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Between the ages of three and five, your child is not a toddler and not yet at school. Stuck in the middle, preschoolers have the innocent charm of babies, and a fierce desire to be independent. 

Mum and preschooler touching noses
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Understanding preschoolers: the basics

This is one of the most important periods in a child’s emotional development.

The foundations for confidence and self-esteem are established during this time. The way children feel about their rapidly blossoming abilities and the way they deal with more complex emotions have a huge influence on their ability to cope with life’s stresses.

Since school hasn’t started yet, most of your preschooler’s learning will occur through play. This will happen at home and at preschool or kindergarten with other children, where children are encouraged to learn through play, art and storytelling.

Your role changes dramatically during the preschooler years. Your baby is a little person ready to take on the world and your job is to show how.

One of your most important jobs during this time is helping your child to handle emotions and develop social skills. These skills help your child to cope with emotional changes, keep going in the face of frustration, have hope, control extreme emotional impulses, and feel compassion and empathy. They are very important ingredients for success in life.

Nurturing your child’s self-esteem

Good self-esteem means that you have a positive view of yourself and your abilities. Children who have good self-esteem feel that their parents think well of them and they can manage the world to some degree.

If you have good self-esteem, it affects the way you approach tasks and learning and the way you deal with life’s disappointments and problems. Positive self-esteem helps us to understand and accept failure without lasting emotional damage.

Positive self-esteem means we’re less likely to say, ‘Of course that bad thing happened to me. My life is a disaster and I’m a bad person’. Instead, we’re more likely to say, ‘What can I do to fix that bad thing that happened to me?’ or ‘Bad things happen to everyone. I can get over this’.

Tips to help your child develop self-esteem

  • Teach children about who they are by explaining who’s who in the family, how they’re related to others and what you did when you were a child. It will help if you make sure your child feels part of family occasions.
  • Make photo albums and provide family treasures (past and present). This helps children have a mental picture of who they are and where they come from.
  • Keep your child’s drawings, letters and photos to help your child build a sense of self.
  • Encourage your child to play with children of a similar age, so your child isn’t overwhelmed by the abilities of older children.
  • Encourage your child to work out problems and make decisions by independently. But make sure your child knows you’re available to help.
  • When your child masters a new skill, encourage your child to practise it before starting something harder. Repetition helps your child build confidence and understand that things that were once hard become easy.
  • When you feel good about your child, say so. Say things that make your child feel capable of achieving, such as ‘Thank you’, ‘That was helpful’ and ‘You do that really well’. Be generous with praise, but also be genuine – children can tell when you’re faking it.
  • Actions can speak louder than words. Hug your child, listen, make time even when you’re busy, let your child help you, put your child’s drawings on display, and participate in preschool events.
  • A child’s self-esteem can be easily damaged by put-downs. Avoid at all costs saying things that ridicule your child or make your child feel ashamed. For example, ‘You make me tired’, ‘You are silly/a nuisance/lazy/stupid’ or ‘If we didn’t have you, we’d be able to take a holiday/work less’.
  • Help your child to understand that everyone makes mistakes and that mistakes are good things that help us to learn. It’s important that children understand that if they make a mistake in one area, they are not bad at everything.
  • Encourage children to be positive about themselves and their future. Psychologists have found that negative self-talk is associated with problems such as depression and anxiety.  Encourage such statements as, ‘It’s OK that my team didn’t win today’, ‘I can work out this problem if I just keep trying’, and ‘It makes me feel good if I can help someone, even if they don’t thank me’.
For more information on building self-esteem in children, read our article on building good family relationships.

Developing your child’s optimism

Optimism is the ability to look on the bright side of life, even when things are going wrong. Having an optimistic view of life helps you to think positively rather than negatively and understand the causes of things that happen to you. There is increasing evidence that an optimistic view on life can make it easier to deal with life when things go badly.

Encourage your child to have an optimistic outlook on life by helping your child to:

  • recognise the difference between positive and negative thoughts
  • think about whether things are morally right or wrong
  • understand why things sometimes go wrong
  • look at possible positive outcomes rather than the worst-case scenario
  • set goals and plan a course of action for achieving them
  • look at strategies and see whether they worked and why
  • make decisions and choices.

Developing your child’s coping skills

Good coping skills help us to deal with the problems, frustrations, threats and challenges that life throws at us. The way a child deals with these things as a baby and toddler – crying and tantrums – don’t go down very well in later childhood or in the office (even though they are still commonly used!).

