When I started teaching preschool 11 years ago, I had no clue how much there was to learn about 3-year-olds. The threes are an odd bunch, a study in contrasts – still wanting to be held but also wanting to dash away. Now that I’ve decided to “graduate” from my teaching career, I’d like to share some of what my former students have taught me:

• When a child says they’ve gotta go, they’ve gotta go. Now.

• They love smiles and hugs, some squishy hugs, some bear hugs, or some just a simple acknowledgement that they have arrived for class and are ready for some fun.

• Young children need time to just be and do, without adult hands reaching in and showing them how to do everything. They need to be able to fail, which isn’t really failing at all. It’s learning.

• Children process information through their senses – some primarily through what they see, others through what they hear. Some need to be on the move, others want to put objects in their mouths, and still others need a combination of these. A classroom needs a variety of centers to engage each type of learner. If children were wandering around my classroom disengaged and getting into trouble, I learned that it was time to restructure things – not send anybody into timeout.

• Daily teacher-directed projects and 25-minute circle times are inappropriate for 3-year-olds. My benchmark was this: In a group of 12, if I lost the interest of one child, I’d keep on reading. But at two children, the crowd was getting restless, so I changed my tone of voice, added movement or a song. Or better yet, decided it was snack time.

• Face it: 3-year-olds are not too far from the toddler stage. They are naturally self-centered; everything is about “me, me, me.” It becomes humorous when a teacher tries to assign numbers and everyone wants to be number 3. The all-about-me bunch has not yet learned to take turns or play in a group. They are more apt to swipe a toy than to share it, think they deserve to be first and have no patience. Sharing, waiting and being considerate of others are all skills their teachers and parents have to guide them through day after day, for years.

• A teacher’s power is, admittedly, an awesome tool. Parents have it, too, but may be more reluctant to use it. Don’t be. “I will take that toy away if …” And then you do – no negotiating, no second chances. Boom, the toy is in the closet until the next day. The children look at each other as if to say, “She meant what she said.”

• No two children are alike, including siblings. No two classes are alike, either. What works for one group doesn’t work for another.

• What worked at the turn of this century already has become so much more complicated. For the first time, my church-based preschool has locked doors and a buzzer system to enter. Beside the fears brought on by school shootings, there are more food and drug allergies, illnesses such as asthma and questions about whether a child may be on the spectrum of autism.

• You’ve heard it many times: Pick your battles. Teachers don’t have time to be sucked into debates. At ages 3 and 4, children are sharp attorneys who love to argue. Do not back them into a corner.

• I didn’t believe it until I saw it, but children like rules and a set routine. Kids like to reach out and find their boundaries as if they are sitting in a big box, and once they find those boundaries, they need to know that teachers and parents will stick to them.

• Speaking of boxes, they really are the best toys ever. Especially refrigerator boxes, which become pirate ships, castles and cars without a teacher saying a word.

Betsy Flagler, a journalist based in Davidson, N.C., is a mother and preschool teacher. If you have tips or questions, please email her at or call Parent to Parent at (704) 236-9510.