A Resource for Nannies and Families

Pre-School: Guiding Your Children Ages 3-6

Somewhere between your child’s second and third year, you realize that you have a “kid” living with you where the baby once resided. All of a sudden, she is coordinated, speaks clearly and effectively, is establishing peer relationships and is developing her own memories apart from family. Your preschooler has become an active and willful participant in her own development.

The ages of three to six are a time of intense development in the cognitive, emotional, physical, and social realms. Your preschooler is experiencing what the developmental theorists refer to as “rapprochement”- a sudden and daunting realization that he is a small person in a big world. In many ways this period is repeated in adolescence when a child longs to step into the big world one moment, yet secretly wishes to be back in the safer cocoon of the family in the next. Three or thirteen, your child approaches the exciting, big world with more than a little ambivalence.

SELF ESTEEM As in every stage of life, the goal of caregiving is to enhance a child’s self esteem – which is the core of successful development and learning. Erikson, Anna Freud, and other child development theorists stress that a nurturing relationship with caregivers sets the foundation for intellectual, social and emotional growth (Brazelton, p. 1). Positve self-esteem is strongly associated with the quality and strength of the child/caregiver relationship.
What caregivers can do:

  • Warm physical contact is an integral part of developing self esteem: One long-term study which followed subjects from early childhood into their thirties showed that being raised with an abundance of hugs, kisses and cuddling went further towards producing happy adults than being raised with any other advantages, and seemed to negate such potential risk factors as poverty, broken homes and stress (Eisenberg et al p. 290).
  • Modeling mutually respectful communication skills: Communication is an interactive process. Listen when your child talks, look at her directly, validate her feelings and exhibit empathy. Solicit her opinions and allow her to make decisions within prescribed parameters. For example, offer the choice of 3 shirts to wear in the morning; ask whether the child wants go to the park or the library; does she want peanut butter and jelly or macaroni and cheese for lunch?
  • Create situations that insure the child will succeed. For positive selfesteem, children need to feel a sense of mastery, a pride and confidence in their abilities and accomplishment (Brazelton and Greenspan, p.151). Therefore, provide a step stool by the bathroom sink so he can wash by himself; buy him shoes that are easy to put on; give him a regular household task that is age appropriate (picking up toys, bringing in the mail, putting dirty clothes in the hamper, tearing lettuce for salad, stirring batter, placing newspapers in the recycling bin).
  • When he completes the task, communicate your approval and respect for the accomplishment. When the need to correct behavior arises, do so constructively and address the behavior, NOT the child (Supportive: “Spilling the paint made a mess. Please help clean it up.” Damaging: “You are such a slob.”) Noted childcare expert Haim Ginott expresses it succinctly: “Address the behavior, protect the personality.”


    TEMPERAMENT Temperament is a combination of the traits and characteristics that one is born with (nature) combined with the effect of relationships and environment (nurture). It is just the way we are. Although we can learn to modify our traits as we age, our basic temperamental make-up remains the same (Shick, p.8). In the preschool years, it is appropriate to gently, thoughtfully and empathetically help a child to modify some of his natural tendencies (Understanding Children p. 57). For example, if a child is slow to warm up by nature, one should not thrust her into crowded social situations. However, shyness can hold a child back from important social connections. Therefore, caregivers need to give the hild time to get comfortable with new people. This can start with a one on one play date followed by small birthday parties.

    Temperament has a large impact on family relationships and influences the way adults treat children. Due to temperament differences, siblings can experience the same family very differently: An outgoing, easy-to-adapt child may ask and receive more affection than a sibling who is sensitive or slow-to-warm up. Similarly, children’s temperament can have an effect on how parents judge themselves and their parenting skills. Parents with children who have “easy” temperaments tend to feel successful while parents of challenging, spirited, or “difficult” children tend to feel more helpless and less successful. Temperament labels such as shy, easy, difficult, loud, or impulsive can create expectations for children to act a certain way, and prevent them from branching out beyond the label – which can be harmful to self esteem and can last into adulthood. Even a positive label like “Smiley” can give a child the impression that she is always supposed to act happy and not show sadness or anger.

