A vulnerable moment before starting school

In Los Angeles, a TV reporter interviewed a 4-year-old boy on the way into his first day of pre-school. She asked if he would miss his mom.

The little boy tries to put on his game face and bravely says no.

But the next moment tells the truth:

For many children, preschool is the first experience on their own – away from mom or dad or another trusted caregiver. It’s not just a matter of being separated physically; it’s the idea of having to be independent – navigating the unknown without immediate comfort and support from those who have been at your side every day of your short life.

The first day of preschool doesn’t have to involve tears. The overwhelming feelings behind the tears – smallness, helplessness, even abandonment – are counterproductive. And what 4-year-old has the ability or vocabulary to put such big feelings into words?

Here’s another way to think about it. If you throw a young child into the deep end of the pool, he or she will most likely manage to make it back to the edge. But that’s not a swimming lesson; it’s survival. If the goal is to teach a child to swim, you might carry the youngster into shallower water, providing the chance to get comfortable with – even enjoy – the sensation of floating.

Likewise, you want your child to love going to school and becoming more and more independent; to get excited by mastering new skills and learning and new things.

But before any of that can happen, he or she has to get comfortable being apart from you. That takes time, understanding and patience.

Here are some thoughts on how to prepare your young child for his or her first school experience:

At Hanna Perkins preschool, separation is the first thing we work on. We do it slowly and gently, taking as much time as necessary until your child feels ready to be on his or her own at school. We’ve been doing it this way for more than 60 years and know it provides a lifetime of benefits.

Post script: The little boy’s mother was there to give him an off-camera hug. first day interview


The roles of a parent…

Source: Erna Furman, Helping Young Children Grow

The separation process: Starting preschool

When parents give over the care of their children to a pre-school, day-care center or kindergarten teacher, no matter how attractive the facility, it is an emotionally difficult time for all. 

Parents tend to stifle these feelings with bravado, telling their child, “There will be a lot of other children for you to play with;” “Look at all the toys and things to do;” “Your teacher will help you learn all sorts of new things.” But when the reality of the parents’ leaving comes, this encouragement usually cannot make up for the abandonment the child feels.

Out of sight, out of mind?

The personnel of some schools and centers believe that the best way to handle this difficult time for the child is to encourage her to “forget” Mommy and Daddy while there. They may try to divert the child’s missing feelings with activities and materials.

Children asked to “sit on” these feelings often react in a variety of negative or debilitating ways.

In more forward-looking schools, the teachers and caregivers know that asking young children to give up thinking about Mommy and Daddy is like asking them to give up a piece of themselves.

They help a child find ways to keep those closest to her consciously in mind to serve as a source of strength and comfort even when they are not with her.

Providing reinforcements

Take a picture of you (parent or parents) with your child for her to keep in her backpack or cubby at school.  During times of stress, the child can use the picture to comfort herself and to remind her that Mommy and Daddy are missing her, too.

Along with the picture could be a short note (perhaps a new one every few days) telling the child that Mommy and Daddy are thinking of her. They will be so proud when they hear about all of the things she did while at school/the center that day. Teachers can very effectively use these notes when the child’s missing feelings cause her to be disinterested in an activity or prevent her from finishing one.

For the very young child, personal items belonging to the parents may be even better than a picture. These can stand in for the parents’ physical presence and remind her of their love. Just knowing that Mom’s or Dad’s handkerchief, old billfold, scarf, old piece of jewelry, etc., is in her backpack, coat pocket or cubby to be checked on or touched occasionally (not played with) can be a tangible comfort. Infants and toddlers often prefer Mom’s unwashed T-shirt because the scent is a more intimate, direct reminder of her.

In the early days of the child’s entering a new program, a beloved security blanket or stuffed toy can help her feel less abandoned and alone.

Some parents write out a list of tasks they perform during their day whether at a workplace or at home. If the teacher notices the child’s attention, interest or self-control is waning, the schedule can be referred to so that the child can picture her parents doing their work as she does hers.

Short visits and/or phone calls

Short planned visits by one or both parents to the school during the early “settling-in” time may be very helpful. It could be that the visit would be to have lunch with the child, or to do one or two activities with her.

