Pre-schoolers may seem like tyrants (they want everything and they want it now!) and they may come across like wild animals (they are prone to pushing, biting and wrestling for what they want) but it's not entirely their fault: Their limbic system (a mid-brain structure that generates emotions such as anger, aggression and desire) is firing on all cylinders.
However, preschoolers' frontal lobes are still developing and are not quite what they need to be to keep the limbic system in check.
Considering that the frontal lobe is the part of the brain that helps us to stop, think and refrain from what comes most naturally to us (like hitting our most annoying sibling or eating that piece of cake that is not ours), you may want to adjust your expectations regarding their behaviour.
In the pre-school years, any great expectations are going to result in great disappointment for you both.
Expect your three-year-old to be able to share every time? You will end up huffing and puffing and snatching and it won't be pretty. Expect your four-year-old to refrain from biting into their just-baked birthday cake? You may be shocked to see the teeth marks. This blog helps you see things from a pre-schooler's developing brain perspective and serves to help you play alongside them with fewer tears and tantrums.
Here is how you can unlock the fun and help them make some important frontal lobe/limbic system connections.
How to play with a purpose - the pre-school years
1. Get in on the game. Play is really your child's way of learning. Naturally, children this age start to stretch their social muscle. They engage in co-operative play and want to belong to the group. To develop the social skills they need they may conjure up an imaginary friend (a great way of practicing assertiveness without any chance of failure) and engage in complex role plays like teacher, teacher or police & robbers (a great way of finding their social standing and testing what is right and wrong).
- Perhaps that imaginary friend Suzie really was the one that ate that piece of cake... you and your child can talk about greed versus need and what Suzie could do differently next time.
- Are you a fair or a bossy teacher and how does this make your students feel? How can we talk to them in a kinder voice?
- Why is it that it is so fun to be a robber and break the rules? Or be a policeman and bust the baddies?
Your child needs to process these scenarios with the help of an adult's mature frontal lobe without their limbic system being triggered. Play alongside them and you may find plenty of windows of opportunity to discuss the issue without your child feeling targeted, threatened or labelled.
2. Coach the game. Some kids don't need team mates, they need a coach. If you can see your child is really struggling to make friends, and keep within the social norms, then you will need to quite literally be in their corner - making sure they are focused on the prize, giving them water breaks, cheering them on, restraining them when necessary - to help them have the best chance of social success. Remember, a good coach only steps in when necessary and gives both praise and pointers. If your child is winning, you can cheer them on, but stay in your corner.
3. Be the referee and call it. Every game needs water breaks, half times and an ending. Your other very important role is referee. You are the one who monitors and maintains the players' homeostases. Pre-schoolers are not self-aware and as such do not recognise that they are getting hot or tired or have just had too much. Call a water break to help prevent melt downs. Remember: whatever frontal lobe activity your child does have will be quickly undermined by any pressing basic physiological need. Hunger, thirst and fatigue will derail them. As will needing a wee or reassuring hug. These are not safe areas to practice delayed gratification. A well-fed three year old is far more able to make good decisions and play nicely than a hangry three year old.
4. Become a sports commentator and help them analyse the game. Pre-schoolers are ego-centric - they are the centre of the universe and as such they will take the credit for the beautiful collage that you really did for them, but will also be quick to take the blame for everything bad that happens in their little world. If a toy breaks, their friend does not want to play with them today or the rain arrives and they can't go outside... somehow it's all their fault. Help them break down key plays so they can start to see a more balanced score card: Perhaps the toy was poorly made, their friend is feeling sick and it's rainy season. Ask them what happened before, during and after and try help them make links so they can learn from both their successes and failures as well as identify which factors are within their control and which aren't.
Here are some helpful lines to teach your pre-schooler:
- It's okay. Everyone has bad days from time to time.
- Maybe, you need some alone time for a little while? Where would you like to play quietly?
- That didn't go as you had hoped. Would you like a chance to start over?
- That was unfair. I feel so cross when things are unfair. Do you feel cross too?
- How can we do it better next time?
- I can see you do not want to share that special doll. Can we find another toy to share with your friend?
This process of social skills development and delayed gratification continues until the frontal lobe is fully mature which can take up to 25 years! Your pre-schooler is not going to nail these skills whilst in pre-school, but they should be making a start. If you can see your child is going backwards and failing at making friends then you may want to talk to their teacher. Teachers have great insight and can also identify community resources that may prove extremely useful such as parenting centres, online support groups, play therapists and occupational therapists.