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Disruptive in Preschool

Question:  My son is four years old and in Pre-K.  His teacher said that he has been very disruptive during nap time. He makes funny noises, laughs and kicks the other kids, ruining nap time for everyone.  At home, he has rules.  There are consequences for good and bad behaviors so he does his work and tries hard to follow our instructions.  How can I help him do the same in school?  The teacher is not consistent implementing rules and just gets upset with him and I think my son sees that and just takes advantage of her.  He is very bright and can be manipulative.  If you let him walk all over you, he will but if he is placed in a structured environment where he knows that the rules are and everyone is consistent at responding to his good and bad behaviors, he does well.  Please help.

Myrna Shure:
I’m not sure the reason for your son’s behavior is due to inconsistency of rules at school, or something about nap time in particular, since that is the only time you mention his disruptiveness.   

If your child is behaving this way simply because he wants to be disruptive, either for the sake of being disruptive, or because he is feeling overpowered, his need for this can be reduced and eventually eliminated by giving him a sense of control over his life.  The teacher might start by asking him how he is feeling at the moment he acts out, and then, in a genuine information-seeking tone of voice – not in a threatening tone – ask, “Why are you (making loud noises, kicking someone, etc.).  This question gives the child the opportunity to express what’s on his mind, and knowing what’s bothering him may help to solve the problem. 

Should your child actually say, “I don’t want to nap,” the teacher might try giving him a quiet activity while others are napping, preferably, a quiet activity of his choice.  It may be as simple as that.

Either of the above scenarios will show your son that you and his teacher care how he feels, and respect his needs.  This will go much further than insisting he follow the rules, which, in this case, might not have anything to do with the real problem at all.

Sadness Over Losing a Toy

Question: My two-year old recently released a balloon into the air and got very emotional as it flew away. He has pointed to the sky and cried a couple of times each day for over a week ever since. Should I be concerned?  Is there anything I can do to help him? Thank you.

Adele Brodkin: What a touching question. Of course,I don't know for sure what your boy was feeling, but I suspect his sadness at the balloon's disappearance illustrates the strong feelings most twos have about separation, loss, and a growing awareness that they can't control the comings and goings of loved ones. I don't think you should be concerned, but it's wonderful that you are empathic. Express what he may be feeling for him: "Yes, I know you're sad that the balloon flew away; but I am here with you. And I will give you a big hug to show you how much I love you." Top that off with an offer to play a favorite game, allowing him to be in charge of the plot of pretend play. Offer him lots of choices so he can feel less powerless.  "Would you like to wear your blue shirt or the red one?" Do the same for dessert or snack selections and rejoice over his wise choices.

For more advice by Adele, check out the Between Teacher and Parent column.

My Child Has Mood Swings

Question:  My son is 4 years old. He is cheerful most of the time, especially when we are with others. However, sometimes he has mood swings, and starts shouting at us. For example, we were drawing together, and I made a mistake. Since he could not draw according to his wish, he shouted, "You don't know anything!" and grabbed my pencil away. How should we handle this type of behavior?

Polly Greenberg:  It’s so hard for us as parents to know when our child’s behavior is typical for a child that age, or whether it’s a little too much and needs our attention to smooth a rough edge, or whether the behavior is altogether off the charts so consultation with a child development specialist or child psychologist would be a wise idea. From what you’ve said, I can’t tell whether your son has wild mood swings, unrelated to the situation he’s in, or whether something—such as you making a “mistake” while drawing with him—provokes his wrath. I suspect it’s the latter.

Let’s assume that your son is a headstrong and cocky four-year-old, as many fours are. All young children believe that their parents are omniscient and omnipotent—that they see and know everything, and that they are all-powerful. Therefore, if you don’t draw perfectly, your son may be distressed by this glaring imperfection (smile); his reaction, for lack of a more socially skilled reaction, may be anger. Few young children see things on a continuum. They think in black and white. They see only extremes. So if you don’t know how to do everything (in this case, draw what your son wanted you to draw), “you don’t know anything.”

You wonder how to handle your son’s belligerent behavior. I would aim at teaching tolerance, recognition of feelings, and moderation. I might say, “I know lots of things, but I see you’re disappointed that I didn’t know how to draw this the way you wanted it. The way I drew it is a good way too. Please give the pen back to me. I think I’ll try again.” Or I might laugh at my drawing, saying, “Well, I really goofed up on this one, didn’t I! Nobody always does things perfectly, you know, even smart mothers like me. And don’t grab things from people; please give me my pen unless you want to trade pens. Do you want to take a turn trying to draw it? Or maybe I’ll try again.” Mildly but firmly you should let your son know that you’re not stupid, that there are many OK ways to do most things, and that grabbing isn’t all right.

