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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.

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.

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.

Drawing Ability

Question:  In my kindergarten class, I have noticed that a five year old child’s drawing ability is not as developed as his other same-aged peers.  He draws many circles, and lines with a small circle for people.  He draws very few details and colors way out of the lines.  In general, he doesn’t like to write or draw much.  With art, I tend to not want to give children instruction, for fear of stifling their creativity.  I have read many books about drawing developmental stages.  Should I be concerned about his fine motor skill development?

Myrna Shure: 
Unless this child is seriously behind in other aspects of motor skill development, I would not be concerned about this phase of his development at this time.  I agree that fostering creativity is the primary goal at this age, and there are effective ways to do this.  Rather than focusing on the product of “what” the child is drawing, focus on the process of “how” the child is drawing.  That is, avoid asking questions such as “Who is this person you just drew?” and say “Tell me about your picture.”  This allows the child to create in his own mind what he wants to talk about, which is fine even if it doesn’t seem related to what’s on the paper.  If the child responds, then you can pick up on what he says to start a supportive conversation. 

You can take this still further by pointing to a particular part of the drawing, and say, “Tell me more about this.”  This can stretch his thinking and he may even enjoy making up a story about what is on the paper.  Some children are more verbally oriented than visually oriented and this child may be one of them.  You mention that he doesn’t like to write or draw much, so having him become involved verbally by making up stories may be something he’ll enjoy very much.  Such opportunities may even inspire him to want to draw more so he can enjoy making up more stories.  And you may learn something about what is on his mind in ways not possible from direct questions about, for example, the “small circles.”

Giving the child freedom to create in his own mind what his drawing represents puts no pressure on the boy to change his style of drawing, and he may come to enjoy it more with these new opportunities to think and talk about it.

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.

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.

ADHD and Stress

Question:  If I have a student who has ADHD and it’s proved helpful to give him a stress ball to squeeze during class to keep his attention, how can I let him use it without the other children getting upset?  They seem to think I let him play during lessons and not them.

Myrna Shure:
  It is always difficult when one child has a special need without the other children becoming overly curious, or jealous of extra attention or privileges given by the teacher.  However, making an issue of why one child needs the squeeze ball will only make it more enticing.

This may sound unusual, but why not let all the kids squeeze the ball for a while?  This may be distracting at first, but you can build this activity into a regular lesson on relaxation techniques for kids.  This can be no more than five minutes at a time.  I think you’ll find that in a short amount of time, the novelty will wear off for all the kids except the one who needs it.  And by doing this, you will send the message that you care.

Now that the other children’s needs have been satisfied, they may still be curious about why the one child still squeezes the ball.  One possible explanation may be simply, “It helps to keep his mind on his lessons.”  That is brief, truthful, and does not violate any ethics codes of revealing the boy’s diagnosis to the rest of the class.  In a short amount of time, they won’t even notice.

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