Parent Q and A: Help, my preschooler doesn’t want to attend virtual circle time!

Dear Rebekka,

My preschooler is not interested in engaging with his teachers on Zoom – at all. Yesterday, exasperated, I found myself bribing him with a special toy if he participated. I don’t want him to be behind, whatever that means in the first or second year of preschool, but most of all I want him to participate and enjoy it like all the other kids seem to be happy doing. He loves his teachers and friends and I don’t want him to miss out on this – the only, at this time – opportunity to stay connected to them. What do I do?

Yours truly, Befuddled Bribing Bobby

Hi Bobby. Thanks for your question.

As the parent of a preschooler, I’m intimately acquainted with your problem. The first day she got to see all her preschool friends on Zoom, I nearly cried – she was so happy, chatting away at the screen, shouting out everyone’s names. But the next time, she got really frustrated because her teachers couldn’t hear her song request over the unmuted din, and the time after that, she just shut my laptop and walked away. It broke my heart.

Being together virtually is just not the same as being together in person.

The truth is, being together virtually is just not the same as being together in person, and your preschooler is perceptive enough to know that. We are born wired to expect and learn from contingent, real-time interactions with people, something the Harvard Center on the Developing Child terms serve and return. Robust research has shown that we need the synchrony and turn-taking of real-life communication to help us develop critical skills, such as learning a language. This doesn’t mean that kids can’t learn things from screens or videoconferencing. It just means they might need a little help from us in order to do so. Here’s some suggestions for how to help your son engage with his schoolmates during this strange time:

Acknowledge that it feels different

Your little one knows that virtual circle time is just not the same as the real thing. It pales in comparison. He may have a lot of different feelings about this change that he will likely struggle to put into words. Don’t bother asking him how he feels about it – he won’t be able to tell you. Instead, you can share your musings and guesses about how it might be for him at various times during the day. It might sound something like this:

"You know kiddo, I've been thinking about all the changes that have been going on lately, and how they must feel to you. I know it's tough for you to be at circle time, and I imagine it's hard to see all your friends but not be able to be with them, hug them, or play with them. It might feel good to see their faces, but also sad to miss them. It might feel hard to watch them on the screen knowing you can't be together. I'm here to play and be with you, and so is your [mommy, grandma, brother, etc.]. I know we're not the same as your friends. But we'll do our best to make different kinds of fun until we can all be with our friends again."

This kind of sentiment serves as a “digestive” for big feelings. You can deploy bits and pieces of musings like this during quiet moments to let your child know you have an idea of how things feel to him, and that you’re available to process and receive those feelings.

Model Participation and Engagement

Even if your child’s teacher can see and hear your son, interacting with her via Zoom is not the same as interacting with her in person. Instead, you can be the live person with whom your son can interact. Sit next to him for virtual circle time. Sing the songs. Ask questions about what’s happening and what will happen next. Share exaggerated feelings about the proceedings (“That was SO silly! Ooh, what a surprise!”). In short, have fun together!

Offer a “Sideline” Activity

If it’s too overwhelming or disappointing for your kiddo to engage directly with the screen, offer something for him to do nearby while circle time is going on. This could be coloring, a sticker book, having a snack, or doing something physical (stretching, yoga, snuggling).

Lower your expectations for participation

Consider what’s age appropriate for your child – the attention span of 2-5 your olds can vary widely, particularly for something like videoconferencing. You might also want to consider how might your child respond in a real-life setting – what’s his attention span like for in-person circle time? You can ask the teacher if you don’t know! What you’re seeing at home may mirror closely your child’s capacity for in-person activities as well!


I’ve heard from many parents of young children that they are concerned about their kids “falling behind.” But, “behind whom/what”? What does that mean for preschoolers? In truth, the most important skills kids are learning in preschool are social-emotional ones, and, as I’ve discussed in another blog post, families are critical in helping children develop these skills.

I’m not worried about your kid.

In truth, Bobby, I am not worried about your kid. If you are writing this, it means you have regular access to both a computing device and an internet connection. It means you have spare time to think about and monitor your child’s behavior and activities during this strange time.

No, I’m not worried about your kid. I’m worried about the thousands of kids whose families lack devices and internet access and cannot reliably attend virtual school. I’m worried about the 40,000 LAUSD students who have failed to check in at all for online classes. I’m worried about the fact that many kids’ schools will not reopen this school year. Will those kids be lost forever?

I’m worried about the children whose parents are in essential industries and aren’t able to spend as much time thinking about how their kids are doing. Those critical workers are literally putting their lives on the line each day so that others can receive medical treatment, take public transport, or buy groceries. Some of those parents may not live to take their children to school again – what will happen to those kids? How far behind will they fall?

You are so fortunate.

Bobby, you are so fortunate. Count your blessings. Hug your kiddo every day. Be his circle time buddy. Read to him. Sing with him. Let him eat PB&J for breakfast and pancakes for dinner if he asks. Know that you are his greatest, most loving teacher, and that he can–and will–learn more from you during this time than he can from any circle time, virtual or otherwise.

For additional reading:

Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track. Virtual visits now available!

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!

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