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.

Anxiety in the Classroom

Question: Last Spring I was a teacher aide in a kindergarten classroom and there was a student who had anxiety problems at least once a week. Sometimes he would just break down and start crying and sometimes he would just refuse to talk; other times he would break out in rashes on his hands and face. How do you go about approaching this child’s problems and helping him feel more comfortable with his surroundings? And how do you help this child’s classmates understand what is going on without it being a distraction to them and a problem to the student having anxiety attacks?

Myrna Shure:  It sounds like this child may need professional help, but there are some things you can do in your classroom.

1. Let him know that it’s ok if he doesn’t want to talk “now,” but you’re there for him when he does want to talk. If that turns out to be time that it’s not possible to devote individual attention to him, promise him a time when you can, and then be sure and follow through. Once you have gained his trust, he may quietly begin to approach you on his own.

2. Share any memories of your own childhood, and tell this boy about something that made you feel anxious when you were his age. You can also tell him what you did to get out of that feeling.

3. Guide the child to make up a story about a fictitious boy who felt anxious in school. Help him think of things that might have made the boy in his story feel that way, and what he can do to feel less fearful. At the same time, you may learn more about his own thoughts and feelings and that insight may help you know how to help him.

4. Give him an animal hand puppet to hold. You can purchase the kind that has a moving mouth so opening it up wide and shaking the head high in the air depicts “happy,” and squishing the mouth with its head down depicts “sad.” Let the child give the puppet a name and he can tell the puppet how he’s feeling at different times. Once he’s comfortable talking to the puppet, he may well slowly feel comfortable sharing his feelings with you. 

5. Find out one thing this boy is proud of, or excited about – perhaps an accomplishment, or a hobby. Talking about that may help him open up and want to participate, instead of retreat.

Any or all of these suggestions may help the boy feel less anxious, and more trusting and comfortable in his environment.   

As for helping his classmates understand, just explain that he needs their help to feel better and ask them if anyone can think of ways to do that. The children will get excited about thinking of ways to help him.

Dealing with Separation Issues

Question: I’m a new Kindergarten teacher, and I have been told that one of the children in my class this fall cries a lot and has trouble separating from his Mom.  What are some things that I can do to be prepared for that first week or so that I’m sure it is going to take for him to “settle in”?  Thanks in advance for your help.

Adele Brodkin: I imagine that knowing there is at least one child in your first kindergarten class who is likely to have trouble separating keeps you from feeling relaxed about this big moment in your life.  Still, it’s a good thing to be prepared, rather than taken by surprise.

Let’s talk a bit about ways to ease the transition for all young children entering a new (to them) school program. If your administrator has no objection, you might contact each of the entering children with a brief note or postcard introducing yourself and saying how much you are looking forward to having him or her in your class. Some teachers even make home visits before the start of school.  A phone contact or note might introduce the idea.  Not every parent will be amenable to a visit, which is fine. Alternatively, some teachers invite children and their parents to visit in the classroom the week before school begins, arranging those meetings so there is time for an individual chat with each one. You might encourage the visitors to bring a photograph of family members; and you can post all of those on a bulletin board that is in full view on the first day of school.  These are all small ways of welcoming a new child and giving him a chance to become somewhat familiar with his new school and new teacher. Knowing each kindergartner allows you to greet them all by name on the first day.

Some programs have a flexible separation policy, which includes allowing any parent whose child needs her, to stay for a while – minutes, hours or even several days, allowing for a gradual separation.  Again with the administration’s support, inviting a parent or two to stay does not mean that anyone has failed – not the child, the parent, or the teacher. Rather it suggests a level of kindness and sensitivity to children’s and parents’needs that often makes the separation go much smoother than anticipated.

Once the parent has gone, keep a special eye on any child who is a bit ambivalent about separating. Arrange for him to be near you during group activities. Subtly guide him in making friends, offer him an occasional special role, such as the cookie server or juice pourer, for example. You will soon learn what activities and materials are especially appealing to him and which children are diverting companions. Encourage the parents to arrange play dates with one or two classmates out of school.

Finally, I would recommend that you take a look at Nancy Balaban’s book, Everyday Goodbyes, published by Teachers College Press. She has more helpful hints and suggestions.

