It was a typical day for Jewel. Obviously uncomfortable when she arrived, she lingered for a while near our door, watching other 3- and 4-year-olds come bursting in. Some headed straight toward a friend, while others made a beeline to a favorite activity or to check out the special morning activity, which, this morning, happened to be finger painting.
When I asked Jewel if I could walk with her to her cubby, she nodded gratefully. I have been aware since the start of school of her confusion about what to do and where to go when she gets here in the morning.
We hung her jacket in her cubby, and she continued to stay by my side as I walked around the room, Jewel smiling weakly the whole time at all the activity around us.
After asking what several other children were planning to do this morning, I posed the same question to her. She shrugged. "How would you like to play with Maria and Ben in the housekeeping corner?" I asked, careful to focus on two of her kindest and gentlest classmates. It sounded like a good idea to Jewel, so we approached the children together. Happily, they welcomed her and soon the threesome was deeply engaged in play.
I knew from experience that had I not intervened, Jewel would have stood around or wandered about the classroom aimlessly. And without a nudge from me, the same thing would happen at each transition time during the day.
By this point in the year, most children have their bearings. But not Jewel, and that puzzles me. She doesn't seem to be anxious or homesick, but clearly she is not yet comfortable. I wonder whether what I'm doing is helping her.
THE PARENT'S STORY
It's been more than a month since school began, but Jewel has had absolutely nothing to say about it. She ignores any questions we ask about her day. All I know is that she's willing to go to school and happy to come home.
We're especially curious since this is her first experience in a group situation. And while Jewel has often played in the park with a neighbor and exchanged visits with one or two playmates, it always takes her a few visits to feel comfortable. She's timid about initiating play but happy to follow other children's leads. Some people might think that she's shy, but I've wondered if she actually might be confused about how to find her way around a new situation.
I hope she speaks up in school. I'd feel so bad if she needed to find the bathroom or a special toy or even certain children she wants to be with and didn't tell the teacher. But since the teacher hasn't expressed any concern, things are probably going well and I might be overreacting. Maybe I'm foolish to worry.
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
The good news is that Jewel becomes involved in group play once she is helped over the hurdle of getting started. And as her teacher observed, there is no sign of homesickness, nor is she a typically shy child. Instead, she may be overwhelmed by all the stimulation and unfamiliarity of the classroom. The adults in this situation are aware that Jewel takes a little longer to get her hearings than some other children. This may in part be because of some visual-spatial difficulty.
What the Teacher Can Do
The teacher is on the right track and should keep doing what she's been doing. And if there is any way to ease Jewel into the full classroom situation gradually, that would be ideal. The teacher might encourage her to spend time with fewer children, with fewer activity choices, in a smaller space for awhile. Maybe she could focus Jewel's attention on one learning center, such as the reading area, for a few weeks. Once Jewel has her bearings in a small section, the teacher can casually walk her around and remind her where the entrance to the classroom is, where the bathroom is, the door to the play yard, and so on. She should do this as many times as it takes for Jewel to develop her own mental map. At another time, she can review the location of other learning centers, gradually allowing her to gather these small trips together to form an image of the entire classroom space.
The teacher can also gently draw Jewel out in small-group discussions. Jewel should begin to feel more confident as the teacher seeks out and shows respect for her ideas. Perhaps the most important recommendation of all is that the teacher initiate an ongoing dialogue with Jewel's parents so that they can work with her in similar ways. The teacher might also learn more about Jewel from the parents' observations. Jewel's predicament is not uncommon-and it illustrates the value of parent-teacher communication both before the school year begins and once it is underway.
What the Parent Can Do
No parent should ever feel foolish about asking a teacher how her child is doing in school. Once Jewel's teacher and parent put their heads together, it will be much easier to coordinate efforts, enabling Jewel to develop a sense of mastery at her own pace. The teacher can advise Jewel's parents about ways of working with their daughter, again taking small steps, starting with limited space and one playmate at a time. When the parent is alone with Jewel, in an unfamiliar environment, she can play hide-and-seek games with her. She can begin with easy hiding places and gradually increase the challenge so Jewel can overcome her unease about unfamiliar places in a caring, family situation.