Preschool: The celebration of wonder and connection to home

By Vickie Novell, LMSW, IECMH-E® Mentor

The Michigan Association of Infant Mental Health sponsored this series of developmental articles to help us all reflect on the journey of parents and children from pregnancy through early childhood. This article explores the emerging preschooler and the wonderful, tumultuous transformation that the parent-child dyad experiences. On the shoulders of giants, this article attempts to build upon the writings on pregnancy, infancy, and toddlerhood presented over the past year by Michael Trout, Julie Ribaudo and Kathleen Baltman. Moving from the inner relationship in pregnancy through the beginnings of the attachment relationship and on through the emergence of the ME of toddlerhood, we are called to pause and remember the roots of our work, the space of the beginnings, the landscape of the children and families we serve.

Look at the world through the eyes of a preschooler — full of the delights of imagination, friendship, and stories. This is a time of transition for children and parents, centered on the balance of exploration and holding, independence and connection.

The primary caregiver continues to be vital in the preschool period, although the growing focus of social exploration can challenge this tenet.

As the preschooler tries on new roles, new relationships, and new opinions, there can be a misperception that the attachment figure is optional or secondary.

Marvin & Britner (2008) write about the need for attachment to remain “the holding environment to do the work of exploration and sociability” as the preschooler naturally feels drawn into the world beyond their front door. The parent-child relationship is the vital space of scaffolding, quiet attending, restoration, and repair in response to the brave trips into the big, exciting world. Shifting to more of a base camp mentality, the attachment relationship is vital for the child to recharge, share the stories of successes and failures, and be a laboratory for learning and developing more strategies needed for climbing up the mountain of the preschool classroom. Erna Furman, in her article Early Aspects of Mothering: Why it’s so hard to be left, writes of the role of this safe haven in preschool. “He (the preschooler) may need her (his mother’s) help with his own conflicted feelings and worries about his new venture, or he may need her assurance that she can tolerate his absence and can even share his enjoyment of new relationships and independent activities” (1982).

Attachment in the Preschool Period 

How the preschool child uses the attachment figure changes dramatically during this developmental period. While attachment “requires renegotiation at every developmental stage” (Moss et al., 2004), the milestones unique to this period exert a strong influence on how the interactions in the dyad are maintained and expanded. Preschoolers become increasingly aware of self and their own effect on others. Through experiments, the young preschooler begins to notice how he can affect their caregiver’s reactions, or even alter situations. In their foundational book, Touchpoints Three to Six, Drs. T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua Sparrow write about these “aha!” moments for young children. Like ripples in a pond, the child notices that their intentional (or unintentional!) expression of feelings, needs, and desires can change how the parent responds. At first accidental, these exciting and intense interactions teach a child that they have some control in their relationships and surroundings. Over time, and with practice, children learn to use various modes of communication to effect change.

John Bowlby explains these changes in the attachment relationship as the movement into a “goal-corrected partnership” (Bowlby, 1953).  Part of the child’s work of exploration is the realization of and curiosity about the fact that their parents have their own independent thoughts, feelings, desires and plans. Within a secure relationship, the young child is able to experience the discordance of differing agendas. With a good measure of increasing impulse control, coupled with an increase in empathy and a growing understanding of cause and effect, the preschooler begins engaging in negotiations with the primary caregiver, jointly creating strategies and new attachment schemas.  (Marvin, 1977).

Bowlby’s Internal Working Model (IWM) helps illuminate this crucial, early life transition. A blueprint for relationships, the child’s IWM is a compilation of their experience of deserving care, how efficacious they are in eliciting help, and the type of help that is available for them during times of distress. A child’s positive IWM, the memory of parental safety and care, is a source of internal strength when away from their attachment figure. During these moments, the preschooler uses her growing developmental skills of metallization, memory, and symbolism through her IWM to manage the challenges and stressors of exploration. Doug Davies, LMSW, PhD., in his book Child Development (2005), discusses this emerging representational competence, which he describes as the creation of mental schemas of interactions, feelings, thoughts, and sensory experiences. On the surface, preschoolers with “good enough” IWMs appear self-reliant, not needing their attachment figure for regulation. However, looking more deeply you will see that they are actually leaning on caregiving memories to modulate their emotions. Through a growing sense of time, the ability to use routine and rituals as time markers and, most important, these reliable IWM  schemas, preschoolers and older children reassure themselves that they are being “held in mind” by their caregiver who will return, and restore the child’s emotional balance.

