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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.

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.

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.

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.

Children Who Prefer to Speak Spanish

Question: I work in a Pre-K class where all the students are English Language Learners. When students are communicating with me they use English but they immediately switch to their first language when they converse together and when they are not involved in a teacher guided center. I have been trying to motivate them to use more English in the class and with each other but they can’t seem to find the value in it since all their classmates and the community in which they live in all speak the same language. How can I go about motivating them to use more English in the classroom?

Polly Greenberg: I’m sure we agree that it’s great for children to have two languages; what an advantage throughout life (though it may take longer to get going in both at the beginning). And I agree with you that people need to learn English, along with maintaining their home language, if they live in a predominantly English speaking country.

I would enlist parents in this effort. Have a potluck social followed by a brief meeting to talk about “Your Child Learns English.” Try to build relationships with any amenable parent during the party and through discussion at the meeting.

1. Emphasize how important it is for children in Spanish speaking families to speak Spanish fluently so they and their parents—and grandparents—can communicate freely. If we expect parents to support our efforts we need to reassure them that we will not alienate their children from them. Also mention that many jobs require Spanish and English, so being competent in Spanish as well as English is advantageous.

2. Ask parents if they think it’s important for their child to learn English. If so why, and if not why not. See if you can get every parent present to comment on this. You never know what parents think and convey to their kids unless you ask. You might find, for example, that some parents move back and forth between countries, and because they’re here for only a few months each year, don’t consider learning English a priority. Encourage those who think it important for children to learn English to discuss this with the others—peer “teaching” is effective. The goal is to get parents to talk to each other.

3. Ask if people would like you to send home a few word cards every week with an English word and a picture or Spanish word on each card so parents can use the English words (objects and actions only) as they go about their business, becoming their child’s teacher at the same time. 

4. Ask if anyone is taking English classes. If so, compliment them and point out that they are setting an excellent example for their children. 

You probably already play action games requiring simple English words with your class, but the more you do it the better. For example, play freeze tag. To get unfrozen, the child must shout the name of a vegetable, fruit, color, or whatever category you’ve chosen and been working on at one of your centers. You say the children speak only Spanish when they play freely. What happens if you join in (not trying to alter it) and speak English as you play?

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.

A Disruptive Group in the Classroom

Question: I teach PreK in Georgia and have 4 boys that drive me "crazy"! There are some diagnosed learning disabilities, but my main problem is that they tend to feed off each other and before you know it I have two classes - the 16 that are listening and performing and the 4 that are having a free for all. I've tried separation, (only works for a few minutes) time outs (only works if they are ALL in time out in separate areas), and talking to them about making good choices and not copying someone who is not, but nothing seems to work.  I feel badly for them because they are not progressing well with our curriculum and also for the rest of the class because the assistant teacher and I are so frustrated that I don't believe I'm giving them the proper attention.  Any suggestions to a very complex and difficult situation? Oh, 3 of the 4 are also second language learners, but all different languages!

Polly Greenberg: You worry because you may not be giving your four difficult little boys proper attention. Of course the definition of “proper attention” differs from child to child. You mention that the others “listen,” “perform,” and “progress with the curriculum.” It doesn’t seem that the attention these four guys need from you relates to sitting, listening, performing, and progressing with a set curriculum. So what do they need?

No teacher wants a free for all and to be driven crazy, but I would guess that if you change your goals and program for this quartet, there will be less chaos and no crazy grown-ups. 

1. Whether because they’re immature for age four, live in crowded or cramped conditions, have been medically diagnosed as hyperactive (a grossly over-used term), or are simply high energy live wires—probably one or two of these explanations fits one of the children, and another fits another—they clearly need lots of space, actually and emotionally.

If it were my class, I’d ask the assistant to spend a generous hour every day with the boys outside, in the gym, or in the rainy day exercise room, whatever your school has, so they could enjoy running, rough and tumble play, climbing, leaping, and all the other gross muscle (and  noisy) activities young boys usually love. (This in addition to outdoor time the whole class has.) I  would emphasize that this is good for them, that it’s an important part of school for them. If  yours is an all day program, I would repeat this in the afternoon. After all, until recently, most children of this age were at home in large yards, on the farm, at the park, or on city streets moving freely (and shouting loudly).   

2. On and off during the day, I would ask my assistant to supervise activities the other children are engaged in and, in a secluded spot, I would spend ten minutes reading a simple, engrossing story to one of the bouncy boys at a time, repeating a few key words each time, as learning to like books and learning English are both important. The three not being read to could be paired with calm, mature children and the partners could be assigned to separate, interesting learning centers.

3. I would recruit a volunteer to work daily, in an out-of-the-way spot, on English as a second language with each of the children who don’t speak much English. Consult an ESL teacher about appropriate lessons for four-year-olds. You might need three volunteers. Surely someone speaks their languages!

Try these actions, which should help significantly. Then we can talk about other things you may want to try.

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.

A Four-Year-Old Who Acts Like a Two-Year-Old

Question: We have a 4-year-old child in our preschool who has been with us for four months.  He acts like a 2 year old.  When he doesn't get his way, he gets hysterical.  He jumps up and down screaming. He has great difficulty focusing on any project, and keeps the class in a constant state of uproar. The teacher has been consistent, trying to get him to use his words.  She has given him words to use, but we seem to make no progress.  What should we do?

Polly Greenberg: Do you have a school counselor, psychologist, psychiatric social worker, or child psychiatrist? Or a short list of available specialists of this sort? Probably an assessment by such a professional is in order.
You may want to start by meeting with the child’s parent(s). You can explain that you always like to meet with parents to share your observations about their child and learn what they’ve noticed at home. Point out that you’re a team and the more you share, the more you all can help the child develop optimally.  After making the parents comfortable and talking about neutral matters pertaining to the little boy, describe the behavior that concerns you and ask the parents if they’ve seen this at home.

