1/2, and K, almost 2. For the past three weeks they have been going to daycare full time (7 am-6 pm, M-F). The center has 5 classes and maybe 60-80 kids altogether. The girls are in separate rooms and rarely see each other during the day. Prior to my starting this job, M was going to preschool two mornings a week and both girls were going to a nearby family’s house in the afternoons.

I know three weeks isn't that long, but I feel like they should be adjusting to the new situation by now. The little one is doing OK. She typically cries when I drop her off, but the teacher distracts her and normally she has stopped before I make it to the next room. M, however, is another matter. She doesn't want to go, says she wants me to stay home and be with her. She was fine the first week or so, but now every day the dropoff is more wrenching than the day before (lots of tears, pleas for one more hug and kiss, etc). I don’t linger and according to the teacher she does settle down after I leave. I think she has an OK time during the day. When I come pick her up she usually seems happy (if hungry) and talks nonstop about what she did that day. She's pretty outgoing and seems to be making friends.

I'm not really sure what the issue is, other than she just misses me and her little sister. My impression is the teachers are more businesslike compared to her former babysitter and preschool teacher, who were both very warm, loving, momlike, in demeanor. I have no reason to suspect any kind of mistreatment.

So, I'm wondering if what's going on with M reflects a normal adjustment period, compounded by her admittedly dramatic personality? Or if this situation is just a bad fit for her and I need to find a more "family"-like environment?

Parents of MeFi, what would you do? Try to wait it out? Find a new daycare or babysitter? And what should I tell my daughter in the mean time? I hate to see her unhappy, but I don't want to make promises I can't keep. Any suggestions on making this transition easier?
posted by libraryhead to Human Relations (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If she's happy when you pick her up every day, has friends, and obviously had a good time, I would give it a while longer. She's old enough to tell you what her issue is in the morning. Ask her.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:59 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Parents of MeFi, what would you do?

I would do nothing, because I don't think this

My 4-1/2-year-old hates daycare.

is really true. Sounds to me like M likes daycare, is having fun and making friends, all the things daycare is for; but she's having a little separation anxiety in the morning, which dissipates shortly after you leave the building. I think most kids go through this at some point. I don't think there's much to do besides wait it out and try not to worry about it so much.
posted by escabeche at 10:02 AM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

All you're describing is drop-off anxiety -- the only time she's unhappy is when you're leaving her. All other signs point to her doing well in the new situation.

...according to the teacher she does settle down after I leave. I think she has an OK time during the day. When I come pick her up she usually seems happy (if hungry) and talks nonstop about what she did that day. She's pretty outgoing and seems to be making friends.

All sounds normal to me. If I had to armchair this one, I'd say the anxiety might be more from you than her. That's normal too. Stick it out. It'll get better (for everyone). IANYourShrinkfilter
posted by incessant at 10:06 AM on July 19, 2010

By all means wait it out. Switching to another situation would be even more jarring at this point. Meanwhile, remind yourself that it's OK. She will get good things from this experience. And you can use this to help her understand that in life, we don't always get to spend all the time we'd like with the people we love. So we value the time we do get all the more.
posted by dust of the stars at 10:06 AM on July 19, 2010

Just to be clear, it's not just at dropoff. She talks about it when we're at home, too. At bedtime the other night she was all teary asking why I have to go to work.
posted by libraryhead at 10:08 AM on July 19, 2010

It doesn't seem like the issue is her daycare at all, but you going back to work.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:09 AM on July 19, 2010

You're letting the mornings become Moments Of Drama. Tell her before you leave the house, "Today, M, I am going to take you to your room at day care, and I am going to give you a hug, and you are going to give [teacher] a hug, and then I will leave, and you will get to have fun with your friends. Do you understand?" Tell her again while you're in the car. Tell her again before you get out of the car. Tell her again before you take her into the room. Then do it. It will suck. I cannot lie to you about that. But it will get the point across, and eventually, she will realize that mornings aren't so bad, and when you go away, you always come back later.

Also, tell the teacher you're going to be doing this. (I have a feeling the teacher's response will be "Well, it's about damn time...")

On preview, "What incessant said," and also that M is probably picking up on your anxiety as well. I realize it's not as easy as "Don't be like that," but try not to be like that.
posted by Etrigan at 10:10 AM on July 19, 2010

You might want to start some kind of reward program.

Keep a chart in the car. On the days that she cheerfully goes to day care without problems she gets to put a sticker on the chart. You can have her do this right before she gets out of the car. You'll probably have to let little sister do one too, just to be fair.