Developing Friendships

While out in the world, the preschooler uses their IWM’s “implicit and explicit rules for social behavior and interaction” (Marvin & Britner, 2008) as a base to do the work of friendships, a key developmental milestone. Whether in the preschool classroom or in the community, preschoolers enter interactions with new caregivers or peers with the memories and expectations of their primary attachment relationship, and, when that relationship has been secure, view themselves as deserving of care, and capable of eliciting connection and support. In addition, they use the internalization of their family’s values and beliefs to guide how they treat others. The security of their IWM provides the foundation for their self-control and emotional regulation, which directly affects the ease in which they engage with others.

Awareness of peers, interest in their perspectives, and building friendships are central developmental goals for this period. A preschooler becomes curious and their attention shifts to being alongside and then with another child as they play. The increased ability to keep another’s perspective in mind, and the joy and success in meaningful peer relationships is self-motivating.

A preschooler and older child’s attachment styles affect their social competence, peer relationships, and future school success.

Language and play skills can especially affect a child’s success or challenges in peer relationships. An older preschooler begins to use language as a way to enter play or interaction with another child, negotiate play content, or work together to develop co-constructive plans. A less adept child who struggles with fluent, coherent language may have difficulty making and interacting with friends. Since same-aged children are less likely to work harder to understand the less capable preschooler, this difficulty in communication can lead to rejection by peers, creating an additive negative effect on language and subsequent social skills. Again, the attachment relationship has a central role in helping a preschooler integrate, understand, and problem solve new perspectives, interactions and activities.


Play becomes an amazing tool in negotiating these new relationships and experiences, taking on an array of functions: a way of communicating, joining with others, expanding developmental skills and processing an expanding view of the universe. Believing that play can be a window into the child’s mind, Piaget urged all professionals to look more deeply into the meaning behind all levels of play in young children. Play can become a space for children to express, question, and understand an array of emotions and experiences. “Symbolism (in play) provides the child with the live, dynamic, individual language indispensable for the expression of his subjective feelings for which collective language alone is inadequate” (Piaget, 1999). The child can explore anxieties and confusion through bending reality through their highly creative fantasy life.

“In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself” (Vygotsky, 1978).

From this area of strength, the child has the ability to face intense experiences and feelings. Doug Davies states that, “Play allows the child to comment on and try to understand reality through a make-believe medium that is under the child’s control and therefore more easily manipulated than the actual world” (2011).

Pretend play can become the safe framework for making difficult concepts more tolerable for the young fragile self.

While in a play episode, children can reenact trauma memories or reminders, which can sometimes be eerily close to reality, such as a foster child locking animals in jail. Other times, the metaphor of a play episode may be vague and obscured, requiring more repetition, elaboration, and time for full understanding.

Billy was a 4-year old whose father left the family without much notice when Billy was a toddler. His mother believed he was better off without him and was confident she was “enough” for him. Billy was highly emotional, had difficulty with peers, and resisted separation from his mother. In play, Billy quickly moved through various animals, people, and events, from story to story, at times without apparent cohesion. As his mother continued to witness his narrative in play, she began to see his theme: Billy was replaying times he had spent with his mother and father together. She discussed her surprise about his ability to recall these very early memories. As we allowed his play to continue, his mother was able (with the writer’s support) to begin voicing his memories, “I remember when we all did X…” As she retold the stories of the play themes, Billy’s play became more cohesive. Mother became braver and began speaking more directly of his father, her own denied sadness regarding his absence, and her wish that he was present. Billy’s story changed to a theme of loss, horses searching for a leader. With the writer’s encouragement, the mother became her own horse and took the lead. As the horses calmed in the story, Billy’s play changed to themes that are more typical, without repetitive trauma or intense meanings. He no longer repeated the themes of loss or aching nostalgia. Nearing the end of treatment the mother said to the writer, “From the beginning you wondered if he was missing his Dad and I thought for sure he wasn’t, being quite adamant about this subject. I did not believe he could remember him, let alone miss him. I see now he did.”

