Communication With Families: How to Read Children's Distress Signals
A parent-teacher partnership can help you respond to children's signals.
by Carla Poole
READING INFANT AND TODDLER DISTRESS CUES CAN BE AS daunting as solving the riddle of the sphinx! Who hasn't been confounded by a baby who keeps fussing after his obvious needs have been met or a toddler who continues to yell in frustration even after you have given her the very toy she wanted? Babies and toddlers work hard at trying to let you know what's wrong, but their communication skills are limited. Since parents know their children best, ask them about their children's behaviors and preferences. A parent-teacher partnership can help you successfully respond to a child's distress signals and deepen her attachments with others.
During the first six months of life, typical distress cues include crying, grimacing, somber or blank facial expressions, stiffening muscles, a tightfisted grasp that doesn't release, an arched back that pulls away, averting eyes, and turning away. Some babies give clear signals that are easy to read. Others require a closer look. A subtle shift in facial expressions or turning away of the head may signal anxiety that will soon build to a cry.
To learn how to interpret the distress signals of the children in your care, watch them with their parents and talk about what they might be trying to communicate. Ask parents:
- What is he trying to tell us with that serious frown? How do you help him?
- What does it mean when he arches his back?
- What techniques seem to work best when he needs comfort?
Young toddlers feel that the world is their oyster and believe that most things should go their way. This enthusiastic but limited understanding of the world naturally leads to daily disappointments and upsets. Extended separations from parents or unrealistic expectations of toddler behavior can also cause anxiety. Toddlers have a wide range of distress signals. Toddlers can become withdrawn, avoiding new materials and unfamiliar people. At the other extreme, they become very active and aggressive, handling their own anxiety by hitting others. Worried toddlers might begin testing limits looking for the adults to help them feel in control of themselves. Some toddlers become very clingy and seek close physical proximity to a familiar person.
If the child has extended periods of distress and doesn't seem to recover shortly after being upset, you should consider having a meeting with the parents to discuss your concerns.
Problem solving with parents is not a "one size fits all" approach. Just as each baby is different, each parent is different as well. The best way to build a partnership with parents is to use active listening- where you make eye contact, offer encouraging responses, and ask for clarification if you don't understand something a parent says. This may be the parents' first experience with teachers, and they will be eager to know how their baby or toddler is doing! Be sure to discuss all of the positive experiences the child is having as well.
Share the Care
When you just can't seem to get to the bottom of what may be disturbing a toddler, arrange to meet with the child's parents and discuss with them:
- Whether any significant changes have occurred at home
- If any family members have been traveling or have spent time away from the family
- If the family has recently moved
- Whether anyone in the family is ill or less available than usual