When she gets enough stickers (a weeks worth maybe) she gets a special treat. I've done similar things with my kids at that age and it seems to work pretty well. The important thing is to make the treat worth it to her. Don't go overboard though, just use something you know she'd like.

As a side note: My middle kid was dying to go to Kindergarten from the time his older sister got to go. When it was his turn to go he'd been looking forward to it and talking about it for a full two years, but it still took him about a month and a half to adjust to the new situation.

On preview:
My husband lost his job last year. He spent months looking for a new one and doing odd jobs to get by. We all got used to having him around the house more, and we really liked that aspect of it. When he did get a new job the kids were upset and didn't understand why he couldn't stay home with us. We had to explain that Daddy went to work to earn the money we used to pay for things like our house and the food we eat. We explained that now that Daddy had a new job we could afford some of the things we'd been going without like movies and treats. They were still upset about it, but it was easier to talk it out with them when they understood why Daddy had to leave them everyday. I don't know, but that might help in your situation.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:29 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

"...other night she was all teary asking why I have to go to work."

"Because I'm a grown-up and that's what grown-ups do."
posted by BostonTerrier at 11:02 AM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

libraryhead: Just to be clear, it's not just at dropoff. She talks about it when we're at home, too. At bedtime the other night she was all teary asking why I have to go to work.

It sounds like your child is having separation anxiety and issues with transitions, so this is not about daycare, per se. Do they still have naptime in your older child's room? How well she settles for naptime (tears vs. no tears) is a good indicator of how she's adjusting to that environment on its own merits.

In general, you can try to address the separation anxiety by taking steps to help your child feel more secure. A wall chart calendar with the days she goes to daycare and a special Friday night ice cream or something for doing a great job at daycare (regardless of tears) is good. You can escalate the chart and reward system later. Are your kids able to spend time alone with each of you one on one in the evenings or at weekends? Do they know this is going to happen? (Some kids *really* need to know what is going to happen, when. I don't know if your child is like this but for those kids, charts are the bomb.)

Although I am not a fan of pressuring little kids to be "big kids" I would also seriously consider making this about "big girls go to school", not "mommy has to go to work." One is a positive achievement and the other is more of a negative loss. Is there something you can give her or a skill you can work on her with that is a big girl thing? I only ever had younger kids in my room but I'm thinking something like a big girl watch and learning to tell time (even digitally) or whatever is age-appropriate.

And I'm sure you're all over this, but books in your mix about going to school and daycare can help normalise it.

Caveat: I have no children and have not run a daycare room in many years.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:02 AM on July 19, 2010

Give it a few more weeks to make sure the new routine has set in.

Any chance you can have your spouse/other drop off one day? We had my husband do drop off for a week and it was a like a switch went off.

Talk with the teachers to figure out what they suggest.

If this keeps going, maybe she needs a different kind of environment, like teachers who hug and are motherly, but I suspect that isn't the case. She doesn't like not being with you, but she'll adjust. But trust your mommy instincts (the actual ones, not the ones that feel crappy right after you leave because your kid is crying, the ones you have in the saner moments where you know that this is okay, that your kid is being well cared for, and that you are enjoying your work, and that's good for the family. Unless your saner ones are screaming "don't go back to work, stay home with your kids" in which case, hey, that's a different ball of wax and a different askme.)
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:12 AM on July 19, 2010

It does sound like separation anxiety. I know many are not fans of bribery but you could have a special treat for her when you pick her up, letting her know in the morning that if she is good and does not cry when mommy leaves she can have a treat when you pick her up.

Things have been pretty good for us lately with my almost 4 year old, but the last round of crying when we dropped him off was resolved quickly with some help from the teachers. They made him the helper in the morning so the second we walked into the room they went right there up to him and engaged him in what they were doing, a quick kiss and hug, and we were gone.

Talk to the teachers ask them for help in the morning but remember that mornings from them are especially tough with all the parents slipping in and out. Good luck!
posted by doorsfan at 11:26 AM on July 19, 2010

True story: My first day of kindergarten I asked to use the bathroom, left school, and ran home. The only thing you can do is make it clear that this isn't a choice; it's just the way things are going to be from now on. Kids don't like change, but need to learn to accept it.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:17 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know it's hard; I only had my children in pre-school for half-days (9 to noon) before kindergarten. They started at 3 days a week and then moved up to five eventually. I was home all the time and always chaperoned on their field trips. One of my kids had no problem at all, while the other felt horribly overwhelmed and lonely for even those few hours. We worked through it, and you can too, if you give it time.