Many scholars have created theories for understanding how children use play in all developmental domains. In the area of social-emotional growth, Mildred Parten expanded on Jean Piaget’s foundational work recognizing the sophistication within the play of the very young child to create a model of social stages of play. Parten’s stages consist of solitary play — playing alone though around others; parallel play — playing alongside others; associative play — playing separately but where there is an exchange of items and interactions; and cooperative play — playing with others, involving negotiation and co-creation of play themes and metaphor. Her structure looks at how the child uses play to move gradually into direct relationship with others, especially peers. Awareness of these stages and theories, and how a child moves in and out of mastery of these concepts, can help adults understand many areas of development, and in turn learn how to support and encourage development. (For an overview of different play theories see Bulgarelli, D. & Bianquin, N. (2017).

The beauty of play is that it is very resilient and can communicate the inner world of the young child, but it too is susceptible to stress. Unfortunately, “(if) the play frame is not strong enough to contain frightening feelings and a child breaks off the play” (Davies, 2011), the child may regress to a lower level to developmental play. The child may lose the ability to use symbolic play, or pretend play, and fall back into sensorimotor type play — the use of objects in a functional, movement-focused manner.  With awareness and knowledge of play development, a sensitive adult can see this regression as a sign of dysregulation. Fortunately, with emotional scaffolding from a responsive, attuned caregiver, the child may be able to return to the overwhelming emotions and use dyadic play to understand and master intense feelings.

Development and Regulation   

Development itself can be a victim of the passage of time, even for a preschooler. Since developmental gains build on previous mastery, lags or challenges in specific domains can have a cascading effect. It is challenging to keep pregnancy, infancy and toddlerhood in mind when assessing and intervening with children of this age, but it is imperative to explore all phases of the child and family’s life so that the gaps in development and areas of regressive behavior can be recognized and used to inform and support the family. This highlights the difference between a child’s chronological age and developmental age, especially when the child is under stress. Through observation, an adult can take this developmental knowledge and begin to learn the child’s subtle cues of competency and distress and through this understand the underlying need for scaffolding and support. This discernment can lead to more sophisticated assessments and ports of entry for the dyadic work. This detective work can be difficult and requires patience, practice, and a calm center from the responsive adult.

As we have discussed, development takes place on both an internal and external level, and is a unique journey for all children. Unfortunately, all development is highly susceptible to inner and outer stressors and regulation capacities. Why is it that the same child who can discuss the correct prehistoric age of a dinosaur at one moment becomes unable to access this coherent language when distressed? When too stressed and unable to stay well regulated, a child may revert to previously mastered coping and communication skills to feel safe and in control. Similarly, when an agitated or fearful toddler suddenly trips and falls, he will revert to more toddler-like communication and strategies. This can be confusing for the adults in their lives, especially secondary caregivers like teachers. Less familiar adults may expect these children to use their new expressive language skills at all times, which may heighten anxiety in an already stressed child. For example, a well-intentioned adult may instruct a child who is in a conflict with another child to “use your words.”  Unfortunately, the acquisition of a skill and the mastery and use of that skill as the default mode of communication can take many more years of practice, patience, and learning. To complicate things even more, often there may seem to be a dissolution of skills out of the blue when triggered by a purely internal stressor.  Without a developmental lens this screaming child may seem to be manipulative or even spoiled because he needs to connect with the adult, but has fewer resources and capacities in that moment.

Many unseen stressors can also overload the preschooler’s ability to cope with new developmental anxieties: For example, the new mastery of bodily functions, such as toileting, can be a source of worry regarding any failures in maintaining this milestone.

The focus on peers and friendship also opens up concern about rejection and disapproval, while their feelings of anger can elicit fears of being out of control or of being inherently bad. Magical thinking, while a source of joy and curiosity in play, can lead to false beliefs through the lens of egocentrism. Emotionally evocative situations, such as parental divorce, can lead to misunderstandings for the young child. In the absence of information and understanding at their developmental level, the child may use their inconsistent grasp on reality and cause and effect to develop an alternate narrative, with themselves as the central player in the story. The more aware we adult companions are of these internal struggles, the more we can give voice to assumptions and clear up misperceptions.

