THE TEACHER'S STORY
All our 3-year-olds, except Annabelle, were bundled up and eagerly waiting to go outdoors. "Why do we have to go now?" Annabelle protested. "I'm not finished with my 'projet.' It needs more red and some white." With our teacher aid's help, Annabelle got ready to join us. Once on the playground, she had a marvelous time, leading a group from the jungle gym on a "parade," then riding tricycles with friends. And she found a worm! She was having so much fun she didn't want to leave when it was time to come back in. As usual, Annabelle was the last one coaxed back inside for snack. And so it goes. Every day, at every transition, Annabelle resists moving to a new activity - even ones she loves.
At first, I thought this was her way of adapting to a new environment. After all, it's her first year in school. And many young children feel safest sticking to something familiar when they're not entirely settled in. I have given Annabelle extra time and early signals so that she has time to prepare for any transitions. But that hasn't seemed to help. Interestingly though, Annabelle has never cried or had a tantrum. Instead, she verbally expresses her resistance in a very strong, determined way.
Most of the time she is at ease, charming, playful, and engaged with others. So maybe it's not about being in unfamiliar surroundings. I wonder if she's like this at home. If so, I'd love to know how her parents handle these situations. Since Annabelle has done so well in all other ways, I haven't brought the matter up with them. But now I think her parents and I need to compare notes.
THE PARENTS' STORY
We adore our Annabelle! She's fun and cheerful most of the time, except when we ask her to stop what she is doing and move onto something else that needs to be done. Getting her going in the morning is almost always an exasperating struggle. No matter how much time I allow, Annabelle would rather play than get dressed and eat breakfast. Once she does begin eating, there's no stopping her. She wants more and then asks for something else.
When we play outside on weekends, she won't come in. And if we're getting ready to take a trip - even to a place she loves, like the zoo or the park - Annabelle does what she can to stall. Getting her into the bath at night is almost as challenging as getting her out. And I'm sure I don't have to tell you how many stories and songs it takes to satisfy her at bedtime!
If I have to work late, she's perfectly content to stay with her babysitter. However, when it's time for the babysitter to leave, she protests and is grumpy again. Since there is a definite structure to the school day, we hoped her trouble with transitions would have eased up by now. Maybe the teacher can offer some tips about how to handle such things at home.
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
Because they involve change, transitions present a degree of challenge to almost everyone. Change can be wonderful, but even joyous events may be a bit unsettling. So it's not surprising that, like Annabelle, many children balk when they feel transitions are arbitrarily imposed on them.
What the Teacher Can Do
The teacher was probably on the right track. Beginning school could have been a mixed blessing for Annabelle. On the one hand, this affable little girl is delighted with the many opportunities for fun. In fact, each activity is difficult to give up (and why give up a sure thing for an uncertain one?). Also, Annabelle is one of many children who likes to feel in charge of her life. You might say, her complaint is that no one asked her whether she wanted to come to school or what she wanted to do when she got there. Needless to say, she's too young to make most such decisions. But there are things that she can safely decide on her own. Having that opportunity could help her feel more like a free agent and less inclined to revolt.
The teacher should continue to give Annabelle early signals about upcoming transitions, but she should try to couch them in the form of choices. "When we finish outdoor play, do you want to be the juice pourer, or would you rather just relax and have your snack?" By all means, the teacher should get together with her parents and plan an approach that will work both in school and at home.
What the Parents Can Do
Annabelle's parents are understandably bewildered by her behavior. All we can say for certain is that any explanation would have to take her temperament into account. Some children are more sensitive to change than others and more determined to take charge of their own lives. Others care less and just go with the flow. There are tradeoffs for both temperament styles.
What matters is that parents know their child. In order to guide Annabelle, it's essential to appreciate her desire to be in charge. Rather than fighting it, the parents should give her every opportunity to make appropriate decisions about what to play, what to wear, and whether to go to the zoo or the park. But make it clear that some things are for Annabelle to decide and others are choices for Mommy or Daddy or another adult to make. She can be given choices within the required activities - a bath or a shower? A rubber duckie or a toy mouse in the tub? In sum, the parents should try to keep Annabelle's life safely predictable, yet flexible enough to allow her a sense of having some control.