THE TEACHER'S STORY
Before I could finish saying, "Let's get ready to go outside," sweaters and jackets were hastily grabbed out of cubbies. The children's eagerness to go was audible:
"I'm gonna make a fort!"
"Jimmy, you and me and Burt can ride bikes."
"I'm going on the swings. Wanna come?"
The happy buzz swelled. We had only recently expanded outdoor playtime with the arrival of spring. Everyone was eager-except Jack. His eyes were brimming with tears. I took the little guy's hand and tried to reassure him by saying: "You and I will stay together, Jack," hoping this would quell his fears.
Jack joined us just a few weeks ago, just in time to celebrate his fourth birthday. He seemed tentative at first, and then rapidly attached himself to me. Now he won't let go. This is the third preschool program he's been in this year. His father is in the military reserves and was recently called up with little warning. The family moved several times in a matter of months, and it's doubtful that this is their last stop. There are times when I think Jack has turned a corner and may even be thriving in our classroom. He's obviously comfortable with our routines and expectations. But when something changes (even something that would be desirable for most children, like having more outdoor play), Jack seems anxious. Also, outdoor play does tend to be exuberant and noisy. The children who were here through the long dark winter are ecstatic about having the freedom to play in the sunshine. The same freedom may be scary for a child like Jack, who probably wonders whether he may be forced to change programs again.
He clutched my hand on the playground today as several children ran by quickly. While the others need this release of pent-up energy, I am worried about Jack, who begs me to stay indoors with him where he evidently feels safer. What should I do?
THE PARENT'S STORY
We know that Jack is unsettled-and why wouldn't he be? My husband's National Guard unit was called up last summer, and since then we've moved three times. I made the choice for us to stay together as a family, knowing that Jack's Dad could be sent to a war zone at any time. Jack was just 3 ½ when this all started, and too young to understand why it was happening. He's had to adapt to three different preschool programs in just seven months. It seems like right when he becomes relaxed and comfortable, another change happens. Our son's once adventurous personality has been replaced by one of worry. He clings to us a lot, and now I hear that he's clinging, to his teacher at school. Fortunately, I've been able to get part-time work everywhere we've moved. I will only work while Jack is in school, since rear-ranging and changing babysitters could make things worse. Also, I can't deny that my husband and I aren't exactly feeling relaxed these days. We don't know what will happen next. Jack isn't the only one being, awakened at night by bad dreams. I've had my share as well. We'll be fine no matter what happens. If my husband is deployed, we can move back to our hometown where we have friends and family. But not knowing what will happen next is very unsettling.
Jack's teacher tells me that Jack is scared to play outdoors. He used to adore it! Now, if he goes out, he insists on taking everything in his cubby. When I ask Jack about playing outside, he says he's scared because so many of the other children are noisy. I couldn't help recalling how upset he was when the last movers carried his toys out to the truck. Our efforts to reassure him haven't been very successful.
DR. BRODKIN'S ASSESSMENT
There isn't any mystery about what's troubling Jack. His parents and teacher completely understand, but don't have much control over the upsetting events that lead to Jack's clinginess. What's more, his mother is wondering if she made the right choice for Jack by following her husband and moving with him for as long as is possible. Keeping the family together has been her guiding light.
What the Teacher Can Do
Dilemmas like this have no easy solution. But if the teacher has an aid, she could consider sending the assistant out to the playground with the group for a while, giving she and Jack a few minutes alone indoors to help bolster his courage. Some of the fears that stand in the way of his enjoying school may be expressed, and then eased, if the teacher assists him in pretend play. She should assure him that nothing is going to happen on the playground to separate them or prevent him from coming back to his things in his cubby. It's fine that Jack has found a protector in his teacher. It's a sign that he hasn't given up. This should be pointed out to Jack's parents, too, to ease his mother's self-questioning.
The teacher might also gently encourage new friendships with one or two of Jack's classmates, at first by playing with two of them together. If friendships do begin to flourish, she could encourage Jack's mother to plan playdates for after school or on the weekends.
What the Parent Can Do
The mother wisely recognizes that her distress about their family's uncertain future may hinder her from reassuring Jack. She might consider first what she can do to help herself. Calling and emailing family and friends should be high on the list. Making new friends without the fear of losing them is just as important for her as it is for Jack. Chatting with a counselor might also be helpful. The parent's getting involved in Jack's school parent-teacher projects could be good for everyone. Above all, Jack's mom should be at ease with her brave decision to keep her family together.