Preschoolers tend to ‘cope’ or deal with threatening situations through symbolic play – they create a make-believe situation where they can defeat whatever is frightening them. They feel better by acting out control over a frightening situation. Older children might find it more comforting if you can explain what’s going on in a frightening situation.

Tips for promoting good coping skills in your child

  • Teach children to identify and understand their own feelings and capabilities.
  • Teach them to recognise their own feelings of distress and discomfort when they first occur.
  • Encourage younger children to express feelings through drawings, puppets, playdough and other creative or messy play.
  • Use children’s stories to help talk about problems.
  • Encourage cooperative games with other children, as opposed to competitive games.
  • Teach children that while everyone likes to win, doing your best is more important.
  • Teach that teasing and name-calling can hurt people.

Fostering your child’s problem-solving skills

Problem-solving skills are important for decision-making and sorting out conflicts. Through conflict, children learn that people experience different thoughts and feelings. Children also learn the difference between right and wrong and about how their behaviour affects other people.

Tips for helping your child develop good problem-solving skills

  • If your child is arguing with other children, encourage your child to try and work out a solution to the problem.
  • Avoid blaming if children are fighting. When everyone is calm enough to talk sensibly, encourage children to think of different ways of solving the problem and finding agreement on a solution that everyone can live with (even if it isn’t the best!).
  • See that the solution is followed through, announce when the problem is sorted out, and congratulate everyone on participating in such a grown-up fashion.

Developing your child’s social skills

Having good relationships with a range of people is very important for a person’s mental health. To develop these relationships, children must learn social skills, such as:

  • communication skills – using the right words for the situation, smiling and facial expressions, using eye contact and listening
  • entry skills – knowing how to join a group
  • being part of a group – sharing, taking turns, following rules, cooperating, managing conflict, helping others
  • being a friend – supporting friends, being kind, helpful and affectionate, being willing to follow requests and participate in group decision-making.

How children learn social skills

Parents tend to have the most influence on how a child’s social skills develop, but children learn also from a range of sources including family members, friends, day care and preschool.

Unfortunately there’s no recipe for teaching social skills – you have to take into account individual differences. What works for one child might not work for another. It’s often a case of trial and error, watching how different things work with your child.

Children of different ages, backgrounds and personalities experience different difficulties in learning social skills. Preschool children often encounter difficulties in controlling impulses – they can find it very hard to take turns, negotiate difficult situations, and resolve conflict. Older children might suffer from shyness or feel as though they don’t fit in.

Developing social skills is like any other skill. Children need to practise them, especially since this combination of skills can be quite complex. Sometimes children have no trouble learning some skills and yet struggle with others.  Practise helps children become socially competent – they will be able to make and keep friends and maintain satisfying relationships.

Ideas about helping your child develop good social skills

  • Show children what good social skills look like. They learn by watching as well as participating. Your child is probably copying the way you behave when you’re around other people.
  • Encourage your child by saying something like ‘good try’. This is more effective than punishing your child for mistakes.
  • Encourage preschoolers to be aware of the feelings of others, even if they can’t see the other person’s point of view. For example, ‘Johnny has been waiting for a go for a while now. I think it’s his turn’. It might take a while for your child to understand. But if you keep explaining, it will help your child to understand eventually.
  • Stay on message with social skills. Keep telling your child things like, ‘Everyone is entitled to a turn’ and ‘He is frustrated, you know how that feels’. As your child becomes older, your explanations can get more complicated – but the messages should stay the same.
  • Recognise that peer relationships become more important and complicated as your child grows older.
  • Give your child lots of opportunities for imaginary play (including dress-ups), telephone play, playing shop, acting out stories and rhymes, playing with other children, constructing things with bricks, cut-outs and dough, and helping around the house with simple chores. Preschoolers learn social skills from imaginary play.
When your child starts school, social skills can be helped along with games that involve winning and losing (such as ‘snap’, ‘snakes and ladders’), participating in family trips and outings, and encouraging participation in sport and group activities.
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  • Last Updated 25-05-2010
  • Last Reviewed 01-03-2010
  • Zaff, J., & Hair, E. (2002). Positive development of the self: Self-concept, self-esteem, and identity. In M. H. Bornstein, L. Davidson, C. L. M. Keyes & K. A. Moore (Eds.), Well-being: Positive development across the life course (pp. 235-251). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.