"Let go!" 5-year-old Tony shouted, tugging at the broom that Brian was clutching. seconds later, Tony lunged at Brian, knocking him and the broom to the floor. When I got there, Brian was crying and holding his side, and all other activities had come to a halt. Putting an arm around Brian, I signaled the other children to return to what they had been doing. In the nurse's office, Brian was reassured that he was fine, and as he and I headed back to the classroom, my thoughts turned to Tony.
What on earth has gotten into him? I asked myself. In all the time he'd been in our program, Tony had always been a most friendly, cooperative, and delightful child. he was so enthusiastic about school. He'd never been the least bit disruptive-until a few weeks ago. Now there's no telling what he might do next.
By the time Brian and I reached the classroom door, I had decided to have a heart-to-heart talk with Tony. I thought if I could get an idea of what's been bothering him, I might be able to help. But when I asked what was troubling him, he shouted, "I hate it here in your school!" Tony sneered and pulled away from me.
His words shocked me at first, but then I had this thought: Maybe Tony was upset about having to leave here soon. Could the explanation for his bewildering behavior be that simple? I made up my mind to talk to his parents about it.
THE PARENT'S STORY
Lately, Tony has been coming home from school in the worst possible moods. Sometimes he slams the door or kicks it shut, and he has even started to turn down my offers to fix him a snack. This afternoon, he got angry at his cat. Fluffy always sidles up to Tony for an after-school greeting, but today Tony clearly was not in the mood to pet her. When I saw him push her away, I asked what was troubling him. he didn't respond to my question, so I tried another: "How was school today?"
"I hate school!" Tony shouted. Then he made a beeline for his room. I just sat there, thinking about my son. He had always been a cheerful child who loved school. Why is he so grouchy now in the afternoons? At first, I thought he was coming down with a cold or maybe chicken pox, but I haven't found a rash on him, and he's usually his old self by supper time. He's pretty good on the weekends, too, so I concluded the problem must have something to do with school. I certainly hope he hasn't been this grumpy there. If he has, Ms. Pearson may be relieved to see him go. They've been so fond of each other that I expected a painful parting, but not this way. On the other hand, I've wondered if Tony might really be upset about school ending.
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
Both the teacher and parent have astutely sensed Tony's sadness about the end of school. He's been so comfortable and happy there that it's difficult for him to accept the idea of moving on. And his reaction is not at all uncommon among young children, who may prepare themselves for parting by acting out. It's easier for them to contemplate separating from the ones they will leave behind if they are all angry at one another.
What the Teacher Can Do
This situation calls for patience and forbearance. If the teacher recognizes the regret Tony feels about leaving, she can overlook many of the things he says.
Ms. Pearson should try to understand that Tony means the opposite when he says he hates school. Of course, she must set limits on disruptive or dangerous behavior, but her firmness needs to be counterbalanced with extra time alone with him. Encouraging Tony to express his true feelings through play or artwork might help. And when it seems appropriate, the teacher might acknowledge her understanding of how upsetting it is to Tony to think about not returning in the fall. She can let him know that she'll miss him, too, and suggest that they plan a special way to say good-bye, perhaps by exchanging pictures. It's important for Tony to understand that they must say good-bye, and that that's hard sometimes. Afterward, the teacher can point out to Tony that they'll probably still see each other in town, or if he stops by with his younger sister Sally, who will be starting school in the fall.
What the Parent Can Do
The parent is also well-advised to ride this situation out, remembering it is only temporary. There is no cause for feeling embarrassed or getting upset with Tony or anyone else.
Tony probably needs to spend some extra time alone with each of his parents right now. When the moment seems right, either parent might remind Tony that many of his friends will be going with him to his new school in the fall. And while the parents should encourage him to express his feelings, through play or conversation, about leaving school, from time to time it's a good idea to mention some of the fun things that are planned for the summer. This will also remind Tony that while his school and teacher will be changing, his loving family will not.