Emily Oster

4 min Read Emily Oster

Emily Oster

How Do I Stop My Child’s Tantrums Before Daycare?

Q&A on meltdowns

Emily Oster

4 min Read

Is there any data/sound guidance on how to deal with day-care refusal? My 2-year-old son used to love going to day care, but for the past couple months he has been distraught in the morning leaving the house and at drop-off. He also tells me and his dad multiple times every day, including on the weekends, “No school, no school.” We have tried reading books with him about going to school and saying goodbye, and talking with him about how we always come back, school is safe, and some things he can do when he’s missing us (ask for a hug, cuddle his lovey, etc.), but nothing seems to have made a difference yet. I am worried that we are traumatizing him by leaving him at day care when he’s so upset, but also not sure if lingering and prolonging the goodbye in an attempt to calm him down is helping him. My husband is more in the “quick goodbye” camp, and I’m more in the “lingering” camp; is there any sound advice on what to do here? 

—Scared of traumatizing my son

First, all the empathy. This is tough, and it’s something I know many of us can relate to.

More practically, I see you as having two questions here. Your last question is the more concrete, easier one: Is lingering a good idea? The common advice you hear is to just leave. Smile big and wave goodbye, even as your child clutches at you. Easier said than done, of course. And I wish I could tell you there is some great randomized data on these approaches. There isn’t, but we do have more anthropological evidence, from observations of preschool drop-offs, which does suggest that leaving quickly is better than lingering. The combination of this and the widespread experiential learning from child care providers supports the view that your husband’s approach is probably better here.

The harder question is whether this is overall the right setup for your family. The drop-off problem you cite is a very common one, but ongoing distress outside of the moment of drop-off is at least somewhat more unusual. This is a place where I might suggest you use some tools from my book The Family Firm — specifically, the Four Fs.

Frame the question: Is there an underlying question here about whether you should try to change your child care setup? Is that a feasible option or something you’d consider? Or is the question just How can we improve the current situation? I think it is worth interrogating whether there is in fact another option you are considering.

Fact-find: You may already have some of this information, but, especially if you are considering other options, I’d sit down and try to get more detailed information about what is going on. Is your child happy at school? How often does he really bring up disliking it? (As in, it may seem more frequent than it is, just because it is so upsetting.) Is there something that triggers it? The more you can understand objectively about the situation, the better.

Final decision: With the facts in hand, make a decision about what to do. In this kind of situation, it’s easy to let these thoughts occupy basically all of your time, without ever resolving anything. By enforcing the timing of a decision — whether to continue, change, or modify — the idea is to close off the constant revisiting.

Follow-up: Schedule a time to follow up on your decision, and see if you want to revisit it. Having this time set aside will (hopefully) allow you to not constantly reconsider, since you know there is a scheduled time to do so.

I hope this helps at least a bit.

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MamaK
20 days ago

I JUST went through this with my 3 year old. He loved preschool then hated it. It was traumatic for both of us. I would go home after dropoff and cry and found I couldn’t get anything done because I was thinking about how awful drop off was and how he was doing at school.
First off, he now LOVES it again. So much so that at dinner last night when we asked how your day was he said, “my day was not great. It was not a preschool day so I don’t like that.”
During the hating preschool phase we tried EVERYTHING. The thing that ended up working was waiting until it was essentially time to leave and getting him and the car and going. No lead up! if he asked me in the morning if we were going to preschool I would say, “not right now lets play X” then when it would be time to walk out the door I would tell him as I put him in the car. That avoided a terrible morning of stressing and saying “no more preschool, I want to stay with mommy”. Then on our way to preschool we wouldn’t even talk about it, whereas before I’d try to “sell” him on it, like “preschool is so fun, you love to do the rope swing, your friend Tommy will be there, etc”.
I tried to get to preschool right before the door opened and if he said he didn’t want to go, my husband and I always had the same answer, “you have to go to preschool just like mommy and daddy have to go to work. You can choose to have a good day or not.” Sometimes he would say “I will not have a good day” and that’s fine haha.
It lasted about 2 weeks of us doing this and he got over it and loved preschool again! Now we do a calendar in his room and he loves to check if its a preschool day or not!

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