One thing I found helpful was staying late one day, when I was about ready to pull my son from pre-school because I was so stressed and worried about him. He was upset and crying when I left and it broke my heart, but at the advice of the pre-school teacher I waited around outside the door and peeked in the window just five minutes later--and he was absolutely fine. Laughing, playing with the other kids...the scene was mostly for my benefit (and he really did know how to push my buttons!). That really helped me with the guilt, recognizing that he was actually doing fine when I wasn't there.

Other ideas: I have seen good results using pictures for soothing and calming children that are having a tough time. If your child has a "cubby" at daycare, put a pic of youself in the cubby or glue it over the cubby so your little one can look at you whenever and feel close to you while you are gone. Also, have the staff take pics of your kids during the day if possible and email them to you. In the evening, you can share the pics with your kids and talk about what they were doing when the pics were taken, showing them that you are "watching over them" while they are in daycare so that they still feel connected to you, even when you aren't physically there.

If you can call sometime during the day, hearing your voice might help, too. Just make sure you keep your voice cheerful and up and don't allow the conversation to devolve into your child whining and you feeling guilty for the rest of your workday.
posted by misha at 12:29 PM on July 19, 2010

My impression is the teachers are more businesslike compared to her former babysitter and preschool teacher, who were both very warm, loving, momlike, in demeanor.

My guess is that therein lies your rub.

I live near a large, well-regarded day care centre -- I stay home with my almost-3yo, and we see the day care kids going about parts of their day in town here and there; they stroll down our street, we go to library storytimes with them, occasionally share park space, etc.

From what observations I have made I do not think I would ever choose a centre over home-based care for young children.

The day care ladies are pleasant and the kids are well tended to. Good care is taken -- noses aren't going snotty. But then it sort of...falls short, care-wise. There are just too many children and the day care staff are too non-parental, and the kid in need of a hug is too often getting a chipper "Let's put the tears away! Alright, forward march..." There is no bond between child and caregiver, to the point where I wince listening to the staff address the children as "friends." ("Friends of Miss Cindy, let's say thank you and get our shoes on," etc.)

There is zero mistreatment and I also bet the day care ladies don't end up saying "ALRIGHT! Mum needs QUIET RIGHT NOW!!" far more loudly and fiercely than they intended to, and I'm sure they never receive a lunch of slightly stale toast and a boiled egg because somebody is sleep-deprived -- it is not really my aim here to slag off centre-based care. But the warmth of a home is just not something that will ever be duplicated for business purposes, and if you have the sort of sensitive tot who is not adjusting well to the regimes of commercial care I would start working your friends for referrals to a good home day care.
posted by kmennie at 1:18 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like the idea of likening it to "little girls go to school," especially since she's nearing that age anyway.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:23 PM on July 19, 2010

When I was four, I started preschool and every time I would cry and cling to my mom before she left. I was fine after she had left, but the goodbye crying wasn't letting up.

My mom pinned a little pocketwatch inside my pocket, and told me "OK: when the big hand is on the 12, and the little hand is on the 3, that is when I am coming back to pick you up."

And dang, it worked. Anytime I felt nervous, I could pull out the little watch to look at it and see that it was not yet time for Mom to come get me. It really cut down on the irrational little kid "AAH I'M BEING ABANDONED" panic. Might be worth a try.
posted by castlebravo at 2:21 PM on July 19, 2010

My mom did the exact same thing as castlebravo's mom. She gave me an old watch of hers to wear and told me "big hand on 12, little hand on 5." I also had a Polaroid picture of her and my dad in my backpack.
posted by IndigoRain at 3:14 PM on July 19, 2010

Do take the separation anxiety seriously. It might mean that you're asking your daughter to let go of you before she's quite ready. Kids will separate from their parents in their own time. It's far less traumatic and far more secure for them if they can do it at their own pace. Day care is a bigger adjustment for some kids and it takes them longer to feel comfortable with the routine.

I used to help out in my ex mother in law''s daycare. She had, it seems, a pretty good system for helping parents leave without hysterics. Basically, she told parents to make some adjustments in their schedule so they could stick around and sit or play for spell at drop off. The kids would usually cling to mom or dad for awhile, but would eventually tottle off and play with the others. The kid's wandering off was mom or dad's cue that it was okay to leave. Knowing that they weren't going to be left or abandoned gave them the sense of security that they needed to go off on their own. It took time, depending on the kid, but it was remarkably effective. For the most part it only took a week or two before the kids would rush off to play on their own without any fuss.

