"LET GO, I HAD IT FIRST!" Tony shouted. He was tugging at a puzzle that Brian was holding. "No, you didn't," Brian countered, while the three other children at their table started to look worried. Seconds later, Tony lunged at Brian, knocking him over along with the puzzle. By the time I got there, Brian was crying and clutching his side. All other activities had come to a halt, and everyone was focused on these two 5-year-olds. "All right," I said, signaling the other children to return to whatever they had been doing. I left the class with our teacher's aide, put an arm around Brian, and walked him to the nurse. Once I was reassured that Brian was okay, my thoughts turned to Tony. Until a few weeks ago he had never been the least bit disruptive. He was a friendly, cooperative, and delightful child, really enthusiastic about school. That's why I'm astonished by his recent behavior. There's no telling what he might do next.
By the time Brian and I returned to the classroom, I had decided to have a talk with Tony. Maybe it was unrealistic, but I thought if I could get an idea of what's been bothering him, I could help him become his old self. I began to lose hope when I asked what was troubling him. Tony sneered at me, "I hate it here in your school." I was disappointed, but it occurred to me that Tony might be angry about having to leave here very soon. As a matter of fact, I think the change in his behavior began when we started talking about going to kindergarten in a new school next fall. Could the explanation for his bewildering behavior be that simple?
THE PARENT'S STORY
LATELY, MY SON TONY has been in the worst possible mood when he comes home from school. Sometimes he slams the door or kicks it shut, and he has even started to refuse his favorite after-school snacks. "Why are you looking so glum, chum?" I asked him this afternoon when he came home with another sad expression on his face. When he didn't respond to that question, I tried another.
"How was school today?" Even as I uttered the words, I knew I'd made a mistake. "I hate school," Tony hissed. Then he made a beeline for his room, leaving me wondering what in the world to do next. I played it safe and just sat there, thinking about my son.
Tony had always been such a cheerful child who adored school. I can't understand why he is so grouchy when he comes home these days. At first, I thought he was coming down with a cold or something. But he's shown no other signs of being sick, and his moods generally get better by suppertime. He's pretty good on weekends, too, so I think the problem must have something to do with school. I certainly hope that he isn't acting this grumpy there. If he is, then his teacher, Ms. Pearson, will be relieved to see him move on. They've been so fond of each other all year long that I was expecting a painful parting, but that does not seem likely now. On the other hand, I've wondered if Tony could be sad about school ending. I'm hoping Ms. Pearson can help me figure this out.
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
Both the teacher and parent have sensed Tony's sadness about the end of school. He's been so happy and comfortable in the program that it's difficult for him to accept the idea of moving on. And his reaction is not at all uncommon for young children. In fact, even high school seniors who are heading for college may prepare themselves for parting by acting up. They find it easier to contemplate separating if they and the ones they'll leave behind are angry with each other. Then, instead of a painful "farewell," they can comfortably say, "I'm glad I'm leaving."
What the Teacher Can Do
This situation calls for a good dose of patience. 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 just the opposite when he says he hates school. Of course, she must set limits on any behavior that could be disruptive or dangerous. But that should be counterbalanced with extra time alone with her. Tony can be encouraged to express his true feelings through other means such as dramatic play or painting. And when it seems appropriate, the teacher can let him know that she understands how upsetting it is to think about not returning to preschool in the fall. She should let him know that she'll miss him, too, but they probably will see each other in town or if he stops by to see his younger sister who is coming in to the program.
What the Parent Can Do
The parent is also advised to ride this situation out, as it is only temporary. There is no cause for feeling embarrassed or getting upset with Tony or anyone else, for that matter. 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 from school and the neighborhood will be going to the kindergarten with him in the fall. And of course, they should arrange to visit the new school and Tony's new teacher as soon as possible. While the parents should encourage him to express his feelings about leaving school through play or conversation, it's also a good idea to mention some fun things that are planned for the summer. Doing that would also remind Tony that while his school and teacher will be different, his loving family will remain the same.