0 to 2: "Help! It's Alive!"

by Carla Poole

Nine-month-old Joey is very focused as he carefully puts blocks into the tub. Yet every so often, he peeks up and looks for his teacher. She smiles and says, "I see you putting blocks in the tub!" He chuckles contentedly and continues his explorations. This "touching base," making sure his special person is nearby and available, gives him the confidence to play and explore.

Tune In to Temperament

Sudden noises, movement, or unfamiliar people often frighten babies. Four-month-old Leah likes to be touched very gently. Baby Tommy loves to be tickled, but will cry with alarm if touched abruptly. Tuning in to a baby's preferred way of interacting will help her develop coping skills.

After 12 months of nurturing experiences with familiar teachers and routines, a baby is more prepared and less easily startled. Now she can anticipate a frightening event. She is starting to make connections between events-even though they might not always be accurate. For example, a stuffed animal is placed precariously on the edge of a shelf. Shaniqua, an alert 1-year-old, watches as the toy falls to the floor. She yells for help. All morning long she stays away from the toy. She most likely thinks the animal has come alive. It behaved in a way that she did not expect because it seemed to move all by itself.

Be a Detective

Teachers often become detectives when trying to understand a child's behavior. Why is Shaniqua so afraid? In this case we know what happened. If we didn't, her fear of a cuddly toy might seem unreasonable. Typically, there is a reason behind a child's behavior. Think about what happened just before the behavior started.

Offer Words for Feelings

You can help the toddler cope with fear and organize her thinking by putting her experience into words. "Shaniqua, you look scared. You did not expect the stuffed doggie to fall off the shelf." Then you can explain that the doggie has not changed. This way, she gradually develops a more realistic understanding of how objects function.

Respect Coping Mechanisms

Young toddlers learn through sensory experiences. Abstract concepts such as spatial relationships often take a backseat to what the toddler sees, hears, and touches. The noisy gurgling of water swirling down the drain makes her think, If water can go down the drain, so can I!

Fortunately their imaginative thinking also helps toddlers cope with fears. Just as Shaniqua's imagination brought the stuffed doggie to life, it can also bestow special powers on her favorite blanket to soothe her when she is feeling scared.

Provide Gentle Reassurance

After 18 months or so, toddlers understand the permanence of objects and the fact that people who are out of sight still exist. However, this thinking remains easily influenced by unexpected or unusual events. For example, if a 20-month-old watches you cover a toy with a scarf, she knows that it is still there, even though she can't see it. Yet when a toddler sees you put a mask on your face, she is overwhelmed by the change in how you look and thinks you have been replaced by a frightening being!

Fear is a natural part of life, and toddlers need lots of reassurance. The key is to limit their daily stress levels.

What You Can Do

  • Babies are very sensitive to new people. Approach them quietly and slowly.
  • Prepare for events that might be frightening.

3 to 4: "Don't Go Away!"

Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Each morning, 3-year-old Eli and his 4-year-old brother, Russell, refuse to get out of bed and get dressed. They tell their mom that they do not want to go to their new school. When they finally arrive at the center, Eli drags his feet and whines, "Don't leave me!" However, after his mother is there a short while, he becomes happily involved with his buddy Paco. The director, Mrs. Burkholder, meets Russell at the door. She holds him closely while they pass the school's bunny mascot in the hall. Fearfully, Russell looks back and forth from the bunny to Mrs. Burkholder, pleading, "Don't let him get me!" Once he reaches his classroom, however, he is all smiles.

Lively Imaginations

It is not at all uncommon for preschoolers to have a variety of fears, such as a fear of ghosts or thunder. These worries are frequently heightened by threes' and fours' vivid imaginations, and preschoolers may have difficulty separating appearances from reality. This often causes them to behave in ways that may seem irrational.

Fear of Separation

At times, it can be difficult for parents and teachers to determine why a child is frightened or what they can do to help relieve his fears. For instance, at first glance, it might appear that Eli and Russell are simply afraid to go to school. However, Eli might actually be feeling the pressure to be a "big boy" in this first school experience, and he may be afraid to take the next step-leaving his familiar home environment. Because he clings to Mom upon arrival, but appears contented after a little while, Eli's fear is probably of being separated from his mother.

Reliving Frightening Experiences

On the other hand, Russell may be frightened by something at school based on a prior event in his life. Russell had a scary experience with the big Easter Bunny at the mall. While many adults think costumed characters and mascots are fun for young children, they rank high on the list of frightening things for preschoolers.

