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My daughter is turning 5 in a few months. She's just started a new preschool class (same school as last year, just an age older). The teacher has reported that she refuses to get up from the mat when asked to do her activities, and she doesn't want to get on the toilet. They have to physically pick her up off the mat to get her up, and they have to physically lift her onto the toilet. They have asked us to talk to her about it. I've asked her about it and she says she simply 'doesn't want to'. She also says the teacher colours in 'with' her by moving her hand/crayon on the page.

She's a strong willed little girl. She will do things when she wants to, and opposes any kind of force/coercion. We have found that at home, strong boundaries and natural consequences have done wonders. We don't shout or hit, and she is happy and cooperative most of the time.

I don't know if she's not cooperating as a power struggle, or because she's anxious and freezing up. She does take time to warm up to things. Either way, I feel like forcing her to do these things is just not the right thing to do. This doesn't sit right with me. She's 5 and perfectly capable of doing all these things. At home, she talks, she eats, she colours in, she bathrooms by herself, she's 100% independent and happy. Why treat her like a baby at school?

Is it appropriate for this school to be handling her behaviour in this way? I want to tell them to just leave her alone, not pressure her, and let her deal with the consequences of her actions (if she refuses to bathroom accept that and if she has an accident, so be it).

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    Good question, +1. "...if she refuses to bathroom accept that and if she has an accident, so be it" : Have you considered who would need to deal with this (would she stay in wet undies the rest of the day? Is that good for her or sanitary for the facility?) Would they call one of the parents to come in and clean her up? What is your vision regarding "fitting into society"? There are many possible scenarios. Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 13:05
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    @anongoodnurse She does have a change of clothes in her bag with her. She's had an accident at school once in the past year. It very rarely happens with her, and they have a process for it. I'd be very surprised if it got to that, honestly. She was very embarrassed the last time. At home, if she has an accident (extremely rare), she cleans it up herself and changes her own clothes, and puts them in the wash, with my supervision and (minor) help. I assume the process at school is similar. My expectations are that she is behaves in a way that is reasonable for her age and stage of development.
    – stan
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 13:25
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    @anongoodnurse I've spoken to her more on it, and apparently she does bathroom by herself at school. She claims she does. The teacher told me that they have to put her on the toilet. I don't know who to believe.
    – stan
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 13:26
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    Who has the most to gain by misrepresenting the issue? It's a dilemma for sure! Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 14:06
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    @anongoodnurse presumably a miscommunication. Or perhaps she goes herself most of the time and there was a handful of occasions she hasn't. My understanding is that a class assistant takes them to the bathroom at a set schedule, perhaps a miscommunication between the teacher and the assistant about the degree of 'help' she's getting. Lots of potential reasons, so my assumption is that it's somewhere in the middle.
    – stan
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 14:13

4 Answers 4

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Your question is asking for an opinion, so it will draw a variety of opinions. The one most helpful will be that which resonates best with your personal philosophy. With that in mind, I'll offer mine.

I believe that when a child is sent off to school, it's a big leap into society, and "society" (by definition the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community) has rules/a code to live by. The teachers usually have everyone's best interests in mind, not just their own, and what works best for the entire class is what they codify. I think going to the bathroom on schedule and engaging in activities when the teachers want the kids to do so is good for the child, as at some time or another, kids need to learn that they don't always get to do only what they want to do.

On the other hand, blind obedience isn't my idea of a healthy adaptation, either. Needing to guide how a child colors is (imo) inappropriate on the part of the teacher, and I wouldn't hesitate to ask that this be dropped. Gently seating her on the toilet is fine, but being upset with her if she doesn't then urinate is not. Having a discussion with the head teacher about cutting her some slack when possible is fine (put more diplomatically, of course.) So is discussing the difference between acceptable vs. unacceptable behavior at school with your daughter. Being in society involves some give and take.

You say,

...at home, strong boundaries and natural consequences have done wonders. We don't shout or hit, and she is happy and cooperative most of the time.