    Labels may also keep you from seeing the many other sides of your child. A slow-to-warm child may also be adaptable, regular, and energetic; a child who is given a negative label like “Slowpoke” may really be persistent and thorough. You may not be able to change a child’s temperament, but you can alter your outlook and think positively.

    CHILDHOOD FEARS As children come to terms with their small place in the world, they develop feelings of powerlessness. Adding to the insecurity of this stage, the preschool years are often the time when there is the arrival of a new sibling, which can create a fear of abandonment. Children between the ages of 3 to 6 years are also trying to come to terms with aggression. They observe violence, anger and aggression on television, in videos, on the playground, and even at home. To deal with this strong stimulus from their environment and the unsettling effect it has on them internally, children often create imaginary scenarios using superheroes and monsters to fight evil and come out the victor. Preschoolers develop other fears as well: fear of the dark, fear of dogs, fear of loud noises, fear of people in costumes, fear of war, and fear of death. This is a normal developmental phase that helps the child learn mastery over his fears and begin to feel more powerful.

    Do not dismiss the fear. Acknowledge that fears are real and that everyone has fears
    Encourage the child to talk about her fears, but let her determine her own timeline and comfort level. Listen carefully and empathetically when she does talk. Help her develop a way of talking about it allowing some personal distance, such as telling it like a story.
    Try to get at the underlying fears; fear of monsters may reflect a child’s concern over his own misbehavior.
    Use desensitization to gradually help a child deal with fears. If he is afraid of the dark, use a night light; if he’s afraid of dogs, introduce him to a small friendly puppy.

    Night terrors also appear during this time: a child wakes from a deep sleep screaming, thrashing, and is difficult to comfort. When this happens, wake her, hug her, give her a backrub and encourage her to cuddle whatever may be soothing to her.

    If a child does not seem to overcome these fears and they are impeding sleep or the ability to interact with peers, consult your pediatrician.

    POSITIVE GUIDANCE As your son or daughter enters the preschool years, the need for thoughtful approaches to discipline and limit setting increases. Discipline is an oft-misunderstood concept. While it is clear that the goal of discipline is education towards appropriate behavior, it is often confused with punishment. Brazelton and Greenspan write: “Limits and structure begin with nurturance and caring because 90% of the task of teaching children to internalize limits is based on the child’s desire to please those around them.” (Brazelton, p.145)

    Children want to please their caregivers, they want approval. But fear is not a successful teaching method because it does not help the child to generalize from one situation to others. Therefore, we prefer to use the word “guidance” to emphasize the real goal of discipline. The idea of “guidance” is that caregivers use misbehaviors as teaching/learning opportunities. Guidance enhances self-esteem and respects a child’s temperament. The caregiver who understands where the child is developmentally is able to empower him to solve the problem. Guidance helps children learn from mistakes, develop empathy, and learn the self-control needed for effective social functioning and autonomy. In contrast, punishment makes a child feel chastised and submissive and may accomplish the short term goal of ceasing unacceptable behavior, but punishment does not teach the child acceptable alternatives. Guidance offers your child something positive and instructive. By applying the concept of “guidance” you are giving your child the gift of inner control (Reichlin et al, p.83-92).

    Preschoolers will ask a million questions, will be definite about their wants and needs, are learning how to play collaboratively, need constant activity, think they can do more than they can do, experiment with inappropriate language, imitate adult behavior without fully understanding what it means. These are not traits to discourage, since they are normal. However, there are ways to guide some of the less socially acceptable behaviors towards acceptability. Using the Guidance Approach

