Parenting a Struggling Preschooler? Three Things Worth Looking Into

By Teresa Currivan, LMFT, Parent Coach

I have been hearing more recently about preschoolers who are struggling in the classroom, usually behaviorally. Once parents seek help, common suggestions that are given to parents involves a diagnosis of ADHD, a suggestion for special education and an IEP (Individualized Education Program), and/or medication prescribed by a doctor, among others. This is often by age three.

Here are some things that I wish parents would look into and address that I feel are currently getting missed. I recommend crossing them off your list as potential causes of poor behavior in preschool before considering anything else. 


1. Sensory Issues

Sensory issues are most often misdiagnosed with ADHD, but they can commonly cause a professional to see behaviors or symptoms that look like obsessive-compulsive behavior, avoidance, defiance, and even extreme anxiety. Often the therapies recommended to treat these ignore the sensory issues and can actually harm the child when the underlying causes are sensory issues. For example, when sensory issues are the cause of extreme anxiety, understanding the sensory issues before treating for an emotional cause of anxiety is important and a lot less confusing and pathologizing for the child. I have seen anxieties completely go away once sensory issues are treated.  

Here’s what you can do, find out if the professional diagnosing or in charge of your child’s education understand sensory issues. If you are a well-versed parent on the topic, ask some specific questions about sensory issues vs. what the professional is suggesting to find out if they know the difference. Remember that we can’t know if there is ADHD until the sensory issues are fully addressed. As an example, many sensory kids are given an ADHD diagnosis. While some may have both, I don’t think we can know until the sensory issues are resolved, and/or the professional diagnosing ADHD has a deep knowledge of sensory issues. Most sensory issues are addressable using integrative approaches. 


2. Giftedness 

Can your child be bored in preschool? Yes. So often, and especially for boys, all of the waiting and sharing and being polite can take its toll. At an age when their intrinsic drive to learn and create is too powerful, they usually know exactly what they want to do and where they want to go and who they want to do it with. These are all healthy traits. And while many typical boys and girls just need to play freely at this age, the problem can be exacerbated if they are in the highly to profoundly gifted range.

Boys who feel bored will usually act out with silliness and eventually anger if they feel oppressed. Girls and sensitive children who are pleasers usually learn how to get along, but depression can be beginning. Most of the parents worried about their preschooler are parents of boys. Anger can be your friend in this case because it won’t go unnoticed. The angry child is telling us that something just isn’t working but the depressed child is internalizing the confusion and we are likely to miss that anything is off. If either of these children’s giftedness is missed and they are left in an educational environment that is unsuitable for them, they will most likely have more serious issues, and even a few diagnoses, correct or incorrect by high school, or even sooner. 

But how to know if your child is gifted? Gifted testing can be tricky for these kids. While this is a topic I go into more deeply in another article, (linked below), in a nutshell, most gifted testing is designed for kids who do well in school. What I am seeing is an entire population of gifted children who suffer in school and who are at risk for inaccurate testing. (See my article on gifted testing, also linked below). This population of gifted kids are often tested as moderately gifted or their tests are all over the place when they are often truly in the highly to profoundly gifted range, or are twice exceptional, and therefore need very different education and mental health support. If you don’t have access to appropriate testing, I recommend talking with other parents of highly to profoundly gifted children, seeking a professional who knows the difference, and/or reading articles and books on the highly to profoundly gifted, or 2e (twice exceptional). If what you hear or read resonates with you, then this may be your child. Parent understanding of these kids is the most important piece: you can direct all the traffic from this place of deeper understanding of giftedness.


3. How Are Mom and Dad Doing? (Or mom and mom or dad and dad, or whoever is taking care of this amazing little person.) 

Love yourself. 

All that love you feel for your kids… the goal is to eventually feel that towards yourself. 

Our children take in and react to the atmosphere we are creating at home. How are you doing? How do you feel when you are interacting respond to them? If you are stressed, depressed, angry, they are most likely feeling it. And even more so deeply if you have sensitive kiddos. How can our emotions not impact our little ones? The ones we have created are still being created by us in the way we respond to them, and in the ways, we are creating our own lives. If you have crossed off other possible causes of your child’s stress, or you know that you are in need of support, now might be the time to get help for yourself. Sometimes, finding out other causes of your child’s behavior first is going to be helpful (especially if the main cause of your stress is their behavior!) 

They say having children under age five is stressful. More than one kid under that age, and it’s more stress. The two issues above, sensory issues and giftedness can add to that stress exponentially, not only because home life is going to be more intense, but once school is involved, things tend to escalate. (Yep, at a time when most families are enjoying the relief of a school that will help to support their families, things are heating up in your house.) If you happen to have all of the above going on, you deserve a break. It’s too much. Needless to say, parents need support for themselves during this time. Paradoxically, the stress, anxiety, or depression that you may be feeling can cause a reaction in your child adding even more for the family to navigate. 

There are many methods to obtain help for parents out there these days. Talk therapy has never worked for you? Try neurofeedback or EFT (tapping), for example, two body-based methods that can help resolve issues fairly quickly. For some parents, a walk alone in the woods once a week can make a world of difference. Finding other parents with similar issues and talking together about solutions can also be helpful. I am always fascinated by the positive shift I see in children when their parents find their way to a more positive emotional place.


If you suspect any of the above, I urge you to seek help from a professional who understands these issues. Individually each issue can look like something else, but all three are very likely to throw off even the most seasoned professional. 

©2019 Teresa Currivan

Teresa Currivan is a mother, licensed marriage and family therapist, school therapist, and CroppedMaxTCcoaches parents by phone at Help My Child Thrive Coaching, and runs parent support groups. Teresa has been published on sites such as, Filter Free Parents, and is a blogger at GHF and Hoagies Gifted Education. She specializes in giftedness, twice exceptionality,  educational fit, family dynamics, and gifted adults. She lives in the San Francisco, California Bay Area with her husband and son. You can find more articles on this website. Follow her on Facebook at

***Need help with your preschooler, or have questions about my article? I offer free 20 minute consultations for first-timers. Email me and we’ll set up a time to talk. I’d love to hear from you. ***

As promised, here are links to the articles I mentioned:



How to Obtain Proper Testing for the Gifted Underachiever




How Can I Tell the Difference Between Sensory Issues and Other Childhood Disorders in My Child?


These two might also be helpful:



6 Signs Your Preschooler May Be Gifted and Why It’s Important to Know



What Is a Visual-Spatial Learner?


©2019 Teresa Currivan