Validation and Reassurance

When parents and teachers acknowledge children's frightened feelings and reassure them with their presence — or "protection," as in the case of Russell's teacher — they can help alleviate some of children's fears. By showing warmth and concern, yet encouraging independence in appropriate situations, adults can assist preschoolers in dealing with their anxieties.

Anxiety and New Experiences

Four-year-olds often appear to enjoy showing off, and they love to brag about things they can do, such as riding a trike faster than anybody else. They also like to please their friends and teachers. For example, Vanessa quickly climbs to the top of the enclosed cylinder slide. Suddenly, she begins to cry, clings to the ladder, and refuses to slide down. Although she is afraid of disappointing those watching her and not meeting their expectations, the challenge of trying out this new piece of equipment is equally frightening to her due to her fear of heights and enclosed spaces.

Literal Interpretations

Preschoolers are inclined to take the things adults say quite literally. Therefore, it is important that teachers don't frighten them with untruths or threats, such as: "If you don't eat all the carrots on your plate, all the hair on the tippety top of your head will fall out!" Instead, talk with children about what is happening ("You need to eat vegetables to stay healthy"), and encourage them to brainstorm meaningful responses to problems.

What You Can Do

  • Reassure a child. Talk calmly about fears he may have. Let him know everyone has fears — including you!
  • Listen to explanations. Try to understand the fear from the child's view.

5 to 6: "I Can't Do It!"

by Ellen Booth Church

Lee started to change right before his teacher and parents' eyes. The happy child who entered kindergarten was now complaining of stomachaches, having trouble sleeping, and saying he did not want to go back to school — ever! What changed? The answer: academics! The class was now being asked to do more and more pencil-and-paper work, and Lee didn't feel he was as good as the others were at drawing and writing. Happily, his teacher and parents realized this quickly, helped Lee feel good about what he could do, and made sure that he had plenty of time to express his learning through play.

Managing Changes

One of the big shifts that happen for children in kindergarten is the awareness of the different developmental (and academic) levels among their classmates. This is the stage of life when they start comparing their work with others. Most children in preschool are still so self-focused that they don't worry about what they are doing in comparison to others. But by kindergarten, children are quite aware of who can already read and write and who is still scribbling. Sadly, these comparisons can turn into worries and even fears. It is essential to catch these at this early age, before they become ingrained in a child's self-concept and his feelings about learning at school.

Working With Academic Pressures

As a teacher, you know to watch for the signs of academic worries and fears. Children may lose enthusiasm for school or for particular activities. Some children may become lethargic or the opposite, highly active. Difficulties listening in a group or paying attention can also be related to children's academic anxieties. Interestingly, children who are afraid or embarrassed about making mistakes can be very critical of others. Physical bullying can also be a response to children's fears about not being "good enough" to keep up.

As you well know, the best remedy is a program that provides activity choices that reflect children's interests and abilities. Mix in a good amount of support for differences, balanced with appropriate challenges, and you have a solid kindergarten program that encourages children to appreciate themselves at their own levels.

Feeling Like a "Big Kid"

In contrast, another aspect of a 5- to 6-year-old's development is the child's desire to appear and feel grown-up. Children at this age like to boast about what they can do and will often accept new challenges, and even take risks, when they are feeling comfortable in a setting. Fives and sixes also like to feel they are in charge and to make their own decisions.

A climate that supports these desires and feelings can work as the perfect antidote to academic fears. Involve children in making classroom decisions, reinforce mature behavior, and celebrate appropriate risk taking — even if the results aren't positive. It is important for 5- and 6-year-olds to learn that everyone, including parents and teachers, makes mistakes. Repeatedly demonstrate for children how a mistake can lead to greater learning and success.

Looking for Balance

Remember, fears are a normal part of development. There are appropriate concerns, such as fear of a barking dog or of crossing a busy road. A child's fears become unhealthy when they limit him from leading a happy, normal life at home and at school. It is our job to help children find a balance between healthy and unhealthy fears and to understand the difference between them. It is wise to be careful around a barking dog or busy traffic, but it is not necessary or even helpful to become fearful and frozen. The same can be said for schoolwork. We want children to respect the work they are asked to do without becoming fearful of completing it.

The kindergarten year is filled with new challenges. We can now begin to prepare children to meet those challenges with confidence and creativity. The emotional and academic support you provide now will offer them valuable tools they can use to handle whatever challenges come their way.

What You Can Do:

  • Observe children closely for signs of academic worries and fears.
  • Offer a multidimensional program that provides activity choices reflecting children's interests and abilities. Some children may need to physically, verbally, or artistically express the work that others are doing in paper-and-pencil tasks.