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Helping Children Prepare For Preschool


How should a parent respond when their toddler throws a temper tantrum? We speak to the chair of the Child and Family Development Department at SDSU about behavioral problems that are common in toddlers and preschoolers, and what parents can do to better prepare their child for preschool.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. You never quite know how a very young child is going to respond to preschool. One child might handle being away from home very well while another, whose behavior is not bad around their parents, can turn into a very difficult handful for preschool teachers. In fact, children up to 5 years of age are expelled from daycare and preschool three times more often than all of the kids expelled in higher grades. This has led educators at SDSU's Department of Child and Family Development to offer a new program for preschool teachers in how to handle kids with behavioral problems, and the curriculum may hold some lessons for parents as well. I’d like to introduce my guest, Dr. Shulamit Ritblatt. She is chair of SDSU’s Department of Child and Family Development. Dr. Ritblatt, welcome to These Days.

DR. SULAMIT RITBLATT (Chair, Child and Family Development Department, San Diego State University): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation are you preparing your child for preschool this year? How is that going? Do you have a preschool behavior problem to share with us, or perhaps a solution? Give us a call with your questions and your comment. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Dr. Ritblatt, tell us first, what is a typical preschool situation? How old are the children involved and how many kids to teacher ratio, that kind of thing.

DR. RITBLATT: It really depend on the programs. Usually we see preschool from two years and 9 months to 5 years of age. In the regulated program, the ratio will be probably 1 to 8, 1 to 12. In others, it might be even bigger. But again, we see preschool that are a – that do have 20 chairs and others that don’t. So it really varies.

CAVANAUGH: Really, there’s a broad spectrum. Now is it a standard kind of a thing if there are more children and fewer teachers that they are necessarily going to be more problems? Or does it – doesn’t it hold that way?

DR. RITBLATT: We know that the ratio of a teacher/child is really important for the quality of the program, so it does make a difference. And when parents are looking for quality programs, they need to look at the ratio and see how many adults are there and what is the level of their trainings?

CAVANAUGH: That makes me think about what else parents should do before they decide that this is the preschool that their child should go to.

DR. RITBLATT: I think they need to come and visit the site and talk to the director, talk to the teachers, observe maybe the classroom, look at the type of a curriculum of programming that is going on. Is it very strict, teacher-led type of curriculum? Or does it really consider the children needs and sensory profile skills? What is the ratio of adult/child? What – How is the space organized? How is the yard? Is there an outside play? Is it a program that focuses on play, which is the most important learning process for children. Do teacher – what is their educational background? Are they – have the proper education to really teach and educate the children? Do they go through a process of a reflective type of learning? Do they have any requirement for continuous education and stuff like this? So all this is real important for parents to look at and see, you know, look how children are behaving in the classroom. This is the most telling picture to…

CAVANAUGH: To actually go there and see how the kids are behaving.

DR. RITBLATT: Exactly. If you see children that are happy and playing and adults that are responsive and interacting with children and the environment is inviting and pleasant and you feel good in this environment, probably your child is going to feel good in this environment as well.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Dr. Shulamit Ritblatt. She’s chair of SDSU’s Department of Child and Family Development. And we’re inviting you to join the conversation. It’s about preparing your child for preschool, and also how preschool teachers are preparing to handle kids who have some behavioral problems. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Okay, so suppose you go through that whole list that you just gave us, Dr. Ritblatt, and you’ve done your due diligence and still you’re – you get the phone call that your child is having a behavioral problem. What are some of the behavioral problems that we commonly see in toddlers and preschoolers?

DR. RITBLATT: Most of the time we see behavior that relates to more aggression like biting or hitting, throwing tantrums, kicking, screaming, crying, and really not being able to participate with the other children because, really, regardless of the level of IQ and intelligence that the child has, we are looking at the self-regulation and social behavioral type of skills that the child has in order to be part of a group. So a child that is used to be at home by him-herself and the parents accommodates whatever they are doing, and some of us don’t really sometimes put real limits to our kids, and then this child comes to the classroom and now he needs to follow directions and he needs to listen to adults who are telling him how – what he’s supposed to do. They need to share and they never shared any toy or anything. So they’re not used to it, and it’s very difficult. The adjustment is difficult. So really what is important even before coming to preschool, for parents to provide opportunities for their children to interact with other kids and to play with them and to set some limits and boundaries and really guide children to be able to be part of the learning process because in order to be able to learn, you need to be able to follow instruction, you need to be able to observe, to listen, to self-regulate in the sense of controlling your temper, waiting your turn, raising your hands. All these skills are the basic skills. And when we talk to kindergarten teachers, their main complaint is not that the child doesn’t know the alphabet or doesn’t know the shapes or colors. Their main concern is that these children are lacking these basic skills that can help them learn.

