Q: My 3 1/2 year old has had issues in preschool, and his teachers say that he shows "no remorse" for his actions. Is he capable of true remorse at this age, and if so, at what level?
A: I love this question! The fact that you are exploring this tells me that you will be an excellent advocate for your son.
I don't believe that children can feel true remorse for their actions until they are able to distinguish their own experience from that of others. According to Piaget, the ability to take the perspective of another, as well as to understand the relationship between cause and effect, is not fully supported cognitively until at least age 6 or 7.
What may look to some adults like remorse in a young child may in fact be something else -- perhaps simple curiosity, or an instinctive mirroring response (such as crying when they hear another child cry), or even a learned response, such as an empty "I'm sorry" with no real regret behind it.
Children may also react from shame or fear and try to smooth things over with a quick apology if they have been frequently chastised or punished. But it's not likely to be true chagrin or regret for harm they have caused until after age 6 or 7.
Young children are wired to be very egocentric. I also believe humans are naturally altruistic and wired to care about each other, so we may see some occasional spontaneous empathy from a little one. However, in general, the distress they feel is most likely related to their own experience, not that of another. (I would say that this is true for most adults, as well, if we are very, very honest with ourselves. If we hurt someone, we often try to make amends to ease our own feelings of guilt or regret so we can feel good about ourselves again. But that's an article for another day...)
Here are some resources for you in your quest for further information:
It may be worth meeting with his teachers to elicit more information about their concerns. I'd ask questions like:
How do you see his behavior or attitude as being different from the rest of the children?
What kind of problems does his behavior cause for you and the other kids?
What do you think he'd be doing differently if he was feeling remorse?
What changes do you want to see in his behavior?
Do you have any other concerns about him?
These kinds of questions will shift the focus from labels and diagnoses into concrete behavioral expectations that you can work with. My hunch is that there's something else going on here. For some reason, his teachers don't seem to be giving him the benefit of the doubt, are not taking cognitive development into account, and are not seeing his 'transgressions' as opportunities to teach alternative behaviors. I'd wonder why that is. If your child is causing problems for the teachers, you'll want to intervene before he becomes a scapegoat.
It may also be that they suspect that your son has a medical issue, like ADHD. If that's the case, you'll want to have that on the table so you can deal with it in whatever way you think is best, whether that is taking him for an evaluation, finding a preschool that is a better fit for an active temperament, or something else that feels right to you.
Remember that all behavior is communication. See if you can figure out what message your child might be trying to convey. Is he under too much stress? Is there enough supervision and guidance from his teachers to help facilitate smooth social interactions? Does he need some extra empathy from the adults around him to fill up his emotional tank?
I hope this helps. If you'd like to schedule a parenting consultation to explore this in greater detail, you can find information about how to do that here: www.karenalonge.com/forclients.htm.