The role of the nurturing, in-charge caregiver re-establishes the world as a safe, predictable, understandable place, allowing the child to return to a curious, engaging stance.

Through self-talk by the parent, or co-construction of an emotional narrative, or a reassuring glance, an attachment figure can shore up the child to do the hard work of growing into new skills. Over time, adults learn the child’s patterns of stress and skill regression and can use new attachment tools of language, storytelling, and play to support the child through challenging times.

Understanding Attachment in the Preschool Period

Ultimately, the role of the attachment figure still plays a foundational component for the preschooler’s development. To better understand the expression of and role of attachment during this time, researchers Cassidy and Main, and Cassidy and Marvin adapted Mary Ainsworth and Mary Main’s infant and toddler attachment classification system. Ainsworth and Main developed these categories based on observation of infant-caregiver separations and reunions using the Strange Situation, a standardized laboratory procedure. Through their work, reunion behaviors were found to be indicative of the quality of attachment, due to the importance of reconnection with the caregiver as a safe haven, a place to be received, calmed, and restored. Cassidy, Marvin, and Main found that based on changes in internal and external developmental skills in preschool, the ways in which the 3- to 6-year-old and their parents negotiate the attachment relationship changes greatly throughout this period.  Therefore, preschool attachment was expanded to include: Secure, Insecure-Avoidant, Insecure-Ambivalent/Dependent, Insecure-Disorganized/Controlling, and Insecure-Disorganized/Other. (For a through explanation and description, see Humber and Ross 2005.)

Secure Attachment in Preschool  

The Secure preschooler displays increased ability to remain calm and either play alone or seek out the “friendly stranger” at separation. Upon reunion, this child is usually calm, relaxed, and confident. They demonstrate openness to verbally expressing their dissatisfaction about the separation, and are more willing to accept the parent’s explanation and response about the separation as part of their ability to regain composure. Secure preschoolers use language in increasing frequency over the strategy of proximity seeking. The parent is open and accepting of the child’s dissatisfaction and negative expression about the separation, and is able to validate their feelings, provide context for the stressor, and follow the child’s lead. The child then is able to return to play, providing a narrative about what she was doing in the caregiver’s absence and plans for future play and engagement. Original attachment strategies, such as proximity seeking and gaze and affective holding are still important for the secure preschooler, especially during heightened times of stress, such as long separations and novel or evocative experiences.

The Securely attached preschooler has a consistent, sensitive, responsive parent, similar to the infant and toddler. These caregivers increase their use of language and play to provide the emotional scaffolding needed for the child. Through open emotional expression of increasingly complex feeling states and use of self-talk as a way to model problem solving for the child, there are ample opportunities to practice self-regulation skills. These parents demonstrate vulnerability and openness about themselves and are socially competent and accepting (Cassidy & Main, 1993). Secure caregivers see the negotiation and co-creation of narrative and problem solving as growth for the child (though the constant “whys?” can try even the most patient parent). Through attunement, balanced emotional expression, and respect for reciprocity, the preschool parent encourages the initiative and engagement of the child.

Insecure-Avoidant Attachment in Preschool

The preschooler with an Insecure-Avoidant classification displays “neutral coolness toward the parent, with a minimizing of physical or verbal contact” (Moss, Berrera, et al, 2004) upon reunion. During the Strange Situation assessment, this child deflects any attempts by the parent to reconnect. The child turns away to play, does not answer questions from the parent, or responds in a curt fashion, and chooses not to engage in any conversations about the separation, themselves, or their play. The children become detached from the caregiver in stressful situations, and minimize any expression of negative affect. One noticeable effect on learning and expression is this child’s “falling into parallel play … (or) highly individualized task-oriented mode with little interpersonal content” (Humber & Moss, 2005) seemingly due to the inability to use the caregiver as a safe secure base.

