0 to 2 "WHAAAAA!!!" by Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D.

Helping babies feel comfortable and calm is very important to infant/toddler teachers. Babies can sometimes cry or thrash about frantically. What's going on? How can teachers help them feel soothed and relaxed?

States of Being

It's important to remember that infants live each day through a series of "states" or levels of arousal. On a typical day, a baby may move into and out of six different levels of arousal. Every adult has been faced with the dilemma of trying to interpret and soothe the crying state. A little baby is irritably snuffling because it may be hard to settle into sleep. Or, a baby is wracked by loud, yowling sobs, whether from a hungry tummy, too much stimulation, or a gas bubble. Babies differ in the amount of crying they do. Some cry less than 20 percent of the rime. Others cry as much as 40 percent of the rime.

The Sleepy State

The drowsy state often looks somewhat comical. A baby's eyes are half closed. He looks as if he is nodding off and is unable to focus on anyone or anything. A baby with this droopy look signals that he needs some sleep rime. This is not a state where a baby can be attentive to a new storybook or an interesting toy you want her to look at. Some babies do not go into this drowsy state. They simply drop off to sleep.

Deep sleep is the calmest state. Newborns sometimes spend the majority of their rime (16 to 18 hours) each day sleeping. Infants exhibit a more restless state, called REM sleep, often when they are about to wake up. Their limbs twitch, and they move restlessly in the crib. You may even notice rapid eye movements under their closed eyelids. Mysteriously, babies in the first couple of months spend half their sleeping hours in this more restless state of REM sleep.

The Calm/Alert State

When awake, well fed, and well rested, babies are in a calm/alert state. This attentive state is the optimal state for play. Take advantage of this state of alert inactivity to introduce appropriate little games. This state is best for ensuring a playtime that will not overload a baby's developing neurological system. To encourage early vocalizations back and forth, watch for this state. This is the best time to engage in "cooing turns." This is also a good time to shake a rattle and slowly move it across his field of vision to see whether he is able to use his eyes to follow it smoothly.

The Alert/Active State

In the alert/active state, babies' eyes are open, but their breathing is irregular and they may act fussy. They are awake, but move their limbs a lot. This is not a good time for intimate teaching interactions.

Notice how individual babies are. Some may be in the alert attentive state for many hours per day. Another baby is rarely in that state. Your keen observation skills will help you find just the right times for one-on-one playful interactions with babies.


3 to 4 "MY DOGGY NEEDS IT!" by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Four-year-old Joseph plumps up several soft pillows to create a comfy bed for his sick, invisible dog, Grover. He tells his teacher, "When I read Grover a quiet bedtime story, it will make him feel better. Then, I rub his back and sing him the "Hush Little Baby" song. He ate too much doggy salad and his tummy hurts."

It is not at all uncommon for 4-year-olds, like Joseph, to have imaginary or invisible companions. They find it very comforting to have conversations and share their feelings with and about their special friends.

Support Fantasy Play

When the world surrounding most preschoolers seems just too overwhelming, they frequently turn to play and fantasy to feel in control. Although a number of preschoolers take comfort in relating to their invisible companions, others prefer to hold favorite toys to feel calm and soothe themselves during stressful times.

Introduce Rituals

To soothe and calm his sick doggy, Joseph relies on imitating rituals that are comforting to him. This is why it is so important for preschoolers to have special personal rituals to help them comfortably make transitions throughout the day, like blowing goodbye kisses to dad at the window at school in the morning. Many fours still find it a comforting ritual to suck their thumbs or hug a security blanket at naptime.

Provide Calming Activities

Unless they are very tired or hungry, most 3-year-olds are fairly relaxed. However, older, noisier fours sometimes need to be involved in activities designed to calm them down. Symbolic activities, where children are able to create meaningful order and gain control out of disorganization, such as putting a puzzle together or sorting items into categories, can have a calming effect. Some children become calmer as they squeeze and roll clay, pour water into bottles, or listen to quiet music on a headset. Others may relax by getting rid of excess energy or their frustrations through gross motor activities.

Offer Regular Routines

Three-year-olds really appreciate consistency in their school day. For instance, they find it comforting to be able to anticipate that each day snack is served after outdoor playtime. Familiar routines also help young children feel secure about the time they are separated from their parents as they come to understand they can count on daddy picking them up right after storytime. This reinforces object permanence for young children, who still need reassurance during the first few weeks of school that even though they can't see the people they love, like Daddy and Mommy, they will return for them.

Create a Comforting Environment

Jean Piaget explained how preschoolers relate best through concrete, hands-on experiences and the use of their senses. Using some of the cool, restful colors (blue, green, violet) in areas of the classroom where young children are involved in quiet activities helps to induce peacefulness. Using natural lighting, rather than an overabundance of fluorescent lighting, has been shown to have a more calming effect on young children. Uncomfortable exterior noise (loud ventilation, noisy traffic sounds) can be stressful and overstimulating for threes and fours. Preschoolers feel calmer when teachers speak in quiet tones and have opportunities to listen to soothing music.

