The Teacher's Story

MOMENTS ago, Paul, a 4-year-old, in my class, had seemed fine, smiling and chatting in the dramatic-- play area. Then I heard someone call, "Paul's crying again," and I turned to see tears streaming down his face. "I wanted to be the pilot" he sobbed.

Paul has been crying a lot lately. He cried when I introduced a new song to the group. The next day he cried at story time because he didn't like the book I had chosen to read. I realized that Paul was crying every time something didn't go exactly his way. And that wasn't like him. He had never before balked at doing something new or different, and he was always eager to try new things and make compromises for friends.

There have been other changes in Paul's behavior that worry me. Lately some children are remarking about his clinging to me, rather than playing with them, but at other times, Paul pulls away from me when I place a caring hand on his shoulder. And if a child accidentally bumps into him, he's in tears. I wish I could understand what's going on.

The Parent's Story

I HAVE been worried about my son, Paul. He's been acting sad and irritable lately. Just yesterday, when we went to my niece's birthday party, he cried because he didn't get a piece of cake with a clown face on it. He never would have done that before. Now he cries if he can't put a puzzle together easily or if his baby sister touches his toys. And at lunch today, he burst into tears after spilling some milk. It's not easy to console him either. When I ask him why he's crying he says, "I don't know. The tears won't stop!"

I'm afraid that this change in my little boy's mood may be due to the change in my schedule. I have had to travel a lot for work lately. Unfortunately, there is no regularity about this new schedule. One week I am away for a day, and the next, I might be gone for much longer. I try to remind myself that Paul loves his babysitter and the feeling is mutual. What's more, he has his father here with him in the evenings, but he cries for me on the nights that I'm away. My husband doesn't know how to calm him down. He said that Paul has even cried about going to school, and he has always loved school. I certainly wouldn't want his delight with school to change. I know I should talk with the teacher, but there has been so little time. I save whatever time I have to be with my children. I can't bear to see Paul unhappy, though, and I don't know what to say or do to help him feel better.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

The parent's hunch that Paul is feeling sad about his mother's unpredictable absences is probably correct. Since Paul feels powerless to do anything about this unwelcome change in his life, it's not surprising that even minor frustrations can overwhelm him.

What the Teacher Can Do

If the teacher has kept a record of recent incidents, she can share them with Paul's parents, asking them for help in understanding what might be troubling Paul. The teacher should listen and not judge or express anything but empathy for the family. She can go on doing everything possible to keep the classroom a warm, predictable oasis, but she should not expect to singlehandedly make everything all better for Paul When there are new projects planned for the classroom, the teacher might give Paul some advance notice. Although the little boy may sometimes shun physical contact, the teacher should make herself available to comfort Paul when that help is wanted. It's a good idea too, whenever possible, to give Paul choices-about which of several books to read, for example. If Paul doesn't get a part in pretend play that he wanted, the teacher might suggest that the children take turns with the roles.

What the Parent Can Do

This family is caught in a common dilemma: how to balance work and family.

Paul's mom is already spending all of her spare time with the children. But perhaps she and Paul's dad can fine-tune that a bit, first by adding daily "floor time," in which the parent follows the child's lead in play.

Then too, at a time like this, everything is up for consideration, including whether the mom's travel schedule can be altered in any way. Anything that contributes to more predictable routines will be helpful to Paul.

The good news is that since the change in Paul's behavior is apparently a reaction to changes in his environment, finding ways to make the family schedule more predictable is very likely all that is needed to restore his feelings of well-being.