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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.   

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.

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.

Parent's Expectations

Question: Many parents in my preschool classroom are extremely concerned about their child’s academic development and behavior. One of my youngest children is only 2.5 years old and her parents expect her to know the letters of the alphabet and read simple words. Another one of my children’s parents want their son to have perfect manners—not interrupt adults, sit still for longer periods of time, etc. Do you have any suggestions for helping to quell parents’ anxiety and enabling them to accept their children at developmentally appropriate levels?

Adele Brodkin: A parents' concern about their children's future success can sometimes be a bit unrealistic. These may be well-meaning people who become anxious about their children having successful adult lives.  Does the shaky state of our economy increase parents' anxieties about their kids' futures? Whatever the source, something like the following discussion, tailored to each family's situation, is what I would suggest:

"Mr. and Mrs. Jones: I am so glad you could come in to chat with me about (child's name) today. He is a fortunate boy (she a fortunate girl) to have such committed parents. I know you want to encourage academic achievement, which is great; but we need to begin at the beginning, by developing readiness skills. The things(s)he is doing now are very important preparation for formal learning that includes such things as learning to listen and follow simple instructions, to share and get along with others, to take turns, to line up or wait their turns for snack, to play cooperatively, to listen to a story being read —a story with lots of pictures and limited in length, to respond positively to adults other than parents, to enjoy the give and take of play , etc. These are all pre-academic skills to master before the formal learning. The time you spend with your child while doing errands and household chores is also very instructive in preparation for academics. Point out why you are making a list for grocery shopping, maybe even read it aloud. Invite your child to help in folding and putting away laundry or setting up a workshop or servicing your car. Rather than giving didactic lessons, demonstrate by every day activity that color, number, and size and shape are meaningful concepts. (Ask your child to bring you all the white socks from the basket, if that is something he can do successfully; or just label the colors aloud as you fold)"

I would also recommend certain reading material or a video that demonstrates the concept of developmental appropriateness. Contact NAEYC for a list of parent materials that can be very useful in sharing what you know with parents.  In short, make it clear that the last thing you would ever want to do is hold a child back, but neither would you want to frustrate him or her by having unrealistic expectations. School and learning should start off being fun and rewarding, uplifting a child's self-esteem.

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

Explaining Separation Anxiety to a Parent

Question: I have a sweet three year old in my nursery class who is displaying signs of separation anxiety every morning when her mother drops her off.  She will cry for a minute or so and then I play a name game with the class to redirect her attention and she is fine.  Yet her Mom is nervous about her child’s crying.  How can I best explain to her that this is normal behavior for a three year old child?

Adele Brodkin: It’s understandable for the mother to be nervous about her child’s cries. Parents often don’t realize that crying at separation is normal behavior for children and that it indicates warm and loving attachments to their parents. You may best be able to help them both if the separation could be more gradual. It is often a good idea to invite a parent or grandparent to stay (on the sidelines) for a while each day, even the entire session, and then gradually wean the two from each other, with brief separations at first. That should not be seen as a defeat for anyone, including the little girl, her mom or you and the school.  It is just good and compassionate practice.  Everyone should be confident about the child’s ultimate growth toward successful separation.  But just as parents don’t expect to wean or toilet train toddlers or replace their cribs with a big (girl/boy) bed in a day or a week, separating in a day from the familiar and loving parent is too much to expect of many kids this age.  With your patient guidance, both the child and her parent should do just fine in time.

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

Young Teacher

Question: I am graduating in the spring. I will be only 22 years old when I start teaching. Do you have any advice for dealing with parents and staff who might think that I am too young to do the job?

Adele Brodkin:
The most likely negative response to your youth may be envy; so don’t mistake that emotion for a lack of faith in your ability. It is your own self confidence that needs bolstering. Learn everything that you can while you are in school, especially from senior teachers during any practicum; and recognize that you, just like all the rest of us, will have a lot more to learn on the job. That is an exciting prospect and not as daunting as it now feels to you. In fact, very often, youthful energy and enthusiasm more than make up for limited experience. And I have noticed that more parents are delighted to see their children assigned to a young teacher than not. They know you’ll remember what it is like to be in the classroom, “on the other side of the desk”, since you are a very recent graduate. So, talk to experienced teachers whom you respect, observe them in the classroom; recognize that you’ll be prepared with your up to date schooling, believe in yourself, and the rest will follow naturally.

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

Dealing with Deaths in the Family

Question: While I was an aide for a child in the first grade, I encountered another little girl who suffered a lot of losses.  At least 3 or 4 family members died during the course of that school year. She feared that her parents were also going to die. It took the teacher at least 2 hours to settle her down every morning. It went on all year. Was there anything that the teacher or parents could have done differently to help her feel more comfortable in school? I would imagine she will still have some issues later in life if this is not addressed.

