Daycare or Preschool Refusal

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daycare-refusal

When They Suddenly Say, “I Don’t Wanna Go!

It can be confusing when what was once fine, suddenly isn’t. Yet every one of us knows how it feels to have to do something we just don’t, at that moment, feel like doing. When a child suddenly resists going to daycare, though it may be a natural waxing and waning of interest, it is still important to consider the source of the child’s unhappiness.

  • There may be a change or new issue at daycare
  • Your child may be experiencing separation anxiety (which replays again and again as his world gets bigger and bigger)
  • He may be testing out what he can and cannot control—”hmm, can I stay home with mommy and daddy when I want to?”

The keys are to ask the right questions about daycare, and, if applicable, to support your child’s ability to cope when he is missing you and/or when he is upset that life does not go his way.

Evaluating Daycare

Because a child’s sudden change of heart can be a warning sign, it is important to check in with what is happening at daycare.

  • Is there a new teacher? New dynamics? How do YOU feel about daycare?
  • Talk to teachers and pay attention to your child’s words. With your child, be matter-of-fact, and refrain from leading comments or questions – you don’t want to create concern. If a situation at daycare is troubling your child, the teachers should help with a solution. If not, you may need to look into a new room or new daycare.
  • Ask yourself if YOU are comfortable with the daycare and daycare in general. If you have concerns, or if you are missing your child, or are having feelings of guilt around daycare, your child is very likely picking up on and reacting to your feelings. If so, you will need to do the work of (1) finding a daycare you feel good about, and/or (2) coming to terms with your feelings. Remember, you are parenting in an era flush with unrealistic expectations. Other working parents and parent educators can help you maintain a realistic perspective.

Helping Children Cope When Life is Not Smooth

Turns out everything is fine at daycare, your child just doesn’t want to go right now—he doesn’t want to do something, but he has to, and he doesn’t like it. You know that feeling—we all know it—and your child is knee-deep in it. He is experiencing what life is like when we don’t get exactly what we want. What do we all do at times like this? We find a way to cope. So, this is a time:

  • for the child to practice coping skills, and
  • for the parent to help—not by meeting wishes, but by supporting the ability to cope.
  • You will know best what your child’s general coping strategies tend towards, but here are some general strategies to help a child cope with (1) separation anxiety (a common reason for rejecting daycare) and (2) not getting what he wants.

Coping When Missing Mom & Dad

  • To help him feel secure and connected, have him take an object from home of mom’s or dad’s
  • Likewise, give him a photograph, or together create a family photobook, that he can have and look at any time at daycare.
  • At daycare, make sure he is anchored to a teacher or someone he is comfortable with before you leave.
  • Let him see a strong link between you and the daycare and his caretakers. If your child experiences a good relationship and interaction between you and the adult caretakers, it will help him to feel connected to you during the time he spends there.
  • As you are getting ready to go, draw a picture in his head of what will be fun at daycare during his day. Be specific. Name names of his favorite people and describe the activities he likes the best.

Coping When “I Don’t Get My Way”

It is normal for anyone to feel disappointed when they don’t get their way. It is normal for a young child to cry and get upset at this disappointment. Allow him to feel what he feels, to express it (appropriately), and let him know that you see and understand his feelings—“you do not want to go, you are upset” (until he really believes you “get it” he is likely to continue to express his feelings). Then, start practicing coping strategies, such as:

  • Matter-of-factly remind him of the good he will miss if he remains upset: “Crying uses up a lot of energy. If we use it all up we won’t have any left to… (skip to the car/go swimming this afternoon/ etc.)
  • Remind him of something he can control: “Miss Tanya likes to see the favorite books you bring from home. Do you want to pick one?” “What flavor of yogurt do you want in your lunch today—Strawberry or Vanilla?”
  • Draw a picture in his head of what will be fun during his day at daycare. Be specific and vivid.

A sample script for what to do when no strategy is working:

Every parent has experienced one of those heels-dug-in days of mega-resistance when nothing you try seems to work but not going to work/to daycare/to the doctor’s office is simply not an option. On these days your body must do the work of supporting the child. It will take everything you’ve got to remain calm, positive and relaxed. Do your best, knowing that your child feeds off your mood. If you are tense and angry, it will likely escalate his resistance. If you are calm, he may be able to “borrow” some of that calm.

Get down at his level and matter-of-factly say: “Is this a day you can do it yourself or do you need me to help?”

