As a baby becomes more charming, a 4-year-old becomes passive at school and at home. What can her teacher and parents do to help?

The Teacher's Story

"Jena is crying, Jena is crying," a chorus of 4-year-olds sang out. "Oh dear," I thought, heading Jena's way. "Someone must have said `You can't play with us' to her again today."

Jena always took such things in stride, until a week or so ago. She was never shy about standing up for herself, but suddenly she's become a pushover who'll do anything the other kids ask. And there's been another surprising change Jena is glued to my side on the playground. She'll have no part of outdoor free play anymore.

I would have expected these kinds of changes in behavior to occur six months ago, when Jena's baby sister was born. Oddly enough, though, Jena was just fine then. She seemed thrilled and spoke proudly of "my new baby Leila." Could this be just a long-delayed reaction she's having now? I can't imagine what else could have caused such a change in Jena.

The Parents Story

Lately our 4-year-old daughter is balking at going to school, and for the first time she refuses to play at anyone else's horse. She'll invite kids home, but she's not the spontaneous chatterbox she once was while entertaining them. I miss her bubbly, full-of-fun self. Her bright smile is so slow to break act now, and I'm worried about the occasion sadness I see in her eyes. It's all a big change - and surprising, too, because Jena did really well when her baby sister, Leila, was born. We saw no signs of the jealousy we were prepared for six months ago.

Could that be what's troubling Jena even now? Our Leila's become quite a little person, laughing out loud, babbling, sitting up, and bouncing in her bouncy seat. Her hair has grown enough for me to sweep it up with a bow, and there's no denying how utterly charming and adorable she is.

Still, you'd think friends and relatives would know better than to make a big fuss over Leila while ignoring Jena. I try to clue people in if I know them well, but it's hard to influence the others' ooohing and ahhhing over Leila, who, by the way, eats it up. She's a real little ham.

But if Leila's growing charm is the culprit, why doe: Jena do everything she can to stay at home? Why isn't she glad to be off having fun with her friends?

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

Delay in a preschooler's response to a new baby is not unusual, since newborns, with their limited repertoire of eating, sleeping, and being changed, are fairly innocuous. But charmers Leila's age and older can smile their way into anyone's heart. No wonder Jena wants to stay home - to guard her turf.

And if she's concluded that babies are more precious to adjust, it's not surprising that she's begun to act babyish in school. That behavior has a social price, thought. For young 4-year-olds, three or more playmates is often a crowd. On any particular day, one of the children is likely (continued on page 30) to be left out - and Jena's passiveness makes her a likely candidate lately.

What the Teacher Can Do

First and foremost, the teacher should have a talk with the parents, who can share their observations of how things are going at home for Jena and the new baby. Once the teacher understands what's troubling the child, it'll be easier to make helpful plans.

In addition, the teacher should seize every opportunity to encourage and praise Jena's efforts and accomplishments in school. Jena needs extra support and implicit reminders about how much better it is to be 4 years old than 6 months old. After all, Leila can't tell a story or ride trikes with a friend. And a baby certainly can't feed the class hamsters or take them home for vacation, as Jena has been selected to do.

There's work to be done with the class as a group too. The teacher should remind them, "We are all friends who help and welcome each other here. We don't say to any of our friends, `You can't play."'

If the teacher is watchful and ready to offer on-the-spot guidance, she can gently encourage Jena to get back in the social swing. "Do you think they might need a customer for that supermarket, Jena?" she could say, loud enough for the other children to get the hint and Jena to get the courage to ask. If things do work out, the teacher should praise everyone involved.

What the Parent Can Do

Both parents should remind Jena often about how loved and valued she is. Mom and Dad might each give Jena her own special time, in addition to the time they spend together as a family. For example, one parent or the other might have Jena help with gardening or maybe even start her own little flower bed or vegetable patch. Jena should have her own bedtime ritual and story-time too. Rather than needing less of her parents than she had before Leila was born, Jena may now need more.

The parents should show they appreciate any help their big girl can give with things around the house carrying towels, pouring water from a pitcher, and other tasks no 6-monthold can do. They should discreetly make extended family members aware that Jena deserves their adoration too. Grandparents might invite her for a day at the circus or the trolley museum.

Gradually, Jena will feel her own place is restored, and she'll come to accept the fact that loved ones and special things must be shared at least some of the time.