Should it be different at school? If she has rules to follow at home, it should be no different at school. They may be different rules than home rules, but that should not be confusing to her at her age.

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  • Regarding your last paragraph, I'm not reading that quote from OP as suggesting they think it should be different at school. I think the child can perfectly well tolerate the different sets of rules, but I expect the rules at school are enforced in a manner that is less conductive to compliance.
    – user36162
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 15:07
  • @dxh's interpretation is what I was intending. It's an indication that she is capable of being independent and cooperative, and I'm suprised she's running into issues at school, honestly. Everything i read is how kids are good at school and naughty at home. My experience is the opposite.
    – stan
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 16:26
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    Also, thanks for this well thought out answer. There is a balance to be had between choosing to cooperate where appropriate socially but not blindly follow. I'm definitely going to be working with her on this. I'm currently taking a positive reinforcement approach while ignoring the negatives (she gets a reward for cooperating at school, and i tell her I'd be happy if she participated) but i won't punish her for not at this time. I dont know exactly why she's not cooperating, it may be social anxiety related and i don't want to punish her for that.
    – stan
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 16:33
  • @stan - I agree with both you and dxh - that was added only to emphasize that your daughter can function as well at school as at home without confusion. That shouldn't be an issue at all. What is an issue is why she's not comfortable doing fairly routine things. Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 23:42
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    @anongoodnurse, I actually had an appointment with our social worker this morning about this. The social worker gave me a list of questions to ask the school around these issues that basically attempt to get to the heart of why. So I'm feeling a lot better now that we have a plan to moving forward.
    – stan
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 12:12
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As a parent of three, all strong willed and all having crossed bridges like this before, I would say the same thing again I did at all those phases. Have a serious conversation about the perceived issues your child is facing at school with the teacher. Stand on your child's behalf as an adult with understanding of what is and is not right for your child, but also understand that in a classroom setting with teachers being as stretched thin as they are, not everyone's every individual need can be accommodated. It is important they see you stand for them, while negotiating, it teaches them to do the same and express themselves with civility. Pick the battles that seem appropriate, and compromise where possible. Our children went with us to those meetings to serve as an example of how to resolve conflict in real world scenarios, even at very young ages. Then have real conversations with your child at home about the reality of sometimes having to adapt to cultural norms, or patterns of behavior in group settings, that may not be your preference, but the situation demands it.

Children are amazing learners, and their minds are developing patterns of behavior at that age that most cannot comprehend, because we do not remember it clearly, and we cannot do it as adults. But just like talking to your child as a peer vs a lesser being (within reason) will develop more mature speaking, reading TO your child will help them be better readers themselves, and teaching them to negotiate a world that is not their personal universe by demonstrating, helps in the same way. A child will follow what you do far more than what you say in almost all cases.

It pays back in spades when you are one day vexed with something and your small child offers complex thoughts concerning ways to resolve your own issues. Something clicks and you realize they are going to be ok after all. If will is their strength, help them positively shape it.

My daughter specifically gave us complete hell sometimes with her strong will right up into her 20s, but eventually we saw that will come full circle and form a very strong and independent young woman. Which the world needs both more of and needs to recognize more of the ones that are there.

And most of all remember two things: First, they are your child not the teacher's, school system's, or state's .You DO have the right to handle your parenting as you choose, but you may put yourself in a position of taking on the full burden of their education depending on where you draw that line. So though it is a right, it often involves choices and concessions. And secondly, my daughter being a basic clone of my wife taught me us to remember how we handle these situations will likely reflect back in how they will one day parent as well. So be wise in what you embed in them.

My $0.02

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I'm going to back up what was said mostly.

