Ask A Psychologist
New Advice from Dr. Brodkin
One of my kindergartners completely and totally unravels at pickup time. He cries, yells at his mother, and throws his book bag. How can I help?
A: Certain young children react this way to the strain of following a new school routine, a challenging set of rules, or high expectations for behavior control. Others may cry when dropped off, clinging to a parent or complaining of not feeling well each morning. Still others act out at the end of the school day in the ways you describe. Some will even protest by refusing to look at or go home with the parent who has come to pick them up. This youngster you describe is in the latter group—angry at his mom for putting him through the frustrating experience of having to be “good,” as someone new defines that term, five days every week.
The parent is no doubt frustrated and embarrassed by her son’s behavior. Why not have a private chat with her at some time when the child is not around? Reassure her that her boy’s anger is not so unusual. Talk about the huge change in his life: separating from his parents for the entire day, giving up the freedom to play as he wishes at home, and having to submit to arbitrary-seeming rules in school. Even if he had spent time in a preschool program with similar hours and rules, he’s now at a new level of expectations that may feel overwhelming. Despite all the current focus on early academics, kindergarten is actually the appropriate time to make the social-emotional adjustment to “real” school. Calmly working together, you and his parents can gradually guide this child in that direction.
Q: I have noticed that one of my fourth graders has a habit of telling elaborate tall tales. I don’t want to hamper her creativity, but it’s only the beginning of school and her behavior is already starting to affect her relationships with other students. What can I do?
A: This situation calls for some careful detective work. I say “careful” because you don’t want to seem to be invading the child’s privacy. However, fourth graders are expected to know the difference between fact and fiction. Why does she confuse the two? Does she fear that she will get lost in the crowd unless she makes up stories about, let’s say, exotic trips, remarkable possessions, and the like? Her tales must be really preposterous or the other children wouldn’t be “wise to her” this early in the school year.
You can begin with a general question or two to her previous teachers. Keep the queries open-ended: “Please tell me how ‘Jane Smith’ did last year. Did she make friends easily?” You might learn that this little girl has been trying to win friends with whoppers for a long time. On the other hand, this could be new and uncharacteristic behavior, calling for a closer look. Before inviting the parents for a chat, consult your principal, who may know of changes in the child’s life: a divorce, a job loss, even foreclosure on a home. If she’s telling stories that exaggerate her self-importance, it could suggest a loss of solid ground under her feet.
Discovering the cause may be easier than intervening to change her behavior. I suggest that you befriend the girl, and once you feel she knows you care about her, you can risk suggesting that she doesn’t need to tell stories to win friends—she is fun to be around if she is her real self.