    • Set realistic expectations that take into consideration developmental stages, emperament and personality.
    • Avoid shaming the child, threatening him or any physical punishment.
    • Avoid lectures and prolonged discussion. Be direct with the child about your disapproval of the behavior without labeling him. For example, say, “I am angry. I do not like toys all over the floor. Please put them away,” as opposed to, “You are so sloppy, how come you never pick up your toys?”
    • Be consistent; when you give consequences always follow through on them.
    • Be specific. Let her know exactly what you expect. Instead of “Be good,” say “I need quiet when I am driving. Please use a quiet voice.”
    • Respect a child’s emotions. Tell him it is okay to be angry, but help him to learn how to challenge those emotions productively (by punching a pillow, running, going into the bathroom and screaming as loud as he can, etc.).
    • Reserve the word “no” for those circumstances that really require it. Instead of letting her know what she CAN’T do, let the child know what she CAN do. “We can’t go to the park, but we can have an indoor picnic.”
    • Use natural consequences when there is not a safety concern. If he will not eat, he will be hungry. If he makes a mess, he needs to clean it up, shortening time for a story afterward.
    • If the misbehavior is a safety concern, remove him and/or physically restrain him so he cannot harm himself or others.
    • Use calming techniques such as reflective listening, acknowledgment of feelings, and cool down time.
    • In a conflict situation with peers, help the child to use words instead of hitting, pushing, hair pulling, etc. Role-play conflict resolution before incidents occur.
    • Praise good behavior. Make the praise very specific to the deed. Not: “You’re such a good girl.” Instead: “You cleaned your room beautifully today.”
    • Try to maintain a sense of humor, and always maintain your own selfcontrol.

    PLAY and SCHOOL READINESS Play is not only fun but is critical to a child’s intellectual, social, emotional and physical development. Through play, a child learns problem solving, negotiation, rules, focus, interpersonal skills, communication, winning, and losing. Mastering the challenges of play requires children to regulate their emotions, learn to inhibit inappropriate behavior, focus attention, and organize themselves to achieve an outside goal. Children who are exposed to creative, interactive play are prepared for school and primed for school success. (Gottman et al, p.198) What Can Caregivers Do?

    • Throw away the flashcards and work books. Play is what promotes school readiness.
    • Provide plenty of opportunities and room for unstructured play, with siblings, peers and caregivers.
    • Allow children to get dirty and make a mess.
    • Don’t orchestrate free play.
    • Encourage and model cooperation.
    • Give the child simple, clear directions.
    • Encourage imagination through story telling, exposure to art and music.
    • Keep art supplies easily available such as crayons, markers, paint, clay, brushes, paper, sponges, chalk, glue scissors, magazine. Create a corner for dress up clothes, unbreakable small kitchen items, etc.
    • Play rhyming games and other simple word games in the car, in the evening, or during routine household activities.
    • Read, read, read, and then read some more.

    CONCLUSION The preschool years give you a clear window into the personality of your young housemate. Gone are the days when you could control all the decisions and direct the schedule. Now is a time that you both learn how to negotiate the terms so that everyone wins. This is also the time that you and your pre-schooler are learning to let go, that is, allowing your son or daughter to experience greater independence within safe and fair limits that you set with a guiding hand.

    BIBLIOGRAPHY Brazelton, T. Berry and Greenspan, Stanley. The Irreducible Needs of Children. New York. Perseus Publishing, 2000.
    Carey, William. Understanding Your Child’s Temperament. New York, MacMillen Press, 1997.
    Charlesworth, Rosalind. Understanding Child Development. United States, Thomas Delmar Learning, 2000.
    Eisenberg, Arlene, et al. What To Expect From the Toddler years. New York, Workman Publishing, 1996.
    Galinsky, Ellen, and Judy David. The Preschool Years: Family Strategies that Work From Experts and From Parents. New York, Ballantine Books, 1998
    Gartrell, Dan. The Power of Guidance. Canada, Thomas Delmar Learning, 2004.
    Gottman, John, and DeClair. Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. New York, Simon and Shuster, 1997.
    Reichlen, Gail, and Caroline Winkler. The Pocket Parent New York, Winkler Publishing, 2001. Shick, Lyndall. Understanding Temperament. Seattle, Parenting Press, Inc. 1998.
    Weiss, B, et al. “Some Consequences of Early Harsh Discipline: Child aggression and a maladaptive social information processing style.” Child Development, 63,1992, 1321-1325.
    This article may also be found at the official site for the National Alliance of Professional Nanny Agencies, www.theapna.org. The Website for Parents in a pinch is parentsinapinch.com. Our thanks to the author for allowing Nanny.com to publish her article.

Nanny Search

Enter your zip code in the box below to find a nanny in your area:
Back to Top