Toddler resisting group learning activities?
May 12, 2014 2:36 PM   Subscribe

My daughter (age 3.75) is having trouble with teacher-led, group activities. She doesn't want to follow the instructions and tends to quit and wander off. I'm not sure what the problem is.

I'm noticing that my daughter doesn't handle teacher-led activities in a group very well. I'm thinking specifically about the gymnastics we tried at 3.5 and now, soccer. The basic scenario is that, after checking with her several times over several weeks to make sure she's interested in the activity, enroll in the activity. She seems very excited about going. Once it starts, she might be ok for about 10 minutes, but soon she's ignoring teacher instructions and me as I implore her to listen to the teacher. She's asking to be picked up (I gently refuse) and then wandering off away from the group (with excuse, for example, to get a drink of water or pet a nearby dog). With gymnastics, I figured she was just too young for such a formal activity (even thought the other kids seemed to be able to pay attention and follow along). But seeing the same type of behavior with the soccer, I feel concerned now. I let her bow out for a while and said 'Ok, we'll stay over here until you're ready to go back'. I could get her to go back to the group for maybe a couple of minutes, but then she'd want to leave again. After several rounds of this, I told her OK, you can stay here but Daddy and I are going to play. She'd eventually whine and chase after us, but wouldn't stay with the group unless she was on Daddy's shoulders. She's missing out on having fun, learning to follow instructions and putting herself out there to try something new.

I'm afraid it might be a sort of 'the adult in charge has to consider me special before I'll participate' stubborness going on here. One thing that's common to the gymnastics and the soccer is that there is no 'you are a special snowflake' encouragement going on. And if that's it, I feel that I have to help her overcome it. I'm afraid I was a bit like this as a child and it didn't do me any good in life. She gets plently of 'special snowflake' appreciation from me and her nana and her daycare (Dad doesn't undulge her in this so much). Now, there's a fair chance I'm overreacting and/or projecting my own issues on to her - I'm sure you'll help point that out if it seems to be the case. But if you could offer suggestions on how to encourage her to listen to and learn from the teacher and conform to the planned activity for 45 minutes, that would be helpful. Or books are a great subtle teaching tool for her.

About my daughter: She thrives at daycare and I think she is a darling of the teachers there. She seems very confidant. She is high-energy but can certainly sit through a half hour of story-reading or an hour movie. She enjoys her one-on-one piano lessons (I know what you're thinking; it's mostly colouring!) and didn't do any wandering away when we did a Music Together class over the winter. She is not an introvert. She loves people and she loves having the attention of adults, especially.
posted by kitcat to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Both my kids were like that at that age. One outgrew it; the other still doesn't like group activities of any type. I could've saved myself quite a bit in parks and rec fees if I'd just waited another year before signing them up for more stuff.

You say you're concerned but I don't think you should be -- this is totally normal behavior for many, many children.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:50 PM on May 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

What is the possibility that gymnastics and soccer are things she just doesn't like? I know when I was little I initially thought, "oooh gymnastics, that'll be fun!" and then ended up hating it with a fiery passion. Maybe this is an interest level thing and not a learning/personal achievement issue.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 2:52 PM on May 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I taught a preschool ESL class to kids your daughter's age. These classes were mostly singing and dancing. This was a different culture, but a kid who could sit through an hour long lesson was *far* from the norm. In fact, I remember there being one of those in a class of ten. Just give your daughter some time.
posted by chaiminda at 2:53 PM on May 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Chill. She's still verrrry young. She will be fine.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:58 PM on May 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have a 3.5 year old and I think you might be overthinking this.

She's 3. She's presumably self-centered and oblivious like most other 3 year olds out there. She doesn't understand, or care, that you paid good money for these activities and put in the effort to have her butt there on time. If it doesn't seem like fun to her *right this minute* (or if the nearby dog looks like more fun) she won't see a reason to do it. We haven't tried organized activities yet, but I bet that's how my kid would feel.

And really, is there a reason to do it? Your cited reasons are 'missing out on fun' and 'not putting herself out there' - if she's not having fun, it defeats the purpose.

Just because some 3 year olds are ready for this doesn't mean all of them are. Let her be a free-range kid for a bit. There are lots of fun things in the world for a preschooler that don't involve organized group activities.
posted by telepanda at 2:58 PM on May 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

Her comfort/interest in these kinds of activities will probably be entirely different in 3 months. The other kids (who are probably +/- 6 months) who are doing well with it are probably just a little further along the curve. It's unlikely to be pathological.

She's missing out on having fun, learning to follow instructions and putting herself out there to try something new.