CAVANAUGH: Of getting along with others.

DR. RITBLATT: Exactly. And being able to learn, to focus, to be attentive.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. We are taking your calls if you’d like to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. Now I wonder why – are parents, are they surprised when they get a phone call or they get a message from the teacher that, you know, your child is having a problem in preschool, maybe biting other kids, maybe, you know, not sharing, not focusing. Does this come as a surprise to a lot of parents?

DR. RITBLATT: Sometimes it does and sometimes it actually brings something that they know inside that something, you know, that their child might not be ready. But here when they hear it, it’s not an easy thing for them.

CAVANAUGH: Do they think that the teacher’s doing something wrong?

DR. RITBLATT: Oh, of course. Of course. They – Many times, parents do blame teachers and sometimes there is, you know, there is a reason to think that.


DR. RITBLATT: But most of the time, you know, the best thing is that if you did your preparation and your homework selecting the site for the program for your child, the hope is that you are working because parent involvement is for quality program so the expectation is that then you, as a parent, you are working with the teacher to make the environment fit your child’s needs.

CAVANAUGH: Right, because if the child is hearing the same thing from both the parent and the teacher, it’s more likely that the message will get through.

DR. RITBLATT: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Now what’s going on? Why do children in this very young age range, why do they act out in that way? What’s going on in their bodies and their minds when they’re – we’re put into a new situation with other children their age where they have to focus, maybe they have to play in strange ways that they’re not used to. What’s happening?

DR. RITBLATT: When the situation is new to a child, most of the time they are regressing. They are – the anxiety level is high and they are responding to it. And we know the children are responding very well when they feel secure and the environment provide them relationship-based interaction. So usually if we look at children, they are willing to listen when the person who is asking them to follow certain rules is important to them. So if they don’t have relationship yet with the teacher and the other adults in the classroom, they are not yet in a place that they are willing to listen or to do whatever they are being asked to do or to share. So this is something that is very important for a child, and when a child doesn’t feel loved, doesn’t feel that this person really means something to them, they feel more anxious and they start to act out. This is their language to say I don’t feel good here, or I don’t have the ways or means to communicate my needs. So that’s why young children are going to behave in more acting out and biting or screaming or…


DR. RITBLATT: …or doing all these activities or behaviors that actually express their needs for us to contain them and help them regulate.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. We’re having a little problem with our phone system this morning. We’ll see if Catherine is on the line here. Catherine, good morning. Are you there?

CATHERINE (Caller): Hi.


CATHERINE: Can you hear me?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I can.

CATHERINE: Okay, I just had a comment that my son was a difficult preschooler.


CATHERINE: He now has diagnosed with ADHD but before he went to preschool, it really was helpful, I took him to the park a lot and kind of followed him around and just made sure that he was able to stay in line and teaching him how to play cooperatively with the other kids. And I feel like just constantly, you know, trying to model that behavior and then at home he would act out and then when he went to school he was a lot better at school than he was at home actually.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of behavioral problems did you have before he turned around and started to be, you know, a very pliant kid?

CATHERINE: Well, at home he had lots of tantrums. I mean, that was – that’s just kind of, I think, goes with the ADHD as well, just lots of tantrums and, you know, wanting instant gratification. But at school somehow, I think, because there was a lot of stimulation and everything, he actually was much better at school…

CAVANAUGH: I understand.

CATHERINE: …in age group settings. It’s structured well, too. So…

CAVANAUGH: Catherine, thank you for the call. I’d like to get your reaction, Dr. Ritblatt.

DR. RITBLATT: I think there are two major things that we hear here. A, following the child lead, so this mom follow her child leads in the playground trying to figure out what are the interest of this child and really role model certain behavior of participation in play with other children. So this is really important. And another thing is being in an environment later that is structured. This is a keyword, okay, because children do need structure. In order to feel safe, a child needs to know what are the expectations? What are the rules here? Is it allowed? Or maybe it isn’t. And when we have clear expectation it makes it very easy for children to follow it.

CAVANAUGH: That’s one of the things that you’ve mentioned, that when parents don’t set clear expectations, they actually don’t provide any structure for the child, and how does that manifest itself when the child gets into a group situation like preschool?

DR. RITBLATT: So when the parent who is the most important figure in the child’s life doesn’t put any limits and this child actually is running the show, okay, he does whatever he/she pleases with no rules, then this child actually learns that they’re in control of their environment, and whatever they want and wish at this moment must happen. So when they go to the environment of the school, it’s really difficult for this child to learn that it cannot be this way, that there are certain rules and other kids and you need to learn to consider other peoples and empathize and wait your turn and have more sharing type of skills.