If the child remains resistant, call on your strength to remain calm, and with steady strong muscles and firm follow-through, do it for him (whether this means putting his hands through his coat sleeves or picking him up and carrying him into the classroom) explaining as you go: “I will help you this morning and another day you will be able to do it yourself.”

Continue to offer empathy and name his feelings: “You are upset,” “You do not like this.” As you name his feelings, try to also match your facial expression to that feeling. Seeing his own feeling mirrored on your face tells him that “Yes, mom/dad gets it.”

Call on your various calming strategies (though, it may simply be one of those days that they just don’t work). Some examples:

  • “Now we just need your hat—it goes on your nose right?” (humor, distraction, opportunity for your child to show competence)
  • “It’s been a crabby morning, I think we need to crab walk to the door.” (game, silliness)
  • “The itsy-bitsy spider…” (song)
  • “I think today is a morning we should play your favorite cd and you can choose which song to play first.” (offer a positive future)

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22 Comments
  1. “Crying uses up a lot of energy. If we use it all up we won’t have any left to… (skip to the car/go swimming this afternoon/ etc.)”
    It would probably better if you acknowledge your child’s feelings: “You are sad because you’re leaving us. You’re sad because you want to stay at home and play with your toys”.

    • Justine, I’m glad you echo the emphasis I placed on acknowledging feelings before trying the potential strategies. Not only does it teach a vocabulary for feelings, it helps all of us to know that what we feel matters even when we have to do things we may not want to. Dr. Y

  2. My 4 year old grandson goes to a home daycare and has been taking things home with him. He doesn’t steal anywhere else just there. Need help to understand why.

    • This can be so awkward and hard for adults who want to raise honest children. However,preschoolers often struggle with issues of ownership and boundaries. Emotionally, a preschooler may wish he could play with “it” all the time–even at home. The challenge here is to address the behavior. In particular, “remembering” to put things away before he leaves. It will often help for children this young to be reminded that daycare things stay at the daycare, AND that when he comes back it will be time to play with the toy again. If somehow the adults miss a tucked away toy and discover it later, then it is put aside so that he cannot play with it at home, but must wait until he is back at the daycare. Remember this is a teaching and learning stage for everyone. Your attention and follow through now are key to his integration of the rules of ownership. Dr. Y

  3. My 3 year old son has been at the same home daycare for 2 years, she is great but for the last 5 months he screams and cries and throws fits at her house, he refuses to do activities. He has been sick often and goes to Nana’s house when he is …now he is saying he wants to go there and doesn’t like daycare. I feel like this is a phase but my daycare lady is getting exhausted and thinks he has behavioral issues .. I think he is upset cause he isn’t getting what he wants, he is very active and talkative and has a strong will. It’s just her there so he is requiring allot of 1 on 1 to calm down. He does have fit’s at home but not nearly as long as the ones at daycare. I need help to get him back into the routine of going, I am not sure if he’s not interested in that place anymore and needs more people and interaction or if he can pull through.
    I need help ASAP or she will ask him to leave there and I don’t know if that will solve the true issue

    Please help

    • You have many facets to consider: environmental changes at the daycare, his ability to transition to activities directed by the daycare provider and most significantly his ability to self-calm when faced with disappointment. Your internal pressure to resolve this ASAP is also a factor. Please use the 1/2 hour phone call option–you can message me through the facebook link or use the e-mail address to schedule time to talk. Often it is helpful to think aloud as you consider your next steps to support your son and his daycare provider. Dr. Y

  4. I have acknowledged my son’s feeling, I created a collage picture showing him the structure of the day (Breakfast, drop off, day care, lunch, nap, snack, playground and pick up time) as well as mention all his friends and fun activities he will be doing next day. He has never liked going to day care … he has been going to this one for about a year (I moved him from the previous one thinking that the issue was the daycare), I make sure I talk to every teacher, mom, assistant in order to find out why he doesn’t like it but nobody is able to help me.
    What is the best approach for what I think is an extreme separation anxiety case? I don’t want him to suffer but at the same time I want him to learn that we need to go places even if we don’t like it.