If they seem surprised or defensive and claim never to have seen anything out of the way with their son, agree with them that all of these behaviors are normal in a young child, but that their frequency and severity concerns you. Let them know that in your experience, this child’s lack of focus, inability to tolerate frustration, and regular hysterical rages are unusual. If, on the other hand, the child’s parents get upset because this behavior is all too familiar to them, be soothing. Either way, tell them you think it’s always important to consult whatever kind of specialist might be helpful in a given situation, whether it’s an orthopedist or a psychiatrist, because part of your job when working with young children is to try to see that possible future problems are nipped in the bud, and because you yourself would appreciate expert guidance.

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.

Can Classmates Be Too Strongly Attached?

Question: I teach kindergarten, and a new girl recently joined our classroom.  She has developed a very strong attachment to a boy who is also in my class. Today they were holding hands and hugging. I know that I need to intervene, but I am a new teacher, and I am unsure of how to address this issue properly. Can you advise me, please?

Polly Greenberg: It is important for you to intervene if the boy is upset by the new girl’s enthusiastic friendship or if the child’s frequent intense interaction is interfering when you’re trying to read a story, present a brief lesson, or have a discussion with the group. I’d use the situation as a discussion topic, without naming anyone in particular. I’d begin by talking with the children (back and forth, not a lecture) about how good it feels to have friends. You might ask the children to name some things friends do together, how you know when someone is your friend, things like that.

Someone will surely say that friends hug, hold hands, and so on. Here’s your opportunity! You can happily agree, then point out that there are some times when we’re busy; these aren’t good times for hugging and hand holding. Encourage the children to figure out what such occasions might be – rest time, lunch time, group time, etc.

If, after this conversation, the girl and boy display their affection for each other during activities from which you don’t want other children distracted, take the two aside and remind them of what was discussed. “This isn’t a hugging time. You can give him/her a hug after we (do whatever).” End with, “It’s great that you two like each other so much.” Also, sometimes pair each of them with other partners so they — especially the new girl — can make different friends. Who knows, maybe she’s using this fellow as a “security blanket” as she enters your new world and will soon branch out.

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.

Helping a Child Who Misses His Father

Question: I have a 4-year-old boy in my class who is being raised by his mom. The little boy sometimes misses his dad, and he talks about him sometimes with great sadness.  I’ve spoken to the mother and she says the child hasn't seen his dad in two years.  What can I do to support this child when the topic of his dad comes up?

Polly Greenberg: No child wants to feel different. It’s important for every teacher, regardless of her personal views, to emphasize to all children that families come in many sizes, colors, and shapes. Without speaking to or about any individual child, we can frequently mention this fact and expand upon it whenever appropriate — perhaps when reading a relevant story. I once overheard this marvelous conversation between two four year olds:

        “Where’s your daddy?”
        “I don’t have a daddy.”
        “Everybody has a daddy.”
        “Well, I don’t.”
        “Where is he?” the interrogator continued.
        “Where’s your brother?” asked the annoyed recipient of the daddy question. 
        “I don’t have a brother.”
        “Well, I don’t have a daddy.” End of conversation.

It’s good to develop a comfortable relationship with your children’s parents. When talking with this boy’s mother, you might want to say that sometimes the subject of fathers comes up and her son seems sad. Ask if the mother sees this. Say you want to support her in whatever she says to her child about his dad. Is he in the military? In prison? Does he have problems (substance abuse, mental illness) that prevent him from showing his son love? You can help by making the little guy feel less different. Assure him that he’s a great kid, that there’s nothing wrong with him, but his daddy can’t be with him now because [a simple statement that’s true]. Saying something like, “Everybody has a dad who helped make him, but not everybody lives with his dad or sees him very much. Maybe when you’re older you’ll see more of your dad. I know you’d like that.” Always offer hope, but never promise. Above all, make his days with you happy days.

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.

Should Parents Sneak Out Without Saying Goodbye?

Question: I have a student in my class who still gets upset every time his parent leaves the classroom. Is it very wrong to have the parent sneak off after she says goodbye — since the child won't let his parent leave the room if he realizes she is leaving?

Polly Greenberg: This really is not a good thing for the child’s parents to do or for you to support.

For many reasons, a teacher needs to build trust between each child and herself or himself. A child who’s suspicious and wary of his teacher won’t feel safe, settle in, and learn as effectively as if he trusts his teacher. Learning involves some risk-taking. It’s easy to fail to understand or master something, and suffer the resulting embarrassment. A child isn’t likely to go for it unless he trusts that his teacher always has his best interests at heart and can be counted upon to be there for him. If you were to betray the boy by looking the other way while his mom or dad slips out, you certainly wouldn’t be building trust.

This little boy’s parents most likely want him to trust them, too. Trust between parent and child is fundamental to mental health. Love and self-confidence grow from trust. You say this little guy “won’t let” his mother or father leave the classroom. He doesn’t have the power to prevent them from leaving, so I’m guessing that you mean he sobs, throws a tantrum, sulks and pouts, or in some other way shows distress. Are other children upset about the child’s unhappiness? Often the group takes this sort of thing in stride, but the teacher is troubled by it. This can be because it revives feelings she herself had as a child, or because feeling unable to make a child happy understandably causes her to feel upset.

Do you have an especially empathetic child in your class? He or she can be given the honor of “taking care of” the boy with the separation problem — holding his hand, playing with him, sitting next to him. This can become one of your class jobs, like watering plants or passing cookies, till the child no longer needs the support. Then, everyone is learning to be nurturing, which is not a bad ability to have.

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.

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