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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.

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.

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.

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.

Engaging a Shy Child

Question: I have a four-year-old child who is very shy and has not spoken a word to me or any of the children since September. She will participate in individual activities, but not usually group activities. We’ve talked and talked to her, asked her questions, tried to be stern with her, but nothing works. Her mother even came in one day, but she wouldn’t even talk with her there. Do you have any ideas?

Polly Greenberg: I once had a child who didn’t speak from September to January. I had made friends with her, been gentle with her, not pushed. I had tried partnering her with two children who chatted abundantly, with one child who chatted abundantly, and with another child who seldom spoke. Of course I wondered about her hearing.

In January, just before I filled out the forms to have her hearing tested, it occurred to me to visit her at home to see if she talked there. Wow! She greeted me warmly when I arrived at the appointed time, chattered away as she showed me her toys, and talked merrily with her siblings.

But the next day at school, and every day in the remainder of the month, she didn’t talk. However, now that I knew she could talk well enough, I no longer worried. Instead I figured out two nonverbal ways to “talk” with her.

1. When she began a game or pretend play, I silently joined her. Without a word, but with many a smile, I fit into her play. She was so pleased! We were communicating pleasurably.
2. We are taught never to draw on a child’s picture, or paint on his painting. Basically, this is correct; it’s his creation. And I didn’t draw on this child’s picture or paint on her painting. I invited her to play a story drawing game with me. I said, “Once upon a time” and began to spin a tale, using a crayon to sketch simple symbols, or to show running, for example, by racing the crayon around the paper; nothing very representational that might be intimidating. “Then what happened?” I would say. In February she verbalized a few ideas. In March she answered in words when I approached her during work time. In April she began talking to other children.

The moral of my story is that friendship, accompanied by reasonable trial and error strategies, often solves problems with children. We don’t always know why the problem existed or why what we did worked. C’est la vie.

For more questions and answers by Polly, click here.

How to Help a Shy Child

Question:  A five year old girl just started in my kindergarten classroom and is extremely shy.  Her parents tell me that she won’t talk to any adults (family, neighbors, friends, etc.)  Her mom has also noticed that she seems to be acting less confident than she used to be.  Her development in all other areas is age appropriate.  She is having trouble opening up at school, is very quiet when she speaks (whispers) and keeps to herself.  She does not have many interactions with the other children.  She has no siblings.

Myrna Shure:  The fact that she is developing at age appropriate levels in all other areas is very important, and probably indicates that this child can be helped to relate to others without additional professional help.  I have found the following to be helpful with shy children.

• Play a game I call “Let’s Do the SAME Thing, Let’s Do Something DIFFERENT.”  With a small group of children, go through a series of motions with your body.  For example, tap your head and then say, “Let’s all do the SAME thing.”  Because this child doesn’t have to talk, or relate to anyone, she is likely to follow the game and tap her head.  Say, “Very good, we all did the SAME thing.”  Now stamp your foot, and say, “Let’s all do something DIFFERENT.”  Children love making up motions with their hands and their feet.

You may wonder how this will help this child out of her shyness.  It gets her participating with the group in a game without having to say anything to anyone, and it gets her out of a passive state.  When you think she is really enjoying the game, you might consider shaking her hand, and say, “Good, you did the SAME thing!” or, “Good, you did something DIFFERENT!” Positive reinforcement will help with her confidence.

• Encourage the child to draw how she feels at different times of the day.  Children this age are able to draw happy, sad, and angry faces.  This is a good way to let her express her feelings without having to express them verbally.

• Let the child hold a hand puppet.  “Poppy the Pup” may express thoughts, even if the child does not.  After getting used to responding through the puppet, the child may begin responding, however slowly, as herself.

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.

A Three-Year-Old Who Misbehaves

Question: A three year old in my preschool class misbehaves several times daily. She pinches, pushes, chokes, yells in the other kids’ faces, etc. She does not respond to my strong reactions, time outs or parental discipline. Nothing seems to motivate her to stop the behaviors. Her mother thinks a change of scenery would help, i.e. moving her to another program, but I think she will just take the behaviors with her. I would like to help her so that she doesn’t take this problem to school with her and would appreciate any ideas.

Adele Brodkin: You are correct; the chances are that this little girl will take her troubles with her wherever she goes. Transferring to another program is not likely to be the solution.  I must say it is very kind and generous of you to want to keep her with you so that you can be of help. There are very fine and dedicated teachers who would welcome her departure. But this child’s behavior suggests a level of emotional/social distress that is not readily “treated” in the educational setting, although a teacher working in tandem with an early childhood mental health team can be a great resource. The child’s behavior suggests that she is either quite disturbed or reacting to some environmental situation outside of school. I suggest that you confer with your Director about referral resources. There are more and more fine infant and preschool or early childhood mental health facilities in the U.S.  Often, but not always, they are affiliated with a University training program. Some are free-standing programs with board certified child psychiatrists, licensed psychologists trained in early childhood mental health, and other specialists. They all recognize the urgency of working very closely with parents in trying to understand each child’s issues and to remediate. The public school system and/or local hospital are often good resources; and if a child is classifiable, the local community is responsible for the financial support of any intervention.

While you are inquiring about referral resources, you and your director would do well to earn the parents’ trust gradually, so that the family will be more likely to follow through on your referrals.  I wish you good luck with this endeavor. It will take a dedicated person like you to guide this child and family to the help they need.

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.

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