For the past couple months, J has complained just about every time I take him to daycare. The minute I cheerfully tell him that it’s a school day he begins the “I don’t like my school” refrain. It can also express itself as “I don’t like my friends,” or the even more concerning “I’m scared of my school.”

Ever since I had my revelation about how to drop him off at daycare to instill confidence in him, I’ve had that whole situation dialed in. Until now.

For the first month, I just told myself that things would shift. I listened to him, acknowledged his feelings of not wanting to go and then let him know that I think his daycare is a good and safe place for him. And that I trust his teachers to take wonderful care of him. But he keeps expressing resistance. So I’ve started to worry. Is there something going on that I should be worried about? And even if there’s not, is this school just not the best fit for him anymore?

Many of his older friends moved on to pre-school around age 3, but I’ve resisted following that pattern because:

  1. I couldn’t give a rip about his academic development. We live in a culture that is completely obsessed with knowledge and thinking and he’s going to get plenty of emphasis on that his whole life. So right now, I just want him to feel safe and loved and be well fed.
  2. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

After our second month of the “I don’t like my school” chorus, started to wonder if maybe it was broke. I decided to ask for some advice. I sent this to a blogger friend with extensive teaching and childcare experience. (She has an intensely helpful blog called Aunt Annie’s Childcare.)

Hello fabulous Annie. I have a question for you. It’s about my sweet J and our current childcare situation. He’s been going to the same place since he was 1 (and he’ll be 3 in a couple weeks). It’s a home-based montessori daycare and the woman who runs it is full of love and joy and makes amazing organic food for the kids. I love her. So for the past month or so, nearly every time we get ready for school, he goes 2 mornings a week, J says, “I don’t like my school,” and is often very clingy when we get there. If I can get him engaged in something, he’s usually happy for me to leave, but sometimes, I have to pry his little hands away from me and leave with him crying. I’ve tried to talk with him about why he doesn’t want to go. He has said that he’s worried about some boys there who have been rough with him and so we talked with his teacher about it in front of him, asking her to please keep him safe and letting her know that J was worried. The whole conversation went well, and I felt great.

The other day, though, J said that he wanted to go to Childwatch, which is the childcare associated with the gym I go to. I found this a bit alarming, since he was actually preferencing one form of childcare over another. I’d always just assumed that he wanted to be with me instead of going to school, which I understand. But his mention of Childwatch made me wonder if that’s his way of saying that this childcare situation isn’t the best for him. The other thing about the current situation that worries me is that there’s been a lot of staff turnover at his school. His teacher usually has 2 helpers, and since J has been going there, her helper of several years left and since then it has been very unstable. At this point I am concerned, but not sure what to do. I love his school and think it is a good, loving, safe place but am beginning to wonder if it’s the best fit for him. When I think of moving him to another school, I worry that the same exact thing will happen, and we’ll go through that whole upheaval for nothing. So there you have it.

And here is Annie’s most helpful reply:

First, it’s not unknown for a child of this age to have a new bout of separation anxiety; he may have associated the gym childcare service with you being in close proximity. Have you asked the teachers at his Montessori care what happens after you leave? Does he settle quickly or fret for hours? If he frets for hours, change is definitely indicated. In this case you should definitely be listening to your child’s signals about the service, regardless of what you think of it.

If he settles once you’re gone, then he is still having a problem with the actual separation rather than with the service. A transition routine which is the same every day can help here- transitions are SO important. You can work out something that works for you (say, a special breakfast with mummy, then when you get to care you read him a story, then you kiss and cuddle once, leave him with the carer of his choice and then GO) and repeat it regardless of his tears or clinginess. The carer should ring you if he can’t settle- I gather this hasn’t happened?

Changes of staff can definitely be unsettling at this age. It’s a difficult time, but the same thing happens in other settings so that in itself is not a reason to move. You really need to be a fly on the wall and find out what happens when you’re not there! You should be able to rely on the staff to tell you this- but if you are still worried, perhaps some surprise visits are in order where you pop in and observe without him seeing you (if possible!).

She provided exactly the distinction I needed: Is his problem with the separation or the service? And I can say with total confidence now that it’s the separation that is hard for him. He always recovers after my departure within minutes, and every time I pick him up, he’s happily playing in the back yard.

Oh, the joy of asking an expert and finding some peace of mind. Now I can focus my time and energy on developing good transition routine and my confidence in J’s lovely school is back in full force.

Thank you, Annie!