Design some small areas where young children can retreat and feel calm. Quiet writing alcoves, a cozy bean-bag chair for reading, or a snug "cave" made from a towel and a low table provide for comfortable private areas. Providing a "calm-down corner" where angry or frustrated preschoolers can go to gain control and feel secure is helpful. Offering props and visual boundaries, like trays for fingerpainting, individual carpet squares to sit on during storytime, or "bubble spaces" to dance within during movement activities, provide comfortable personal spaces for children.

Bring in the Familiar

Young children find familiar smells to be very comforting and pleasant. If a preschooler is having a separation problem, her mom might wish to leave a perfumed scarf that "smells like mommy" in her child's cubby as a special item to hold and sniff.

Special comfort foods play a role in calming an upset preschooler. My 4-year-old grandson, Adam, always feels much better while sucking on his favorite tangerine juice pop and being cuddled in my lap.

Enlist the Help of Others

Preschoolers have great faith in an adult's power to "make it all better." By the time they are 4, and not as egocentric, an empathetic good friend or older sibling may be able to soothe an agitated preschooler.


5 to 6 "AM I DOING IT RIGHT?" by Ellen Booth Church

Melissa is starting kindergarten in a new school and a new state. Happily, her new teacher came to her home to visit before school and asked her to share some family pictures. Now on this first day, Melissa smiles as she sees the comforting face of the teacher and finds her cubbie filled with family photos. The beginnings of a sense of belonging are here for her and she is ready to go!

Many 5- and 6-year-olds are at a stage of development where they want everyone to think that they are really "big." But inside, they still have fears of separation when dealing with a new situation. A sense of comfort and calm is essential to helping the 5- and 6-year-old deal with changes. Through observation and developmental knowledge, there are many ways to assist them.

Building Reference Points

We all use the familiar to help us find our way in a new place or to help us feel comfortable in a new setting. How many times have you looked for a friend at a big party? Or have you used the sun to tell you which direction is west when lost in a new town? This is the process of using reference points to help make sense of a new experience.

Five- and 6-year-olds do this too, particularly in a new school setting. They look for the familiar to create a reference point for the new. This is why many kindergarten programs appropriately start the year looking more like a preschool than kindergarten. The incoming children feel much more comfortable when they see the familiar blocks, easel, and dramaticplay centers. Even if they don't know anyone else in the class, they do know what to do with these toys and will often just dive into solo play. From the familiar play center, social interaction can begin.

Setting the Stage

Of course, a reference point is not always a place. It can be a familiar face. Many kindergarten teachers invite children to send in pictures of themselves and their family before school starts. Then they place them in strategic places in the room for children to find on their first day. Home visits are still being offered in many schools as a way of offering a reference point for children. This is an opportunity for children to meet the new teacher before school starts. After making a connection in the comfort of their own home, children feel more connected to the teacher when they go off for the first day of kindergarten.

Touching Base

A particularly interesting developmental behavior of 5- and 6-year-olds is the need to "touch base" with the adult when in a large group setting. At this age, children are perfectly comfortable playing and working with others if they have a trusted adult to check in with. Have you ever had a child who (even during free playtime) keeps coming back to you to be sure he is doing it "right" or to show you what he is doing? This is touching base behavior and it is one way that children build a sense of comfort in school. This behavior is related to the 5- and 6-year-old's need for approval and dependence on authority. Kindergartners are eager to please and thrive on praise. Simple and specific acknowledgments of positive behaviors and "good works" can make 5- and 6-year-olds feel the comfort of support within the structure of the classroom.

Creating Consistency

The kindergarten year is a transitional stage where children both want to know who is "in authority" and have some sense of control over their life choices. It is important to sensitively provide both. A classroom with consistent and predictable structure helps children feel comfortable, safe, and calm. Five- and 6-year-olds are at a stage where they want to know what is expected of them. That doesn't mean that they will always comply, but for the most part, they want to be cooperative and helpful. However, it is also important to provide flexibility within the structure of the day. Offer choices (always ones you can accept) so that the S- or 6-year-old child has some sense of autonomy within your authority.

Playing Dramatically

Why scan the year with a big dramatic-play comer? Because it's through dramatic play that children express their thoughts and feelings. As you well know, kindergartners in the beginning of the year are often better at showing you something than saying it. Children use dramatic play to feel comfortable in a new setting. Watch their play and you will see issues of separation, insecurity, and fear being worked out actively. By me end of the year, they will be able to talk about all this. But as the year begins, give them a large space for dramatic play that allows them to work through issues of adjusting to the "big school."

At the core of anyone's sense of comfort and calm is a strong sense of self. When you provide children with consistent structure, reference and touch points, and dramatic-play situations, you can be sure you're meeting the developmental needs of your new kindergartners.