Insecure-Ambivalent/Dependent in Preschool

The second insecure classification is Insecure-Ambivalent/Dependent. Similar to the ambivalent infant/toddler style, these children show exaggerated involvement with the caregiver. Contrary to their developmental level or skill level, these preschool children stay connected with their caregiver through immaturity or can display subtle signs of anger.  Separations are long, arduous negotiations, with high degrees of conflict and highly evocative content. The child may disintegrate to the point of tantrums, cajoling the caregiver to stay though the triggering of guilt. The caregiver on the other hand is less emotionally available, with lower use of language for connection or elaboration (Huber & Moss, 2005, Moss, Bureau et al, 2004).

Disorganized attachment in Preschool

Disorganized attachment styles become two different categories in the preschool period: Insecure-Disorganized/Controlling and Insecure-Disorganized/Other. Lyons-Ruth et al. (1999) describe the Disorganized/Controlling strategy as “one partner’s initiatives are elaborated at the expense of the other partner’s.” Marked by the presence of role reversal, the child becomes either punitive or excessively caregiving to assert control within the environment. In relationship with the victimized parent, the child provides an emotional framework to compensate for the passive, inconsistent parent. Driven by hypervigilance, the child works hard to bring the parent to life or keep them in a good mood. This may be the overblown “performer child” or the child who is excessively comforting to their parent when they are distressed. On the other side, the punitive child becomes verbally or even physically aggressive, demeaning, and derogatory in the face of fear or through over-identification with the aggressor (Moss, Cyr, & Bureau, 2005; Marvin & Britner, 1999).  The final category, Insecure-Disorganized/Other retains the lack of predictable attachment strategy in the face of stress, displaying erratic, inconsistent behaviors and regulation.

Caregiving in the Preschool period — “Oh baby it’s a wild world” 

Attachment styles, and their corresponding IWM, are strong but are also sensitive to intentional, attuned caregiving. Parents through dyadic work can repair the challenged relationships with their child. Through the disconfirmation of the child’s expectations, attachment figures can create a different lived experience. In his article about a therapeutic preschool, Doug Davis speaks of supporting teachers in identifying each child’s IWM. From this curious mindset, he encouraged them to identify how these children viewed adults in their lives. Were they helpful? Hurtful? Predictable? From these explorative reflections, teachers were encouraged to demonstrate predictability, sensitivity, and empathy (Davies, 2010).

Through the safe holding environment of the therapist-parent relationship, parents too can develop a curiosity about what their children are displaying and learn how to respond to the need, not the lead in their interactions. Through ongoing consistency and predictability there can be healing. This process can be slow, and change seemingly microscopic, but it will benefit the child throughout their entire life.

Let us also always remember the importance of relationship for both sides in the preschool-parent dyad. As parent and child move together out of toddlerhood, the parent does not know what lies ahead: good and bad days, filled with dinosaurs, tea parties, skinned knees, and tears. We should keep in mind the developmental challenges for the preschool parent to stay present and attuned, while also celebrating the separateness of their courageous preschooler. Erna Furman, in Early Aspects of Mothering: What Makes it so Hard to be There to be Left, writes about the difference in parenting a dependent toddler versus the outward facing preschooler. “The anxiety is separate from and unmitigated by her (the mother’s) pleasure in her child’s growth as well as by her ability to recognize and feel sad that his (her child’s) new achievement implies a loss of earlier closeness in their relationship” (Furman, 1994).

The transition for the caregiver to more of a secure base is indeed bittersweet, yet it is vital to allow the child to focus on their own curiosity and learning.

These preschool years are filled with hopes and excitement about future victories, school parties, and the first best friend, as well as new challenges of the child who found his voice, wants to let you know when they disagree, and wants to be comforted when they do something wrong. Fortunately, the rollercoaster of preschool prepares us for the next stages of development and all the challenges of school-aged and teen children. So let us celebrate now the “Whys” and the “Nos!” of the creative, independent preschooler as much as we celebrated those first steps in infancy. I invite you to sit back, and enjoy the preschool ride — and join the race to space with Superman, a sparkly unicorn, and, George, the pet snake. Who knows where it may take you?


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