The Teacher's Story

YESTERDAY morning, during free play, I was pleased to hear Armand shout, "Sebastian, You can't be the boss every day! Sometimes we need to do things my way too. I don't like your way. So I don't have to do everything you say." I thought, "Someone is standing up to Sebastian for a change." Amazingly, most of the time, children just comply with Sebastian's orders. It's especially remarkable that the tough demeanor of this small child intimidates them, since the top of Sebastian's curly head barely reaches the tip of their shoulders. What's more, as the gap between his size and that of the other fours' has grown, Sebastian's insistence on being the "boss" has grown with it.

Now, Sebastian's bullying is beginning to backfire. None of the other children wants to be his partner or share a project with him. I always have to intervene here and suggest ways they can all work together. And often this happens with little success. The children are becoming upset with him, and it's turning into quite a problem for the little guy. Sometimes I think that may even be making him more bossy and grouchy. In fact, he is increasingly uncooperative and argumentative with adults. "No, I won't!" is now an all-too-common response to my requests and directions. So I'm afraid his self-consciousness about his size is taking a serious toll on Sebastian's overall progress, and I don't know what to do about it.

SEBASTIAN HAS always been below average in size. He was a small, full-term baby, and remained a little below the fiftieth percentile in height and weight. This wasn't surprising to us, because his dad and I are not big people. No doctor ever expressed concern, since he grew at a nice rate, was a good eater, and performed at least at age level in all tasks. Our Sebastian is adorable and bright, and until lately, we didn't worry about his size. But the other boys his age, in school and in the neighborhood, now seem to be growing faster than he is. And I know that's bothering him. I see him standing on his tiptoes when taller children are around. He's gotten so bossy and tough acting that several kids have turned down his invitations for play dates. Sebastian has been irritable-sometimes even defiant-at home too. I feel so bad for him, but I don't know how to reassure him. I'm convinced that what is behind all this is simply sadness about being small. What can we do about it?

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

Some people assume that children don't become concerned about their size until adolescence. But that frequently is not the case. Feeling small compared to peers, and helpless to do anything about it, can undermine a young child's self-confidence. Sebastian's struggle to feel bigger by acting tough is not surprising. Nevertheless, it is taking its toll on his overall development.

What the Teacher Can Do

The teacher should think about Sebastian's special interests and strengths and work with those. If, for example, she sees that he completes puzzles quickly, she might ask him to demonstrate how he decides which pieces go where. If he is verbally advanced, she could ask him to describe an important experience to the group and then praise his presentation in front of the others. And if he is a great runner or climber, the teacher could call attention to these achievements. Underscoring any of these accomplishments may enhance his stature not only with others but also in his own eyes. He needs gentle reminders about respecting others' ideas, talents, and wishes, and it's especially important to praise him when he does.

What the Parent Can Do

Sebastian would benefit from frequent opportunities for feeling successful outside of school too. Like the teacher, his parents should encourage and reward his accomplishments. Praise him particularly for any thoughtful acts. Special privileges or other rewards should be extended when he shows sensitivity to others' needs, but let him know there are consequences for belligerent behavior. Above all, though, it's important to allow Sebastian safe opportunities to express his feelings, including those about his size. Accept his frank expression of disappointment about being smaller than his peers.

Let Sebastian know that while he is bigger than life in his parents' eyes and always will be, they do understand his frustration. All of these efforts of the teacher and parents could help Sebastian feel BIG without being too tough to make and keep friends.