Having lunch, doing a puzzle, building a Lego or block construction together puts Mom’s or Dad’s “seal-of-approval” on their child’s new world. It will also provide a feeling memory of togetherness the next time the child engages in these activities without Mom or Dad.

If the early separation time is particularly difficult for a child, or if she is experiencing more stress from things going on in her home life, a planned phone call can help with anxious feelings. This should be talked over and planned with the teacher ahead of time. Initially, the sound of a parent’s voice on the phone may cause tears. This is all part of the process of being able to separate in spite of having huge feelings of being left.

In his writings,  Dr. Robert Furman, former director of the Hanna Perkins Center, identified these feelings as caused by:

  • Anxiety: “Will I be safe?”
  • Sadness: “I’ll miss you.”
  • Anger: “How could you leave me to do something without me?” 

With supportive help and reassurances from parents and teachers, the child will come to realize that she can manage these overwhelming feelings and not let them get in the way (and not let them get so big). When she no longer needs reinforcements of visits or phone calls, her mastery of her anxious feelings can be a source of pride for her – a sign of becoming a “big girl.”

Discussing the day

When parents talk over the child’s day when they are reunited, they can make a plan for what the child can do the next day when she feels lonely, angry, sad or frustrated. They can preface the plan by saying, “If that happens again…,” or “If you feel that way again…” – and end it by saying “…then you’ll be able to do it for yourself.”

This is encouraging the “growing-up” side of the child – giving her a method, by using thoughts of Mom’s and Dad’s words for support, to feel less helpless, to take charge of herself and move on. If the caregiver or teacher is aware of this plan, he or she can use it to advantage, reminding the child: “What would Mom or Dad say or do when such-and-such happens?”

When the child feels that her parents and her teacher are partners on her behalf, and that her parents like and respect the teacher, it paves the way for the teacher to become someone who helps her learn new things. The child will be better able to enjoy learning and develop new friendships when allowed to feel that thinking about her parents is OK and restorative.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Behavior is how young children communicate

tantrum_imagerymajestic_freedigitalphotosWhen young children misbehave, it’s not because they want to act badly; it’s because they’re having a strong feeling of some kind, and don’t yet have the skill or vocabulary to express it in words.

In that context, rather than discipline or punishment, a helpful adult will work with the child to understand the feeling and find a better way to deal with it.

Here’s an excerpt from a webcast of Hanna Perkins Therapist Deborah Paris, LISW, BCD, on the important concept of behavior as a form of communication – and the important developmental step of learning to give words to feelings.

Image courtesy of Imagerymajestic/Freedigitalphotos.net

Talking with children about disabilities

wheelchair sign_artur84_freedigitalphotosSidewalks are now made without curbs at the corners and laws prohibit putting up new buildings that are not accessible to everyone. We are now aware of the extra large stalls in bathrooms and parking for people with disabilities in every mall.

We take these improvements in our way of life for granted now. We assume that our toddlers and preschoolers also take these changes for granted and don’t notice the person in the wheelchair or leaning on a walker. That is, until our very curious 4-year-old blurts out, “What’s the matter with him?”

What do we do or say at that moment?

How is the child feeling?

During the preschool years, children’s bodies are changing rapidly and it’s the time when they become fully aware of them and what they can or cannot do. It’s also a time when they imagine that almost everything in their lives seems to happen because of something they’ve said or done or even thought.

The early years are the time when children are putting together ideas about their world and about themselves. They ask, “How am I the same as other people and how am I different?” “What control do I have or not have over what happens to me?”

Many differences are common in the child’s world- such as size, sex, voices, skin color and clothing – that parents take for granted. Meanwhile children are meticulously watching and gathering clues from Mommy and Daddy about what is safe to talk about or even approach.

When differences are not so common it’s not only our little preschooler who begins to “notice” and worry, but the adults as well. When the man with Cerebral Palsy shops at the local grocery store our three-year-old notices. She notices differences and worries about catching what he has. She also gets a clue from Mommy who is deliberately not noticing and continues to shop.

Furthermore, the question she has asked receives a quiet “no” nod or Mom whispers “Shhhh. That’s not nice to ask.” Now this little girl’s anxiety doubles, for suddenly her question is unacceptable and mommy’s message suggests, “This really is not safe to talk about!”