    • I have two avenues to offer for your consideration. One thought is that preschoolers who have begun to learn the language of emotions may find that they receive significant attention for reporting unhappiness to their loving moms. If the teachers, moms and assistants at daycare seem surprised by your concerns particularly since his behavior indicates he is happy and relaxed in their care, then this is likely the case. The other avenue is that if your mom instinct (gut) is shouting that his issues are based in anxiety beyond the norm, then it is time to seek outside professional assistance. These services may be expensive but often, small changes at home can help to ground a young child for a happier future. Dr. Y

  5. My Oldest, just turned 5, but has been in pre-k this past year and loved it. His brother will be turning 4 in two months and has always wanted to go to school with this brother. This summer I have put them put in summer camp at the same school my eldest attended. First day was great but after that it all went downhill. It has been 2 months and my little one scream cries when he gets dropped off. He now says he does not want to go to school. Keeping in mind he has spent he’s whole life at home with grandma. We would really like him to be in a school environment to get him prepared for next year but the mornings have been getting worst at drop off time. As a result of the little one’s crying, my oldest has reverted back to his “first time” in school with the crying as well. I am starting to feel completely defeated and concerned that, 1 my oldest will now have a harder time when starting Elementary school in the fall and 2 that maybe I’m completely messing up my youngest by starting him to early. Any suggestions greatly appreciated.

    • Dear worried mom,
      Tears alone are not a good measure of the nature or severity of a problem. Having said that, tears continuing regularly after a two-month transition period would indeed suggest a need to better understand how the child is interpreting his time at school/camp with teachers and friends. I am assuming you have had discussions with his teachers about how he manages his day when you or grandmother are not with him. If they report that within 5-10 minutes of your leaving he can change his focus, join his peers, take leadership from the adults and shift from individual to group activity without difficulty then the tears may simply be a pattern that can be interrupted by a variety of strategies. You may want to borrow a copy of my book Tools for the Toddler Years from your library for the section on supporting transitions.
      If, however, he is not able to relax and enter the school experience then it may be that at 3 ½ he does not have the physical and emotional stamina to manage a full day of activity. This in no way means that either he or you are failing. Development can be supported it cannot be pushed, or forced. At a break time, remove him from this environment but do continue group enrichment activities like library story times, church or community classes or other short but regular opportunities to practice independence, separating and the skills of being in groups with peers. And, do keep the mental door open for both of you—reassuring him that he’ll learn how to go to school, too.
      His big brother may be crying because he has noticed how much extra attention his younger brother gets. You may want to try offering comments such as:
      • (with gentle humor, not sarcasm) “Did you forget you know how to go to school? Your little brother hasn’t figured that out yet, but he will pretty soon.”
      • “You already know about new friends and teachers. You don’t have to worry.”
      • “Were you thinking that if you cried I would find an extra hug for you? You know what? I have a giant hug right here. You can save those tears for a time when you’re hurt and need to call extra help.”
      It is difficult to be patient and loving with ourselves when we see our children struggle. We can begin to question our judgement rather than look at their behaviors as information about where they are developmentally and what new skills they may need to gain confidence in themselves. You’ve done the right thing in asking for more information. Now as you find out more from his teachers you’ll be able to trust yourself to provide the next context for his continued learning and growing. My best to you! Dr. Y

  6. My almost three year old daughter has been going to the same daycare for just under two years now. She is transitioning to a new room but to a teacher she already knows and in very close proximity to a teacher she loves. For a while now she says she wants ‘to go to bed’ or ‘stay in my house’. I know the transition might be upsetting her but she isn’t upset or throwing fits, she’s sad and crying (the sad cry). I talked to the teachers awhile back and they said she is usually fine the moment I leave but this sad face concerns me. My daughter is a very headstrong person who doesnt relent easy. What should I do?

    • Dear Compassionate Mom,
      Have you ever been with a friend and said “I wish you didn’t have to leave?” This is a very common human reaction. At age 3, a concrete statement of “stay in my house” reflects the desire to stay with you. Her teacher report that she is fine when you leave indicates your daughter is handling this very well. Often children find it helpful when we can name the feeling under their words and reassure them. It could sound something like this. “You’re wishing it was a home day. We do like to be together. Remember, this is a day with teacher and friends. I’ll save a special hug for you when I pick you up.” Then smile and trust yourself and your daughter to manage all the mini separations of life. Dr. Y

