THE TEACHER'S STORY
WE WERE ALL GATHERED ON the rug. Emily was showing us a new stuffed animal she had gotten for her birthday. As soon as meeting time was over, Emily scampered off to the fresh clay I had set out on a nearby table. Some of the others joined her, and some moved on to free play activities scattered about the room. I smiled, enjoying the children's comfort with our classroom routine. Just then I spotted James. He was standing by his cubby with one boot on and one boot off. He looked so forlorn. I strolled toward him, and was met with a torrent of tears. "Oh, dear, it can't be that bad, James. Let's sit over here and you can tell me all about it." Without waiting he blurted out, "I'll never have another toy. My dad has no more job and we have no more money."
Quite a few local families have been hurt by the layoffs in the aerodynamics plant, but James's dad was the first one whose misfortune I'd learned about this way. I felt bad for them. But the news did help to explain some changes in the 6-year-old's behavior. Lately, James's mood has been erratic. Sometimes he's quiet like this and barely able to get himself going; at other times, he just keeps running around and it's hard to help him settle down. With an arm around James, I assured him that things would work out; but he didn't seem particularly relieved. I've thought of talking with his parents about the change in James's behavior, but I'm not sure that would be a good idea. I rarely see his mom lately, and I suppose it wouldn't be good to upset his dad at a time like this. But what else can I do to help James?
THE PARENT'S STORY
IT WAS A REAL SHOCK TO get laid off after so many years at the plant. I know I've been kind of irritable ever since I got the pink slip, and pounding the pavement for weeks hasn't turned up any solid job prospects either. It's discouraging, and I think it's beginning to get to the kids, especially James. He asks a lot of questions like, "When are you going to work again, Daddy?" He got really upset when I told him that we don't have money for extra things like fast food dinners or new toys. My wife would have known how to handle this, but the other problem is that she isn't home during the day now. She had been working at the public library mornings, but when I got laid off, she started to work full time. Her check is important to us now that my unemployment insurance is running out. But she is so tired when she gets home, and she feels kind of guilty for being away all day, so it's hard for her to say "no" to James. When he's running around out of control or whiney, she lets it go on. I really hate this whole situation and what it's doing to my family. I've thought of speaking to the teacher about James's mood swings when I pick him up some time, but it's not easy to admit to her that I'm jobless.
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
The loss of a primary breadwinner's job is stressful for the whole family, so James's reaction is not at all surprising. In fact, children even younger than James sense the tension in the air at times like this. James is old enough to wonder how the family will get along that's one reason that hearing there is no money for toys was alarming to him. His dad's understandable preoccupation with the loss of the job and his mom's new weariness at the end of a long day away add to the strain on the 6-year-old. No wonder he has been unsettled and moody since all this started.
What the Teacher Can Do
As the teacher has sensed, James needs a good deal of individual attention and reassurance right now. She might try giving James some special tasks. If he is line leader or assists the teacher in any number of ways, he might begin to feel more a part of things in school. Then too, he can use a good deal of praise for all his efforts, even if they aren't up to what they once were. Finally, the teacher should follow her instinct to call the parents. There is no reason to hesitate to talk with James's dad if he is the one who is most available. He and the family need support from community agencies, family, friends, and the school. The teacher and her principal can help guide them in the right direction. And if James's dad has a hobby or skill that might interest kindergartners, invite him to visit and demonstrate it. The admiration of his classmates is almost certain to lift James's spirits.
What the Parent Can Do
If there are extended family members around, this is the time to turn to them-not necessarily for financial help, but certainly to rally around the family. Having fun with loving grandparents and aunts and uncles would also be wonderful for James. And it's a fine idea to speak with the teacher about James's reaction to the crisis. The parent is certainly entitled to career counseling and whatever emotional support he and his wife would accept. Once they feel less helpless, James will be on his way to becoming his old self again.