For more advice by Adele, check out the Between Teacher and Parent column.

Disobedient Child

Question: I am a first-year teacher in a Head Start classroom and I have a child in my classroom who is a foster child.  This child disobeys me, cusses at me, kicks me, hits me and scratches me. I am firm with him and tell him specifically what I need him to do, yet he looks at me, smiles, and continues with his bad behavior anyway. I repeat what I would like him to do, and he ignores me. When I have him sit in a chair by me because he is harming others, he refuses to sit there and often fights me. My T.A. is the only one who can get him to sit in the chair. I was wondering if what I am doing is appropriate and if there are any other methods that would be more effective.

Polly Greenberg: Maybe it will comfort you to be reminded that most new teachers have considerable trouble with classroom management, bringing out the best in each child, and relating effectively to children who exhibit difficult behaviors. Practice will make you better at any of these things with which you’re having trouble—as long as you’re practicing well-known methods that usually improve the situation, and that strengthen the child’s positive qualities.

Because your assistant does well with this child, the solution to your problem may lie in watching her work with this child. It might help to ask your assistant to work with him for an entire day while you observe attentively. Look for details. Take notes.

1. What does she do, say, what is her body language while she’s doing or saying it, and what is her tone of voice during transitions, group time, playtime, etc. that result in this difficult child’s cooperation?
2. To what degree and in what ways would you say your assistant knows this child, his interests, strengths, challenges, troublesome characteristics; what does she know in all these ways about the boy you’re having a problem with? 
3. In what ways does your T.A. connect with this child? How frequently? What does she say or do (put her arm around him, hold his hand, ask him to help her) that causes the boy to feel positive toward this adult, and toward what she wants him to do (or not do)?
The day after you’ve analyzed your tape, come to school equipped with a tape recorder and lots of blank audiotapes. Try to use all the helpful ideas you got from observing your assistant’s way of working with this child, and tape yourself working with your class all day long. Later, review the tapes. How did you and the child you find difficult do? Identify any rough spots. What were you doing and saying at those times? How does this compare with what your assistant did and said at similar moments? Listen carefully for tone—firm and friendly? Authoritarian and cold? Wishy washy? My guess is that if you keep up this strategy for six weeks, really observing, reviewing your notes and tapes almost daily, and regularly focusing on trying to implement your “findings”, you and this little guy will do much better together. You can assume that a child in foster care has big issues with abandonment, trust, and very likely severe neglect or abuse. Firm is good. Methods are good. But above all, you need to develop a sincere and reliable friendship with him. The ball is in your court. 

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.

Drawing Ability

Question:  In my kindergarten class, I have noticed that a five year old child’s drawing ability is not as developed as his other same-aged peers.  He draws many circles, and lines with a small circle for people.  He draws very few details and colors way out of the lines.  In general, he doesn’t like to write or draw much.  With art, I tend to not want to give children instruction, for fear of stifling their creativity.  I have read many books about drawing developmental stages.  Should I be concerned about his fine motor skill development?

Myrna Shure: 
Unless this child is seriously behind in other aspects of motor skill development, I would not be concerned about this phase of his development at this time.  I agree that fostering creativity is the primary goal at this age, and there are effective ways to do this.  Rather than focusing on the product of “what” the child is drawing, focus on the process of “how” the child is drawing.  That is, avoid asking questions such as “Who is this person you just drew?” and say “Tell me about your picture.”  This allows the child to create in his own mind what he wants to talk about, which is fine even if it doesn’t seem related to what’s on the paper.  If the child responds, then you can pick up on what he says to start a supportive conversation. 

You can take this still further by pointing to a particular part of the drawing, and say, “Tell me more about this.”  This can stretch his thinking and he may even enjoy making up a story about what is on the paper.  Some children are more verbally oriented than visually oriented and this child may be one of them.  You mention that he doesn’t like to write or draw much, so having him become involved verbally by making up stories may be something he’ll enjoy very much.  Such opportunities may even inspire him to want to draw more so he can enjoy making up more stories.  And you may learn something about what is on his mind in ways not possible from direct questions about, for example, the “small circles.”

Giving the child freedom to create in his own mind what his drawing represents puts no pressure on the boy to change his style of drawing, and he may come to enjoy it more with these new opportunities to think and talk about it.

A Child Who Hates School

Question: I have a student who absolutely HATES school. He cries all morning long. Nothing I do helps him to calm down. I have tried using his favorite toys and activities to settle him down. He just does not like coming to school. What do I do?