Hope that helps.
posted by space_cookie at 3:36 PM on July 19, 2010

I was a child with a dramatic personality. My mom would drop me off at day care and I would scream and wail and cling to her leg. I begged her not to leave me. In the afternoon, my mom would come to get me and I would cry and cling to my teachers leg because I didn't want to go.

I wasn't faking... I really was sad to leave my mom, and I really was sad to leave school. Change is difficult for children, but their memories are fleeting. Once you leave, I bet your child is soon distracted and playing.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 4:29 PM on July 19, 2010

kmennie, that just isn't always the case. My daughter attends a daycare center three days a week where there are 8 kids and three teachers. She has a "primary" teacher assigned to her. They very clearly have a bond. When I hand her over in the morning, she gives her teacher a hug, and when I spy on them over lunch hour she is frequently being hugged, patted, held, cuddled, or whatever. In rooms where kids get bottles, the get bottles held in a rocking chair, just like they do at home. When my daughter was still being rocked for naps, they rocked her to sleep. So, sure, some daycares are like that, but others aren't, and it's important to find the one that is right for you and your kid.

My daughter is with a "babysitter" the other three days. We take her to the caregiver's house. She has two daughters who are school age, who love our daughter. She gets great care there. She gets to go on outings - the zoo, the library, the store, lots of walks. Their family is like family to us, and to our daughter. It's certainly a different kind of bond.

Both set ups have advantages - she takes better naps at not-daycare; she's learned to sit at a table, eat with a spoon, to share and to wait for things for 30 seconds at daycare. But both set ups have bonds, and I wouldn't have it if there wasn't.

And, OP, we've experienced separation anxiety at both places. Our daughter is younger than your kids, and in some ways I think that makes it easier -- she can't ask me about it at bedtime yet, and I doubt she remembers it any other way. Our daycare teacher told us to take it as a sign that she loves us, but assured us she was fine after we left. Yesterday she screamed bloody murder when we went out to dinner and left her with our neighbor who watches her all the time - no idea why on this night it bothered her. I called to check in 5 minutes later and I could hear her laughing. The kids, they know how to get to us. You're a good mom for even worrying about it. Again I say: rely on your instincts that your kid is/is not getting what they need! Hang in there.
posted by dpx.mfx at 5:47 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't have a whole lot to add. I just wanted to say that it will get better, and probably pretty soon. My 3 yo son was in full time daycare for a year. Then we moved and he stayed home with me for about 2 months. When he started back to part time preschool, we had an adjustment period of about 6 weeks when he would cry a drop off and say he didn't want to go to school. Drop off slowly got easier until one day, he walked in under his own steam and immediately sat down and began playing. We still occasionally have bad mornings, but it is mostly OK.

I know it sucks and probably makes you feel really crappy. It will get better; some kids just take longer to adjust than others. Don't assume that this is your fault or that there is much of anything you can do besides be consistent and kind. My boy takes forever with transitions, and we really have to go slowly. The only piece of practical advice I have is to put together a picture album with the older child that she can keep and look at when she misses you.
posted by Hushpuppy at 6:58 PM on July 19, 2010

Thanks everyone, for the encouragement and advice. I didn't think I was being overly anxious, but it's true that M tends to pick up on my moods and reflect them back to me.

I talked about "school" with her, both last night and this morning, emphasizing what was going to happen, that I was going to drop her off, give her a hug and a kiss and say goodbye with no tears, and that I would pick her up at the end of the day. Guess what? It worked! Her lip started to quiver a bit, but no waterworks, no big scene. It's just one day, but I do think she will adjust.

I marked kmennie as a best answer because I share the POV that what little kids need most of all is to be loved. Yet, M is getting to the age where she will be going to kindergarten soon, and will have to adjust to settings where not every grownup will be like family to her. And that's OK. I mean, I expect a teacher to be kind, but cuddles are what parents are for. (BTW, the teachers in the toddler room seem markedly warmer than those for the pre-K class, which is as it should be. "Miss Christy" scooped K up in her arms when we came in this morning and K didn't cry at all!)
posted by libraryhead at 5:55 AM on July 20, 2010

« Older I'm a dude. I have an opal. Now what?   |   Sleeping the night and day and night away? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.