Adele Brodkin: I am sure that you offered her support, however subtly, since she touched your heart. That may have been more helpful than you can know. In any case, although we used to assume that unhappy events in early childhood will always come back to haunt a child later in life; we now know that is not necessarily the case. Many children who have endured traumatic events early on go on to lead normal lives, without emotional scars. In fact, at least 1/3rd of all children who experience significant trauma become happy and successful adults. There is an amazing resilience in such people that is being closely studied. Once we understand it, there is the hope that even more children can join those who have readily overcome early trauma.

Returning to your specific question, though, I suppose family counseling or guidance not only for this child, but her parents, may have added important support. Having either of the parents stay in the classroom probably wouldn’t have been particularly useful, especially if that parent had been sad and grieving.

So don’t allow the memory of this girl’s bad year to haunt you. For all we know, she may turn out to get past her bad year. Thankfully, she did not actually lose either of her parents.

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

When Relatives Work in the School

Question:  A child in my class has a mom that is an aide, and a grandma that is the assistant principal. When walking down the hall or just a glimpse at seeing them it is an uproar.  She screams with delight and then runs to them, getting out of line and also causing the other children to want to do the same.  Grandma and Mom think this is so cute, and now I feel this child is the exception to any rule we have in our classroom.  Any ideas on how to solve this problem?

Myrna Shure:   Because both relatives reinforce this child’s behavior – they think it’s cute – it is important to talk to the adults rather than the child about this.  I would recommend meeting with them in your classroom, not in the principal’s office, because it is a problem that affects both this child’s and the other children’s behavior, and you will feel more comfortable discussing this in your own domain. 

It is possible that Mom and Grandma are not even aware they are reinforcing this behavior, but whether they are or not, you can explain that this child’s classmates may develop negative feelings toward her, tease her, or reject her because she gets to play by different rules than they can.

If Mom and Grandma don’t want to listen to the explanation you present to them, you can simply tell them that you’ll have to change the rules and let all the children step out of line and approach them.  If they don’t want that to happen, they’ll have to talk to the child about why she can’t step out of line and approach them when she sees them.

If the reason for this problem goes deeper, try to find out why they approve of this behavior.  Is there a separation anxiety, and they are so delighted to see the child that she responds in kind?  Is there tension between you and the relatives and they are trying to show you how much she likes them?  Once the underlying problem is identified, it can begin to be solved.

Setting Limits for Parents

Question: I have been a caregiver for a boy of 3 ½ since he was 10 months old. There are rarely behavioral issues when he is with me and not his parents.  But when either or both of them are present, he becomes very aggressive, talking back, etc.  I feel he knows there will be no consequences for such behavior since the parents threaten but do not follow through. I have had many conversations with his mother to no avail.  She says he’ll be better when he’s four; and “boys will be boys”. She is wrong because he does know how to behave; but the misbehavior is becoming less and less tolerable since he now will hurt other children, including a baby. Any advice would be appreciated.

Adele Brodkin: Just as these parents should be setting limits for their child, you will have to set firm limits for them. Explain to them that when the safety of other children is at stake, there can be no waiting for a change in their son’s attitude and behavior. Either he follows the rules you set up, whether a parent is there or not, or he will not be welcome in your program any longer. If they feel they cannot do this alone, find resources for them to improve their parenting skills so they may set the behavioral bar where it belongs. This child, like every other, deserves and needs love, understanding, and consistent limits.  That does not mean punishment, threats, etc.  Hopefully, there is a family guidance program available through your town, county or church or temple affiliation. It is likely that there is much more to the story of this family’s struggles that is not for you to address; but you can guide them to the right source, while firmly sticking to your position about safe behavior at all times as the condition for staying.

Setting Limits for Parents

Question: I have been a caregiver for a boy of 3 ½ since he was 10 months old. There are rarely behavioral issues when he is with me and not his parents.  But when either or both of them are present, he becomes very aggressive, talking back, etc.  I feel he knows there will be no consequences for such behavior since the parents threaten but do not follow through. I have had many conversations with his mother to no avail.  She says he’ll be better when he’s four; and “boys will be boys”. She is wrong because he does know how to behave; but the misbehavior is becoming less and less tolerable since he now will hurt other children, including a baby. Any advice would be appreciated.

Adele Brodkin: Just as these parents should be setting limits for their child, you will have to set firm limits for them. Explain to them that when the safety of other children is at stake, there can be no waiting for a change in their son’s attitude and behavior. Either he follows the rules you set up, whether a parent is there or not, or he will not be welcome in your program any longer. If they feel they cannot do this alone, find resources for them to improve their parenting skills so they may set the behavioral bar where it belongs. This child, like every other, deserves and needs love, understanding, and consistent limits.  That does not mean punishment, threats, etc.  Hopefully, there is a family guidance program available through your town, county or church or temple affiliation. It is likely that there is much more to the story of this family’s struggles that is not for you to address; but you can guide them to the right source, while firmly sticking to your position about safe behavior at all times as the condition for staying.

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

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