If participation is not mandatory, then there is usually no need to force a child into it. In general it's best to encourage but not bully a child into their actions at this stage, and that goes double if your child is also dealing with a partial language barriers that could further add stress and communication issues. A lack of spoken vocabulary can lead to an inability to communicate what she wants to the teacher, which can lead to her feeling frustrated and unheard and thus feeling she needs to resist even if the teacher is trying to understand. I've have had to deal with plenty of kids that were not very communicative or active in activities at this age, and ultimately I feel it's the job of the person caring for the child to work to get the kid engaged when that happens. In short, I'm inclined to believe the teacher is at fault.

The main question though is rather the actions your daughter is resisting are important that she engage in. In terms of the use of the restrooms that comes down to how likely an accident - or possible a disruption of class time to avoid an accident - is if she doesn't use the pottie. If she has only had one accident at school ever there is little evidence so far that failure to use the restrooms on demand is likely to lead to an accident, and thus in my mind little reason for a teacher to resort to such extreme measures to compel it. I feel the teacher should at least give your daughter a chance to prove herself by accepting a no.

Now if your daughter hasn't used the potty for many hours and is almost certainly about ready to explode then it may be worth pushing a bit harder for restroom use, but even then physically forcing her on the pottie is unlikely to work and can be counter productive. If, as I assume, there are frequent breaks and she is simply refusing to use the restroom on demand, for now the teacher should simply accept that and see if the child will use the restrooms at a later point, unless and until it's proven that not using it on the demand is going to lead to regular accidents.

As to not doing her 'activities' what are they? In most cases activities at this age are not that important to participate in. If she refuses every single learning opportunity that could be a problem, but even then if she is still working on mastering the language some leeway should be made. Generally the approach should again be to accept a no rather then force an action. At this age the child being comfortable and feeling she can express herself is more important then the learning in many ways. Her kindergarten is going to repeat anything she is being taught at this young an age anyways so unless she is going to have plenty of chances to learn the things their trying to teach her now.

You said you already spoke to the teacher and that's good. But going a little further on what I would suggest communicating, assuming my presumptions are right.

  1. Let your daughter refuse to use the pottie until/unless she has proven there is a problem with using the restrooms or she has refused long enough that an accident is highly likely.

  2. If your daughter really has gone so long that an accident is likely find a better way to compel use of the restrooms. Talk with the teacher about what you do when you think your daughter needs to use the restroom and she is not interested in doing so. Is there a carrot that can be offered instead of the stick, something that would make your daughter want to use the restrooms? Does praise or reward work well with her? Is there a restroom routine that works at home?

2b. Is the daughter using the potty if put on it? If this was a resistance thing then physically being put on the toilet shouldn't be enough to compel her to use it. I'd be looking to see if there is a different issue such as communication or daughter comfort level rather then defiance that is the main problem if she does use the restrooms once placed on them.

  1. Let daughter say no to activities unless she is actively getting in the way or causing problems for teacher or other students as a result. If no's continue to happen excessively and to the detriment of child's learning a separate talk should be had only after you're certain it's hindering education or you have gone awhile with daughter having no as an option and she continues to refuse at school to do things she would normally do at home.

3b. Ask more about how the refusal is happening and how daughter is responding to positive encouragement. How are the activities being offered, at this age most such 'activities' would usually be phrased as games or 'can you show me how to do this' rather then must do actions a child would have reason to get defiant on. If this is defiance then I'd want to know how the kid is being put into a position she feels a need to be defiant over such activities, if it isn't then I'd want to investigate if there are other reasons why she isn't participating.

3c. Depending on the severity of the language barrier, see if she will do anything in her native language. Can she count or say something in her primary language? The teacher likely doesn't know that much of the language, but picking up a handful of words to encourage the kid isn't that hard, in fact if it's a common enough language like Spanish the teacher likely already knows some of the basics. So for example if your daughter refuses to count in English (or whatever language) the teacher could ask if she wanted to count in her native language instead. The teacher can even say '[daughter] I don't know how to count in [language], can you teach me?' or something along those lines which will avoid needing to know the language while also giving daughter reason to feel special for knowing a second language and thus motive to show off what she knows. You might want your daughter to master the other language, but if she is surrounded by it all day at school I'm confident she will pick it up regardless so occasionally getting to use her primary language as encouragement to participate shouldn't do any serious harm.

