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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.

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.

Motivating a Child to Read

Question: How do you motivate a child to read when they are having a lot of trouble with it?

Myrna Shure: I’m assuming the child is old enough to be able to read and the child is behind grade level and therefore not interested in trying.  Here are some suggestions:

l. Let the child choose a story for you or another adult in the school to read aloud to him. Read the entire story without interruption so the child hears how the story begins and ends.

2. Ask questions to help the child think about the characters and any problem or conflict that came up between the characters. Many children’s books do depict these kinds of situations. Questions can include:
    -“What’s the problem in this story?”  “What happened?”
    -“How did (name a character) feel when that happened?
    -“Has anything like this ever happened to you?”
    -“How did you feel when that happened?’

3. If there’s an illustration showing a character’s feelings, let the child point to it and make his own happy, sad, or angry face.

4. Now ask:
    -“How did the children in the story solve the problem?”
    -“Do you think that was a good way to solve it?”  “Why or why not?”
    -“Can you think of other ways they could have solved the problem?”
    “What might happen in the story if they used your way to solve the problem?”

Another way to nurture a genuine interest in books is to encourage the child to make up stories of his own. Start with guiding the child to invent a different ending to the story you just read, perhaps with endings from the perspective of the different characters. You might even let him read his story to the class. And you can help this child understand that he can get ideas for his own stories by reading those written by others.

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