There's going to be plenty of opportunities for this in her life. It sounds like she's having fun just fine, it's just not the fun you want her to have.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:07 PM on May 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Do you have the chance to drop and go? It seems like you might be inadvertently providing a better option than staying with the group and following the directions. Who wouldn't want to participate while being on daddy's shoulders or by getting one on one attention from mom.

If you can arrange to leave her with the coaches, even for half the class you might find she gets more used to participating without you.
posted by five_cents at 3:11 PM on May 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

My oldest was exactly like this when he was 3. We'd sign up for something, he'd be super excited about it, and then he'd just wander off from everything. He's a kindergartner now and has no problem whatsoever participating at school.

I think I would distinguish between not being interested in participating in a group activity, and not being able to take instruction from a teacher. If she's in daycare, then you would know if she were having trouble following the group rules, refusing to quit an activity when it was time, not playing well with other children, etc. If she's having no problems there I don't think you need to be especially concerned.
posted by gerstle at 3:15 PM on May 12, 2014

I found these general guidelines for social-emotional development that I thought were well-written and easy to understand for most parents:
Social-Emotional Development of a 3-4 year old.
Social-Emotional Development of a 4-5 year old

You might want to also check out the Approaches to Learning section for each age range. It's not explicitly stated, but group activities requires some ability to work in a larger group and to seek out the play and cooperation of other children. It also requires that she take an interest in copying what a teacher does. She might not have hit those milestones yet, which is perfectly fine since she's not quite four. You say she does well in pre-school and it seems like she's doing well overall. That's the important part of all this. :)
posted by absquatulate at 3:22 PM on May 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your girl is not even four years old. She doesn't want to have to listen to instructions and execute them. She's fine. Just stop signing her up for stuff. Most 4 year olds in the world do not have to perform group activities.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:30 PM on May 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Thanks absquatulate. These things actually ring really true. So it might be a combination of her not just not caring about copying a teacher at this point and also that these particular teachers aren't deemed special/interesting.

What you said:
It's not explicitly stated, but group activities requires some ability to work in a larger group and to seek out the play and cooperation of other children. It also requires that she take an interest in copying what a teacher does

From that pamphlet for the 3-4 year old group:
Continues to develop preferences for special adults
posted by kitcat at 3:53 PM on May 12, 2014

Caveat: I agree that this is normal. I also come from a parenting/teaching philosophy that thinks this sort of thing can be trained out of children early. YMMV. Advice to follow reflects that world view.

I think that you and your husband need to be a united front on this and do exactly the same thing any time she wanders off and chooses not to sit still and listen. Something that's been particularly effective for me as a teacher of K-3 kids is to get up, go to the wanderer, get down on their level, and look them straight in the eye and set a limit that is going to be enforced. For example,

"When the gymnastics teacher is speaking, you need to sit down, stay still, and give her your attention. What does that look like? Let's practice. I am going to watch as you show me how you can sit still and listen. Good. Okay. Please go back to the group and show her how good a listener you are. If you are having a hard time, we're going to go home and you won't be able to join in with the group again. Okay?"

Then if she gets up again, you take her home. End of story. No fuss, no blaming. Just, "It doesn't look like you're ready to do gymnastics. Tomorrow we will try again, okay?"

When you next see her teacher, also model a sincere and gentle apology. "You had a hard time sitting still yesterday. I know that you're excited about gymnastics, and I am too. Can you come help me say sorry to Ms. Teacher so she knows how much we like her and appreciate her being the teacher today?"

The trick is to set a limit, follow through consistently, and offer a chance to try again later. After a while little kids start to self monitor and know that if they mess up they need to try again ASAP in order to not lose out. It's good to start modeling this experience for them at a young age because limits are actually really rewarding and soothing to most little kids. This might be a great chance to get into the same parenting rhythm with your husband -- and help your daughter see how good it is to listen and learn.
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:46 PM on May 12, 2014 [14 favorites]

She does group stuff 5 days a week plus lessons. She wants to have individual attention from you and dad. Totally normal.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:03 PM on May 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I used to teach sports to kids. She's totally normal. There are rare kids that can be ultra focused and can be "coached" very young, but most kids are interested for 10 minutes and then it's "oh, a butterfly!" 10-30 minutes is pretty good for a kid that age. Most kids aren't ready for hour long group classes until they're 7 or 8, to the point I think it's a bit of a waste doing any class that's more than 20 minutes.

Also most kids are much, much better once they're old enough that their parents aren't there the whole class. So. Much. Better.
posted by fshgrl at 9:20 PM on May 12, 2014

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