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A Whining Child

Question: My daughter is 8 and in second grade.  She does excellent in school, wonderful report cards, however at home it is a different story.  She whines, fights, and argues with her little brother non-stop.  The whining is the big problem. She is whining about everything; supper, bedtime, school work. When I set down rules, she tries to navigate around them, and has temper tantrums.  I am at my wits end.  I have tried to sit and talk with her but it hasn’t helped.  Suggestions?

Myrna Shure:  I can understand how frustrating, and irritating your daughter’s whining must be, and feeling that you’ve tried everything makes you feel exasperated.  I think  given that so many events trigger her whining, that whining is her solution to the problem at hand, not the problem itself. 

There are ways to talk with her that are effective, and ways that are ineffective.  If you just explain to her why she shouldn’t whine, or even suggest how she should express herself, that is doing the thinking for her, and doing all the talking and all the thinking.  By age 8, she’s heard these suggestions and explanations many, many times and probably just tunes out.  If that happens, you probably feel more exasperated, and may end up yelling or otherwise punishing her.

Try one simple sentence next time she whines:  “Can you think of a different way to tell me how you feel?  If she’s arguing with her little brother, ask, “Can you think of a different way to tell him what you’re upset about right now?”

This simple question stops children in their tracks.  Many children simply smile, and that’s the end of that.

If your daughter names something that’s really bothering her, ask:  “How do you think I feel when you talk to me like that?”  “How do you really feel inside right now?”  These questions are important so your daughter thinks about her own and other’s feelings, the beginning of empathy.  Empathic children do not want to upset other people.  Then ask, “Can you think of a different way to solve this problem?”  If she is involved in thinking about what to do, she is much more likely to actually carry it out than an idea demanded, suggested, or even explained by the adult, in this case, you, the parent.

Aggression and the Media

Question: I have a child in my class for the second year in a row who is aggressive with the other children and uses inappropriate language.  He is allowed to watch movies as home such as “Halloween,” “Friday the l3th,” and “Silence of the Lambs.”  He also plays a “Rocky” video game.  He uses classroom toys as weapons, tells the other children that he is going to kill them, and hits the other children.  When I ask him to do something he tells me “no” or ignores the request.  His parents are not together and neither one wants to make him upset during their time with him so they let him stay up or watch what he wants.

Myrna Shure:
   I can understand how difficult this must be for you to be experiencing such disruptive and dysfunctional behavior without support from the boy’s parents to resolve this.  I suggest that you mention to the parent you see that research shows that steady exposure to violence can last for many years, and that a significant percentage of adults are still affected long after viewing violent video games and movies in early childhood.  While it is impossible to completely restrict a child from watching these kinds of movies, or playing violent video games, you can try to explain to the parent that they can increase aggression and other hurtful behaviors. Because it is probably a matter of not wanting to upset the child, you can suggest the following to the parent.

•    Ask him how he feels when he watches the movies or plays the games.
•    If a bad feeling:  Ask him if he really wants to feel that way.
•    If a good feeling: Ask if he can think of something else he can do to feel that way.
•    When he really hurts, or threatens to hurt another child, ask him “What might happen when you do that?”  Then ask, “Do you want that to happen?”  “What can you do so that will not happen?”

These kinds of questions will give him a sense of control, but in a more positive way than he is exhibiting now. 

If the boy’s parents are unable, or unwilling to try the above, I would suggest that they seek outside help, as a professional psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker may be able to help them understand the seriousness of how they’re raising him, and also, help them find more healthy styles of discipline.   

An Angry Child

Question:  I have a 6-year-old that seems to have a problem with the classroom aide. If she knows the aide is going to be at school, she doesn’t want to go.  I had a conference at the beginning of the year with the teacher and aide but it didn’t help.  My daughter started seeing a therapist after a couple of months when nothing I did seemed to help, and we found she had anxiety with OCD.  The aide says that things are fine, but I don’t totally trust her word. Can you please help me?  I am not sure if it’s my daughter’s anxiety or if there is really a problem with the aide?

Myrna Shure: You mention a couple of different issues, and I’ll focus on your daughter’s difficulty with the classroom aide.  From the aide’s response when you talk to her, it is difficult to tell whether the aide really does pose a problem for your daughter, or whether your daughter is placing blame on the aide for other problems at school.  Regardless of which is true, the first step is to help your daughter focus her attention on something other than the aide.  Whether or not your daughter has OCD, start with asking her to think of just one thing about school that she likes.  If needed, give her a choice, such as, “Do you like math?”  “Do you like reading?”  “Do you like playing outside at recess?”  Talk about what she chooses for a while, why she likes it, and what she does when she’s engaged in that activity.  Share a story about what you liked about school when you were her age.  By focusing on something positive, the aide may take on less importance, she might like school, and she may even see the aide in a new light.

If the above suggestion doesn’t work, ask her to tell you one thing about school that she would like to make better.  Then guide her to think about what she can do to make that better.  She may even name the classroom aide.  If this is the case, helping her to think through specifically what it is that she doesn’t like, and being involved in the process of solving this problem, she may also see the aide in a new light.

Whichever suggestion your child responds to, the aide should begin to take on less intense importance, and her new focus can help your daughter become excited about school once again.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Boy with Autism who Hits

Question: I work as a one-on-one aide for a seven-year-old boy with autism.  He is non-verbal and sometimes takes his aggression out in a physical manner.  He hits his sister and her friends if they are being loud or in his personal space. In the past, he stopped doing that after time-outs.  Recently he has started hitting again. How can I get the message across to him that hitting is wrong?  Do you have any additional suggestions about how to deal with his hitting?

Adele Brodkin:
You are to be commended for taking on such a difficult assignment with compassion and concern for the welfare of both the boy and others around him.  I gather that the boy has no receptive or expressive language, making his care a very challenging assignment. I hope that there are professional experts involved; perhaps those who made the diagnosis continue to manage his case.  Ideally, that is a team of experts, including at least a child psychiatrist, pediatric neurologist, occupational therapist, clinical early childhood psychologist who specializes in PDD, and a speech therapist with comparable preparation/experience. I hope that one of those experts is the team leader who collects the diagnostic information and puts together recommendations for his home and school care. If there is such a resource, I urge you to present this problem to those in charge.  Without knowing anything about the family and school arrangements, etc., there is little worthwhile advice I can offer beyond that.  If there isn’t a full cadre of experts and a skilled professional leading the team in this child’s behalf, please make it known to the family that they are entitled to both. There is a federal law requiring the Board of Education to fund an ongoing oversight and whatever interventions required for this child’s well-being and the protection of those around him.  You can’t be expected to do this all on your own.   While you are waiting for the bureaucratic wheels to grind, I can recommend a reading resource for you.  It will not solve the profound problems surrounding this boy’s care, but you might find it useful. The book is “The Child with Special Needs” by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D. and Serena Wieder, Ph.D. You can also go on line to find much material by these two author/experts on Autism and PDD.

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

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