The question she might have asked was whether she would lose her ability to walk should she happen to brush by the man or whether she could catch what he has. She needs to be reassured that it’s all right to ask questions and to be given simple, clear answers.

What do we do?

We know our 4-year-old’s question has been over-heard and we are embarrassed. We certainly don’t want to hurt the man’s feelings and our mind races over a thousand answers. We often settle for silencing more questions and escaping into the next aisle. Often we settle it by telling our child that asking questions like that hurts the man’s feelings.

How do we feel? What do we know?

We’ve said that our preschoolers take cues from our behaviors. Many of us have not had significant experiences with people with disabilities and really don’t know what to say. We feel sorry for the mother pushing a developmentally delayed 5-year old in a stroller and we busy ourselves with shopping or pointing out the colors on the cereal box.

We haven’t talked with anyone with Cerebral Palsy at length so don’t really have the words to describe this to our children. Often, the last thing the mother with the curious little 3 year old would think about is the message her own anxiety gives to her daughter. The last thing any of us would want is to give the message that someone with a disability is to be feared and avoided.

What can we say?

We want our little girl to be respectful and not hurt people’s feelings. We don’t want her to be frightened by people with disabilities but we really don’t know when or how to answer her questions.

Perhaps it helps to think first about the person with the disability. Nothing she says will be new to the person living with Cerebral Palsy or with a large facial birthmark.

We can also predict what our curious child might be thinking and the questions that might be asked before the situation occurs. “I notice you are looking very hard at the woman with the mark on her face. Does that worry you? Sometimes people are born with birthmarks. It is not anything you can catch. We can talk about it in the car after shopping.”

The important thing is to convey to our child that her concerns and the questions that follow are OK. If we haven’t anticipated the on-the-spot loud questioning, a simple answer can be provided. “I don’t know exactly why he is in a wheelchair but I know wheelchairs are the way people can get around when they have trouble walking or can’t walk.”

Sometimes, if you are comfortable with disabilities, you could even engage the person with the disability, “Perhaps this man can answer your questions about his wheelchair.” You might also offer to get something off a top shelf for him.

What is the message?

The important thing is our own attitude and awareness of the message we convey. We do not want to hurt people’s feelings.

Letting our child know this and that her questions can be answered later is very important. The reason that woman is, “so fat, so old, so bent over” is not something you want to discuss within hearing of the individual, but it can be answered simply when you are in another place: “Some people have a hard time when they are very fat. I think it hurts their feelings to hear people talk about it and we don’t want to do that. You can always ask me your questions later.”

Knowing when to answer the child’s question within hearing of the person with the disability and when to briefly defer the questioning is a hard call. We will be able to determine this better when we become aware of both our and our child’s understandings and reactions. Everyone understands things differently; we do, our children do – as does the person with a disability.

Image courtesy of Artur84/Freedigitalphotos.net

What ‘child development’ means to those who study it

An excerpt from one of our previous webcasts of Hanna Perkins Therapist Deborah Paris, LISW, BCD, on what the experts mean when they talk about “child development.”

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/Freedigitalphotos.net

Handling separation when young children first go to school

An excerpt from one of our previous webcasts of Hanna Perkins Therapist Deborah Paris, LISW, BCD, discussing the separation difficulty that most young children experience when they begin programs that require separation from parents and/or caregivers.

Here’s an additional article on the subject.


Your vacation and their daycare

Following the last vacation season – spring break – I heard from several parents about their young children’s disruptive behavior at home.

They were puzzled by this, as they had maintained their children’s daycare schedule even though they took time off from work. They had made this decision because they needed time to “recharge their batteries.”

But children need time away from the daily grind too.

Parents also indicated that they didn’t want to disrupt their children’s schedule. They assured me that their children didn’t mind or even know that they were at home. In truth, children are very perceptive. And yes, they may be quite attached to their care providers at daycare, and they might miss playing with classmates. But nothing is as important as spending time with their parents.

As for the disruptive behavior, I suspect it was a communication — a child’s way of letting parents know of his/her sad and mad feelings.

I know that being a working parent is taxing. But I would urge you to keep your children with you when you have several days off.