  7. I have a son who is 3 years old. I am currently home with our youngest (almost 1). The 3 year old has remained in daycare 2 days a week to 1) retain his spot 2) so I have time to do programs with the youngest that the older one was able to do 3) we thought it would help his transition into kindie when he turns 4 (kindie is in the same building). He is by nature a very shy, sensitive boy. He takes a long time to warm up to new people, situations and experiences and needs a lot of reassurance. He has done well at this daycare and we like the teachers etc. Lately he has begun to dread school days. He asks every morning if it’s a school day and cries all morning if it is. He cries in the car the whole way there and has to be peeled off of me when we arrive. I am rethinking our decision to keep him in and wonder if we should pull him out. I ask him questions about his day (what did you eat for lunch, did you play in the sandbox, etc) and he usually refuses to answer or just answers no to everything. His teachers say he is fine once I leave, but he is quiet (he always has been). He will speak to the other children and one favorite teacher, but no other adults. He has been at this daycare since he was 18 months (he used to go full-time when I was working). I thought we were making the right choices for him and now I am questioning it.

    • Dear worried mom,
      As parents we may find ourselves second guessing our decisions when our positive intent creates a different problem. Your intent to maintain his place and to support his later transition are positive as is the intent to create individual opportunity for you and his sibling. The challenge is that your preschooler is a concrete thinker seeing that you are doing special with his brother and leaving him out (the worst interpretation is that mom is picking little brother over me). Since the preschool teachers report that he is fine when you leave he is most likely doing well with the arrangement. I would encourage you to think about your language when reporting that it is a school day. “You are so lucky to be big and go to school to see your friends (name one or two) and your teacher (name the favorite). When little brother is big he can go too.” Also consider using words that signal turn taking, little brother is taking a turn to learn about (your activity) you had a turn when you were little too. Or, you may not even mention the things you are doing with the little sibling since he will be very unlikely to ever remember a time when you and he did those things together. Children this age equate love with direct attention and time spent with you it will remain a challenge for him to part. Trust yourself, his teachers and him as he continues to take these giant steps toward independence. Best wishes, Dr. Y

  8. Good Morning,

    My son has been in daycare since he was 6 weeks old, and he is 3.5 now.

    However, he just transitioned into a new room end of last week. This week, he has been telling me he doesn’t want to go into his new room, that he wants to stay in his old room, with what he is familiar with.

    This morning, when we pulled into daycare, before even getting out of the car, he started crying. He has never done this before. I bring him inside and into his old classroom (the new one isn’t open until 8 a.m. when the teacher gets there) and he tells me he doesn’t want to go to his old classroom with his old teacher (Ms. Kathy). His sister is in there too, until the bus picks her up for school.

    As I was leaving, he was pulling on my shirt and crying, not wanting me to go. I had to leave for work and he stayed on the floor with his blanket and stuffed animal crying, didn’t even want his sister to comfort him.

    I am hoping this is just a separation anxiety issue and nothing going on the classroom(s) that I don’t know about. I am at a loss. Please help me.

    • Wise Mom, Sudden changes in behavior demand that we look further. It may be as you hope that this is a form of separation anxiety, and yet for your peace of mind it is important to know more. It is always appropriate to talk to the teacher or program director about the day and how he manages when you are not there.(These conversations are best done at times other than pick up and drop off when classroom leaders need to give their attention to the children.) If they report he calms promptly and soon enjoys the activities and other children, then it is very unlikely that you have anything to worry about. You may find that the tears are about uncertainty in a new room and with classmates who do not yet feel like friends. A skilled teacher can reassure him and help him find his way into new friends and anchors so that he can again be joyful and you can take a breath as you shift focus to work demands. My best to you and your family. Dr. Y

  9. My 3 yr old daughter has been going to the same daycare for the last 2 years and has been in the same room for the last year. For the last two months (after returning from a 1 week vacation) she has been having instances of screaming crying at daycare at different times during the day. Her teachers and we (parents) have been trying to figure out what the trigger is, but can’t seem to understand what has changed. Teachers said she will also have times of not wanting to play with friends and just stand off to the side during activities. She tells us that she doesn’t want to go to school and “I will cry” at school. We keep trying to emphasize all of the fun things at school and give her things from home to keep in her cubby, but she still has problems most days. She is an only child and is always happy and playing at home. It’s breaking our hearts as we want her to have good days and have friends. We just don’t know what is going on.