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I thought I'd post a follow up answer to this question now that we are 7 months on, and talk about what worked and how we progressed after this.

We ultimately ended up changing schools. This school had quite big classes, and the teacher was quite strict. Don't get me wrong, it is a great school, but our daughter just didn't do well in the environment.

She was anxious at school anyway, but the teachers' strict methods made her even more anxious of breaking the rules and getting in trouble, and that exacerbated the problem. The teachers' attempt at forcing things, and also her lack of training with neurodiverse children meant that this mainstream school simply wasn't a good fit for our sensitive girl.

There were a couple of other issues that also made things worse that I didn't mention. She is bilingual and the class was in her weaker language, she was 2-3years old during covid lockdown and isolated during a period where she should have been meeting/playing with other children.

Even after switching schools to another school with a much smaller class which was bilingual medium, and a teacher we happened to already know, she still struggled. However, the environment now at least facilitated her progress instead of hindered it. She was diagnosed with selective mutism, and has been in therapy with a speech therapist for the past 6 months.

Slowly over time, with patience, encouragement and gentle coaching, we have been able to help her come out of her shell and relax at school. The speech therapist has helped immensely. All of the problems listed in my original post have been solved. She plays, she participates, she's relaxed. The last step has been talking. She's been talking to her teacher in a quiet voice, and this week she started talking to her classmates for the first time.

When talking to the speech therapist about this, she helped us understand that the worst thing we can do is force her participation. Her lack of thereof was a symptom of a much bigger problem. And instead of examining and correcting her, we needed to address the environment she was in, and then allow her to move at her own pace. This new environment facilitated her development and was more accommodating of her (what we now understand to be) neurodiversity.

We are very very proud of her. She has been very brave and determined as she as worked through her anxiety and fear of social situations.

I write this as an encouragement for other parents who come upon this post. I highly recommend getting professional help if you can, from a speech therapist or play therapist, and advocating for your child to be in an environment where they are able to take their time and relax without being forced to participate.

I mistakenly thought that this was something that would resolve itself with time, and I have learned that's not the case. If left alone, this can potentially get worse if the child is in the wrong anxiety-provoking environment. With patience, time, and advocating for your child, it can be done.

Thanks to everyone who posted answers to my post originally.

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  • Wow, that's a lot to discover and start working through. Your thoughtful and proactive approach (changing schools was the start) is making all the difference. Has your daughter been diagnosed as a highly sensitive child? Thanks for the important update. Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 22:25
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    @anongoodnurse We don't have any official diagnoses apart from the Selective Mutism, although pretty much all the experts who have evaluated our child have said she's almost certainly on the Autism Spectrum. This doesn't come as a surprise to us since both myself and my husband's family have very strong histories of ASD and ADHD. Our approach is to handle any issues as they arise, and to wait and see what accommodations she'll need and if they will benefit from an ASD diagnosis. Right now, we are happy to help her accept her quirky self and to leave the labels alone until necessary.
    – stan
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 7:47
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    It helps that almost all the family and extended family are neurodiverse in some way. I have ASD and was only diagnosed as an adult, and I hardly noticed because my family was all that way too, and we were all just a bunch of quirky introverts. I thought everyone was like that :) If my daughter needs more help, we'll be absolutely there with her to go through the diagnosis process, but right now the therapists and family all agree it's not necessary.
    – stan
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 7:50
  • Again, so much(!), and I love the last line of your first comment. She truly is fortunate to have you to help her navigate this already-challenging-enough world. Congrats on all that's been achieved so far. Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 12:37
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    @anongoodnurse I wouldn't usually but you do have a point, it will make it more likely to be seen. Will do.
    – stan
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 17:07

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