Remember, the time is coming when children will be much more focused on their peers and not so needy of your attention. And when turbulent adolescence arrives, you will be very glad to have established a strong bond with your son or daughter.

More Parenting Tips available at www.westpsychotherapy.com.

Image courtesy of Imagery Majestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net


A formula for a perfect kids’ summer

Warm, sunny days! Aren’t they great after having been cooped up all winter? Everyone is so ready for fresh air and freedom.

And freedom is what we grandmothers wish for your young children during spring and summer.

Yes, we know we must be concerned for their safety and we understand that the work week continues for most parents. But please, we implore you, try to provide some sense of freedom and independence for them this summer.

Take advantage of this time – when some routines change and nature beckons – to make this all-too-short season a time of growth and happiness.

The rules

At the start of the outdoor play season, think about the ground rules that are appropriate for your children now; they can do so much more than they did last year. Decide how to set the limits that will allow a young child to realize how much he has grown, how competent he is becoming.

Figure out the boundaries that will allow you to be comfortable without having to be constantly on guard. “You can ride your trike as far as Mrs. Smith’s house, then turn around and come back.” How exciting is that for the 3-year-old who couldn’t even ride the trike last year?

And for the 5-year-old: “You can walk around the block to your friend’s house; just call me when you get there.” She will feel as adventurous as if she had gone to the moon.

Even the toddler will feel like a big boy when you get him out of the stroller and give him a paper bag to fill with his discoveries as you walk slowly to the vacant lot down the street.

Using the things he picks up to make a collage, or sorting them into an egg carton when you return home, extends the sense of discovery even further.

The freedom

When you go to the playground, don’t stop your children from challenging themselves in new ways. Children need to try new and harder things – climbing higher, jumping further, pumping their legs to make the swing go without Mommy or Daddy always pushing them.

If at all possible, provide a safe, enclosed place in your yard where your children can play without your constant supervision. Sure, you’ll check on them from time to time, but the main idea is to let them make up their own activities and allow lots of time for their play.

Ideally, this is a place where they can make a mess with water, dirt, sand and weeds to mix into a mud pie.

Ideally, there is some place where they can pretend they are in a hideaway or fort or ship. Use your own imagination to provide the basics, but allow plenty of leeway for them to use their imaginations—you won’t believe what they come up with.

Anything with water: Help Daddy wash the car, run through the sprinkler, “paint” the side of the house or a wall with a bucket of water and a real paint brush. And how about bubbles? They can provide hours of experimentation using kitchen utensils. Visit Bubblesphere to find a recipe for the best bubble mixture and for ideas of items to use to make different kinds.

The props

Anything you can do to help your children experience nature will help them grow in appreciation of our wonderful world.

Planting a garden, putting up a bird feeder, walking in the woods at a nature center, feeding the ducks at a duck pond, or going to a spot where they can see and experience our Great Lake: these are all experiences that will enrich them now and throughout their lives.

One last thing: try to remember what made summers wonderful for you when you were little. Maybe you can’t remember back to toddler and preschool age, but go back as far as you can.

When you recall the whole family riding bikes together to get ice cream on long summer evenings; when you experience again the thrill of climbing what you thought was a huge tree; when you remember how you and your best friend spent hours under the back porch making pretend meals in battered old pots and pans, you’ll realize what opportunities you should provide for your children so their summer will be one of pleasure, discovery and satisfying growth.

Image courtesy of Chris Roll/FreeDigitalPhotos.net






Free Replay: Early intervention to prevent bullying

Mrs. Wilson's class 003Our live webcast, It’s Never Too Early: Intervention For Tomorrow’s Bullies Today, provided insights on:

  • Why  bullying occurs;
  • How ordinary behaviors in preschool-age children can evolve over time into bullying;
  • How to identify these behaviors and provide gentle, effective intervention.

It also discussed a unique early-learning curriculum to help children learn to express emotions in ways that build self-esteem without being hurtful to others.

You can view the recorded webcast anytime as often as you want. It’s free with registration. To begin viewing, click the webcast window. A registration form will appear shortly after the webcast begins to play.

The webcast was hosted by Hanna Perkins with support from GlobalCast MD. It was held on May 14, 2015.