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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.

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.

How to Teach Basic Knowledge

Question: I have recently started babysitting two girls from my neighborhood; their ages are 2 and 4. I also have a 2 and 4 year old of my own. The two girls that I babysit are extremely behind.  They have none of the basic knowledge that kids their age should. I have never met a child as slow as these two. I want to help them, but after two months, they’ve made no progress. They seem to be getting worse. How do I begin to teach these children basic knowledge?

Adele Brodkin: It is very generous of you to want to encourage these children in their growth and development which is above and beyond the usual expectations for baby sitting. My suggestion is that instead of trying to teach them in an academic style, involve them in every day chores, talk to them about what you are planning, maybe raise easy questions.  For example, if you go to the post office and they come along, you can show, particularly the older child, that you are buying stamps to put on letters.  Then later or the next day when your mail comes, you can show them a letter sent to you with a stamp on it. You can point out a postal truck or a mailperson delivering the mail and mention that (s)he gets that mail from the post office to bring to people’s mailboxes.

Similarly, if you are shopping for groceries and/or cooking, talk about what you plan to make for lunch or dinner and how you pick out good fruit or vegetables, how you wash them before serving, etc.

When you are helping them on with their jackets, show them some “tricks” about how to hold their arms, point out the zipper and how it works. But don’t expect either of them to be ready to do the zippering on their own.

Try to make all these activities casual and fun and if either or both pays little attention, move right along to another chore without commenting on their performance with the last.  All of these examples, and many other every day chores that allow you to engage them in conversation are important readiness activities of later more formal learning.

Incidentally, be sure you have simple age appropriate toys, especially toys that allow free play and make believe.  Growing the imagination is especially important at their ages.

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

Boy Not Involved

Question: I currently work in an extended daycare program for children aged five to twelve.  It is hard to keep all children of these varying ages interested and engaged at all times.  However, I have a great team that works together to meet all the children’s needs except for one child.  This particular child will not communicate with anyone nor will he play with any other kids.  When he arrives he sits in the corner and refuses to follow any direction.  He seems to be very shy, angry, defiant, and sad at the same time.  I know he receives certain services during school, but I was wondering what to do with the child while he is in daycare.  Do I let him be or keep attempting to get him involved even though it angers him?

Myrna Shure:  This is a difficult situation because this boy is no doubt suffering from a mental health dysfunction that requires professional care, which he appears to be getting.  Not knowing the age of this child, it is possible that finding out his favorite music, perhaps by asking his parents, and playing it softly in the background may soothe him. 

You want to avoid putting any pressure on him with statements as, “Come join us,” or “Come on over and play with the boys over there.”  In a situation like this, more subtle techniques will work better.  Offer him an age-appropriate toy, such as an action figure, a puppet, or a stuffed animal that is already in the classroom.  Let him just hold it.  The next day bring out another toy.  Show him how the two action figures, puppets, or stuffed animals can play with each other, or talk with each other, and then offer him a chance to have the two toys talk or play with each other.   I have found that children will often talk through a puppet when they won’t talk themselves.  I have also found that children who won’t express their feelings will show them by having the puppet make a happy, sad or angry face.  Once the puppets are talking, this could serve as a bridge to the boy expressing his feelings, and in time, talking with other children.

Becoming engaged in activities and relating to other children will take time, but starting with activities that interest him, away from other children at first, might be a good way to start.

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.

Why Children Copy

Question: Why does my 4 year old like to copy other kids?

Adele Brodkin: I wish I knew more about the circumstances of his or her copying. If, for example, your child is imitating the behavior of children who are a bit older, that is because (s)he admires the other children who seem so “big.” Remember the old saying, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Children learn a lot from imitating other children and even imitating grown ups. In fact, using their imaginations to pretend play—being a teacher or a fireman or a mommy or daddy is very beneficial for social, emotional, and cognitive growth.

I know that there are times, however, when some children copy others’ unacceptable behavior.  That too, is nothing to worry about; but it does give you an opportunity to make your standards for behavior very clear. “I know Joe does that, but it isn’t really very nice and I would rather you did not do it.” This is particularly relevant for behavior that is unsafe or that may hurt another person’s feelings.

In either case, copying and imitating are both completely developmentally normal behaviors for your four year old.

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

Helping a Child With Developmental Challenges

Question: A student in my pre-k class of 4 and 5 year olds cries easily and often, especially when he is not allowed to do something and at naptime and whenever I leave the room. I am told that he is developmentally disabled.  Does that have anything to do with the frequent crying? I would welcome suggestions.

