Care and Feeding

I’m Worried My Big Decision Will Ruin My 4-Year-Old’s Social Life

How do I tell him?

Little boy drawing at a desk, looking up.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by jacoblund/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 4-year-old son is social, curious, and very energetic. Last year, we decided to send him to a Montessori preschool in town so he could move around the classroom and learn in a hands-on way. He has loved it, but we’ll need to make a change.

While he has thrived socially, he struggles with the independent nature of learning and the large class size. His teachers are concerned and have a difficult time supporting him; plus, our pediatrician identified a severe fine motor skill delay that we are now getting support for. After conversations with his teachers, we have decided that this specific school isn’t the right place for him and we have enrolled him in a smaller preschool that can provide more one-on-one attention and structure.

I feel confident in this decision, but immense guilt for taking him away from his friends and an environment that he loves and is proud of. Should we tell him that he is changing schools, and if so, when? He will be going to his new school for summer camp and then will continue into fall so he might not even notice, but I also want to respect the relationships that he has formed at his current school. Should we tell him before the school year ends?

Telling him also brings up the question of why. I don’t want him to think that he is changing schools because of something he did, but I also don’t want to badmouth the school. I’m sure I’ll look back on this and think it’s silly that I’ve spent countless sleepless nights worrying about my 4-year-old’s social life, but I could use some help with this one.

—Stressed in Steamboat

Dear Stressed in Steamboat,

Get contact info for kids at the soon-to-be former school whom he may be close with before the school year ends. If you think he can handle it emotionally, tell him a few days before the last day of class that you’ve decided that another school would be a better fit for him and that he will be starting there this summer for camp. That way, he can say goodbye to people and have a sense of closure for this chapter of his life. However, if you think he’ll be overwhelmed by that information, you can wait until he’s (hopefully) begun to enjoy himself this summer to let him know that you have decided that he will be attending there in the fall as well.

No matter when exactly you choose to deliver the news, let your son know that there isn’t anything he—or the staff or his classmates at the first school—did wrong to lead to your decision. Different children learn in different ways, and you have found that this particular school’s style of teaching is not the best for someone who learns like he does. You can talk about some of the challenges he had in class, but be sure to affirm who he is in the process. Talk about how special and smart he is, and how important it is that he is in an environment that fits him. Assure him that he will have just as much fun in his new school, that he’ll make new friends, and that he’ll be fine. Prepare yourself to repeat these affirmations more than once as he processes the news. Allow him to feel sad and confused, but encourage him not to dwell on the change. Hopefully, your instincts are correct and he’ll have a better experience this time around.

—Jamilah

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