CAVANAUGH: Is it possible that some parents try to introduce their children a little bit too early into a preschool setting. If, indeed, a young child becomes – is expelled from a preschool situation, what kind of remedial preparation can a parent do to, you know, sort of get the child back into that structured environment?

DR. RITBLATT: I don’t know if there is too early to put a child in the system as long as it’s a quality program and the parent can work with the teacher to meet the child’s needs. So there is no too early in the preschool. But, again, when parents – I don’t believe that parents are not aware that their child is demanding or having temper tantrum and stuff like this. So very early you can identify certain temperament or certain needs as a parent that you need some guidance how to help your child and help you really monitor and guide your child’s behaviors. And the first five, for example, the zero to five services provide behavioral services to children and when the parents go on the First Five San Diego website, I’m sure they’ll find the locations that they can call and maybe ask for help.

CAVANAUGH: As I say, we are asking for your calls or if you can’t get through, The number is 1-888-895-5727. You know, Dr. Ritblatt, there is a lot of pressure on children to achieve academic success nowadays.

DR. RITBLATT: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: And I would imagine that putting a child into preschool, there might be some parents who put some pressure on how much that preschooler is learning.

DR. RITBLATT: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: What is the – what can a preschooler learn in terms of learning and play, that balance?

DR. RITBLATT: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Can they learn through play? Can they learn any other way than through play?

DR. RITBLATT: Now you touched a major issue because there is a lot of stress and pressure on academic achievement, and, really, we are not meeting children’s needs by doing that. We know for a fact that children do learn via play. Play is not a separate type of demand that children do and they learn in a different way. When a child plays for – with a truck, for example, with a car, with a doll, they learn certain behaviors. They actually replay certain behaviors that they see around them. They learn to enrich their language via this type of dramatic play. When a child is playing with an item, this is the opportunity to teach a child. You can talk about colors and shapes and the positioning of this toy and the sequencing and positioning. And whatever you want to talk about, you can actually do it via the play. So when a child – because play is – actually indicates the interest of the child. So if we follow the child leads and we touch on the interest of this child, this child is going to be willing to learn because it’s exciting. This child is curious to know, okay, this truck works? And how I can make a longer chain of trucks following one another? And whatever is the game that this child is interested in, if we join it and we help the child learn more vocabulary, learn more concept, this is the way to teach young children.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know that there’s a little – there’s a million dollar grant SDSU has received from the San Diego County Health and Human Services to create a certificate program training childhood educators. Is that the kind of thing that educators are going to be learning? How to turn that play into a teachable, a learning moment?

DR. RITBLATT: Yes, but also they are going to learn how to weave into this play of the child and really observe and identify what are the needs of this child? How we can help the child maybe change the environment, maybe accommodate some of the sensory stimulation around this child. How we can help with the curriculum or the treatment plan for this child to make sure that this child is able to really participate in the classroom. This is a very exciting program that is going to propel every authority, early childhood professionals, who are working with children and families (unintelligible) to really train them to provide behavioral support and social, emotional enhancement to the children. And we call – This is what a new profession in a sense of early childhood mental health.

CAVANAUGH: Aha. Now how many teachers will come out of this program?

DR. RITBLATT: At the end of the four years of the grant, 120 teachers.

CAVANAUGH: That sounds very exciting. I have to bring us back to the fact though that this is the – one of the, you know, the end of August and people are going to be trying to introduce their…

DR. RITBLATT: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …children to a preschool situation next month, and I’m wondering what do you do when your child clings to you and cries and doesn’t want to go? What is the proper way for a parent to react to something like this?

DR. RITBLATT: I think you need to come to the program and be there before school start if it’s possible, so the child is familiar with the environment and is able to recognize what is going on. It’s okay also to take a little bit time maybe to be there with your child and maybe take a transitionary type of object if you’re – if your child loves certain objects or certain toys, maybe allow the child to take it with him held to school so they can feel more connected when they need some support or comfort when they feel like, oh, I need my mama right now or something like this. And really talk with the teacher and come up with a plan. It’s very typical for children to protest at the beginning of the year, and not to want their parent to leave them. So parents don’t need to get stressed because it happens. It’s very typical. But, again, what is important is that parents work with the teachers to see how they can help. Don’t disappear. Don’t just, okay, your child doesn’t look and now you rush through the door and you are gone. This actually cause mistrust in a child.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. You’ve given us so much good information. Thank you so much.

DR. RITBLATT: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Shulamit Ritblatt. She is chair of SDSU’s Department of Child and Family Development. If you’d like to comment, please go online, Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.


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