Adele Brodkin: I suspect that you and this child have been short-changed on the special help that he needs. All too often, a child with behavioral and developmental difficulties is sent into a regular classroom with no hints for the teacher about how to help him while managing the full load of early childhood classroom responsibilities. Sending in a note with the label “developmentally disabled” is not enough. It tells you only that he is likely to be out of synch with his peers—something you can quickly discover for yourself; but then what?

It is clear that this particular child is having separation anxiety, perhaps even panics when you leave the room and when he is asked to rest alone. I would advise you to go back to the source of the “developmentally disabled” label and ask how it was established. If he has not been seen recently by a full cadre of early childhood mental health and pediatric experts, a referral for those work-ups is essential. If he has been seen, you should be privy to the description of his difficulties and the suggestions for helping him and his family. Is he ready to be away from his parents for a school day? Should there be a trained aide in the classroom assigned just to him?  What kind of out of school intervention has been recommended, and have the recommendations been followed? You are absolutely entitled to answers to these and all your questions; and perhaps more critically, the child and his family are entitled to outside help for his suffering.

Helping a Child With Developmental Challenges

Question: A student in my pre-k class of 4 and 5 year olds cries easily and often, especially when he is not allowed to do something and at naptime and whenever I leave the room. I am told that he is developmentally disabled.  Does that have anything to do with the frequent crying? I would welcome suggestions.

Adele Brodkin: I suspect that you and this child have been short-changed on the special help that he needs. All too often, a child with behavioral and developmental difficulties is sent into a regular classroom with no hints for the teacher about how to help him while managing the full load of early childhood classroom responsibilities. Sending in a note with the label “developmentally disabled” is not enough. It tells you only that he is likely to be out of synch with his peers—something you can quickly discover for yourself; but then what?

It is clear that this particular child is having separation anxiety, perhaps even panics when you leave the room and when he is asked to rest alone. I would advise you to go back to the source of the “developmentally disabled” label and ask how it was established. If he has not been seen recently by a full cadre of early childhood mental health and pediatric experts, a referral for those work-ups is essential. If he has been seen, you should be privy to the description of his difficulties and the suggestions for helping him and his family. Is he ready to be away from his parents for a school day? Should there be a trained aide in the classroom assigned just to him?  What kind of out of school intervention has been recommended, and have the recommendations been followed? You are absolutely entitled to answers to these and all your questions; and perhaps more critically, the child and his family are entitled to outside help for his suffering.

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

Reading Readiness in Pre-K

Question: I teach a group of pre-K kids who missed the deadline for kindergarten by two to three months. This particular group of kids is very interested in learning to read and write; more so than the developmentally-age appropriate standards describe. Since they are an older group of fives, is it okay to teach them aspects of reading and writing that are considered to be kindergarten material—offering the challenge they seem eager to have?

Adele Brodkin: Age has been shown to be an arbitrary measure of readiness, so I agree with your inclination to individualize your program. That is why we are so eager to promote “Developmentally Appropriate” offerings to all children. No two children develop at the same rate in all readiness areas.  You are to be commended for offering an individualized pre-k program.

I am not sure whether these apparently “ready” children make up your entire class or just some members. It’s a relevant issue only because it is essential that you individualize the opportunities you describe. For those youngsters who are eager to move on with reading readiness, etc., of course, it is fine to provide them with the opportunity. In other words, be sure that you take each child exactly where he or she is and open the door to the next achievable step in each one’s learning. Let the children be the guides of how much and how fast they move ahead. As long as each child can succeed at least most of the time, you are on the right track. It’s a lot more work to allow each whatever pace is comfortable; but I think, worth the effort.

Reading Readiness in Pre-K

Question: I teach a group of pre-K kids who missed the deadline for kindergarten by two to three months. This particular group of kids is very interested in learning to read and write; more so than the developmentally-age appropriate standards describe. Since they are an older group of fives, is it okay to teach them aspects of reading and writing that are considered to be kindergarten material—offering the challenge they seem eager to have?

Adele Brodkin: Age has been shown to be an arbitrary measure of readiness, so I agree with your inclination to individualize your program. That is why we are so eager to promote “Developmentally Appropriate” offerings to all children. No two children develop at the same rate in all readiness areas.  You are to be commended for offering an individualized pre-k program.

I am not sure whether these apparently “ready” children make up your entire class or just some members. It’s a relevant issue only because it is essential that you individualize the opportunities you describe. For those youngsters who are eager to move on with reading readiness, etc., of course, it is fine to provide them with the opportunity. In other words, be sure that you take each child exactly where he or she is and open the door to the next achievable step in each one’s learning. Let the children be the guides of how much and how fast they move ahead. As long as each child can succeed at least most of the time, you are on the right track. It’s a lot more work to allow each whatever pace is comfortable; but I think, worth the effort.

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

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