Polly Greenberg: You need to have a pleasant sit-down with Tommy’s parents, mom, grandma, or whoever. You don’t want to appear critical, but rather as a partner trying to get at the root of a problem so, together, you can solve it. Does the child fight leaving home before coming to school, or does the distress begin at school? Is anything unusual going on at home that Tommy is afraid to turn his back on? (new baby, father off to war, mom seriously ill, parental separation or new divorce, grandparent recently died, a family member has a substance abuse problem)? If a big thing such as those just mentioned is going on, the problem is not at school, and will probably solve itself with time and tender loving care at home and in your classroom.

How old is this child? If he’s two or three, I would ask the family if he needs to be at school. Are his adults away and is this his childcare arrangement? Or is there someone who could keep him home at least part-time and give him a happier day? Some twos and threes enjoy an outing and playing with peers two or three times a week, but find it too stressful to do it every day all day, or even five mornings a week. If Tommy has to be at school, is there a loved one who could sit on the sidelines and be available like a security blanket for two or three weeks? I would want to know the options and the family’s thoughts about all this.

If Tommy is four or five yet cries “all morning long” as you say he does, I would suspect a problem in the family. Does your program have a psychologist, social worker, counselor, or psychiatric consultant? If not, does the director have a list of agencies the school can recommend to families needing help? It’s possible that Tommy himself has an as yet undetected problem and could use some help.

My response to your question assumes that you are doing many reasonable things to calm Tommy down. Certainly engaging with a child and his favorite toys and activities is important. How about lots of one-on-one time with you, your assistant, or a volunteer until Tommy brightens up? Have you tried that?

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.

Child Follows Teacher Around

Question:  I have a sweet three year old in my classroom who walks around aimlessly during free play. After I direct her to a playing center, I notice her as my tail a few minutes later. How do I encourage her to play and should I be firm that during free play we need to choose a center and not follow the teacher around the classroom? 

Myrna Shure: Although we don’t know why this child has a need to tail the teacher, it is quite possible that she is anxious or fearful of being away from an adult. If this or any form of insecurity is the case, you can guide her gradually with the following techniques.

Step l: Take her to a play center, and say, “I’ll be right back. You stay here.” Slowly walk away for less than a minute, keeping eye contact, and smiling. 

Step 2: Repeat the above, slowly increasing the amount of time and the distance you step away. If she follows you, calmly escort her back to the play center and repeat the process.

Step 3: Let the child choose a play center. Put a doll on the table and say “Find another doll for this one to have breakfast with.” Or, let the child choose her own toy and ask her for her idea for what to do with that toy. Then back away just a bit, but stay within eye contact.

Three-year-olds may not yet be engaging other children in their play. But if the child responds to steps 1-3, it won’t be long before she engages in her own play, perhaps even beside other children. And soon she will have less need to be following you so much of the time.

Restroom Issues

Question: I have a student in my class with selective muteness.  This has become a major problem especially when it comes time for the student to use the restroom and instead of raising her hand to ask permission to go, the student will go in her seat.  What can be done to prevent this?

Myrna Shure: The first thing you want to do is rule out medical causes.  Once that is ruled out, and assuming the child is old enough to have been potty trained, you might ask the parents if this happens at home.  Try to find out if the parents know of particular anxieties the child may be experiencing, or whether she may simply be distracted easily, and not aware of her own body cues when she has to go to the bathroom. 

You might try bringing a parent and the child together in private, and in a warm, caring, and supportive voice ask, “Is something bothering you?”  If she doesn’t answer, try asking, “How do you feel about letting the teacher know when you have to go to the bathroom?”  If necessary, ask, “Do you feel afraid to let her know?”  If the child is old enough, you can add, “Do you feel embarrassed?”  If she indicates yes, let her know that it is ok for her to let you know. 

It is possible that the child feels angry, and this is her way of controlling what she perceives as controlling adults.  By asking “Is something bothering you,” the child may reveal thoughts and feelings you are unaware of.  Then ask her for her ideas on how to solve this problem.  This may help this child feel empowered, and is more likely to respond because she is coming up with her way to deal with her discomfort.

If selective muteness is a problem at other times as well, then I suspect this is her way of controlling adults.  Letting her express her thoughts and feelings will be helpful in this case.  I have found that as early as age 4 or 5, children are capable of participating in this kind of dialogue.

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