    • Dear confused mom (and teachers),
      Sometimes our children are almost too smart for their own good! She is developmentally right on target to explore her power to manage her environment. When she reports to you “I will cry” this is a statement of her conscious decision to explore whether crying is a useful tool with teachers and parents. (Some children try other power tools like whining or trigger words like profanity.) My guess is that she gets a great deal of positive attention when she screams/cries at school–after all what compassionate preschool parent or teacher would not want to offer her comfort? When you as a parent and they as teachers recognize that she is not in physical or emotional need, then ignoring this behavior by focusing on the other children will soon help her realize that crying as a tool for attention isn’t particularly useful. The adult response can sound something like this said to the others without eye contact for the crier, “It’s a minute when she wants to cry. You don’t have to worry, let’s do our (activity), she will join us pretty soon.” When she finishes she is invited right into the activity. At home, when she offers you her threat “I will cry” acknowledge that she can choose that, but that you think most of her friends at school like to talk, sing and play with their voices and let it go. These little people are smart! Sometimes we have to look beyond the immediate to see a larger picture. My best to you and her classroom leaders. Dr. Y

  10. HI Dr. Y,

    I have a preschooler 4 1/4 years old (will be 5 in January 2018) a toddler 17 month old. They’ve been at the same daycare since they were 6 months old. We absolutely love this daycare and all the teachers, my preschooler has been with 3 different classes, with different teachers (some have been teaching in this same class/daycare for 25 years!) and we know they LOVE the kids and just amazing!
    Anyways, we had the kids stay home this past Summer with my husband because my husband has a summer off and then we all went for a vacation for a whole month overseas. We got back about 10 days ago, and both kids started daycare this past week, both moved up to different classes so different teachers than before Summer. Anyways, naturally my toddler has been crying at drop off, but has been getting better and even now just whimpering at drop off and already stopped crying by the time I am walking 1/2 way out their hall way.
    My preschooler has been okay until this morning. This whole week, he has been great, a little shy at drop off because of the new teacher (he LOVESSSS his previous teacher in younger room) but he has many same friends and they all have one giant party! This morning though, he cried HARD at drop off and told me he wanted to stay home. I had to peel him off me so I could go to work, his teacher talked to him and he was still crying when I drove away (they were outside playing). I don’t know what this could be? He hasn’t done this for gosh – 3 years?! He doesn’t have a temp, and was perfectly fine. Only thing I can think of is that I had to turn off Curious George (that was playing at home) when we had to leave the house. Anyways, maybe I am overthinking this? Should I be worried?
    Thanks!
    A

    • Dear Thinking Mom,
      When children have been well established in a school or daycare that you trust rarely do you need to be overly concerned with one difficult morning. Often if you contact the center a little later you will find that the child had indeed calmed and begun to focus on the activities and friends engaged in the day. There are many reasons why 4 ½ year old children may have a difficult morning. You’re experienced enough to have looked for fever to indicate illness, but sometimes just being more tired because of a growth spurt can throw them off. At other times, they may have felt hurried, or just wanted to spend more time with Mom. I would encourage you trust your gut as well as your mind. You know him best. You will not be failing him if you see him work a little to readjust to the schedule and the new people in his life. If the work seems to be spilling over into the rest of the day then there is cause for more attention and exploration.
      Dr.Y

  11. Dear Dr. Y
    I Need help. my 4 year old grandson is having a very difficult time adjusting to being in school all day. Last semester he was okay going to daycare for half a day. His parents decided he would go to school all day and stay in extended care until mommy would pick him up at 5:00 pm. He is not handling this well at all. The major problem with him going all day is that he has to nap and he has never been one to nap, he has to sit in the dark at school while all the other kids sleep so he has started to cry long before nap time.
    His parents and I are not seeing eye to eye on this, although I support and respect all their decisions and how they are raising him he has begun to have behavior issues.I know it is in his best interest to be in school, I am just wondering if there is a better way to address this problem.

    • Dear Concerned Grandmother, Nothing is harder than to be caught between people we love.To honor your concern for your grandson and the respect you have for his parents we often begin with questions rather than statements. One question, I might have is whether the school setting has another option for children who are not nappers. Although we assume every young body needs a period of rest, not every young body needs sleep. Rest may can be interpreted as time to listen to music, draw or do some other quiet activity that honors his classmate’s need for sleep. Most well staffed schools for young children will have an alternative that matches the unique biology of the children in their care. It may be helpful for his parents to share their concerns with the staff so that they can become a collaborative team in creating a positive experience for your grandson. Dr.Y

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