How to help a child who won't communicate with her teacher
The Teacher's Story

IT HAPPENED again today: I tried to make friends with Alma, and she would have none of it, ignoring my warm "Good Morning" greeting. Later, when I quietly approached a little group of children, including Alma, in the housekeeping comer, they were actively involved in dramatic play. Alma was chattering away, but at the sight of me, she became silent.

I am puzzled by the reactions of this almost-4year-old. I can't remember having had such difficulty connecting with any other young child. Alma doesn't seem to be shy with anyone else, either. Admittedly, I am a demonstrative person, and I have wondered if I scare her, so lately, I have tried to be very low-key in her presence. Of course, I always make a point of crouching down to talk with children, especially since I am quite tall, but that hasn't helped me to win over Alma. Most of the others seek me out; often, my arms are around three or four children at once. Others virtually line up for a turn. But Alma keeps her distance. Early in the school year, I thought things would get better in time. But here we are with the holidays fast approaching, and Alma still barely acknowledges my presence. The few times she has spoken to me, I could barely make out what she was saying. Her voice was soft and she stayed a "safe" distance away. Could it be that I remind her of someone menacing on TV-- or someone real, for that matter? It's not that I feel hurt or take it personally, but it is sad that there is nothing I can do to win her trust. I want Alma (and every child) to feel good about being here.

The Parent's Story

WE HAVE ALWAYS encouraged Alma to greet people with a "Hello" or a "Good Morning," and she usually does so with enthusiasm-- but not with her teacher this year. My daughter is clearly not comfortable with her teacher. I had become aware of this early on, but I hoped it would change. It's not that our Alma says anything negative or complains about going to school. She just doesn't warm up to the teacher, who really is a kind person and very competent as well. I can see when I drop her off and pick her up that Alma is giving the teacher the cold shoulder.

Alma won't talk about it either, and that's unusual for her. Recently, I got my first hint of what this may be about. We were at the supermarket when a very tall woman passed by pushing a shopping cart. Alma gripped my arm and said, "She's just like my teacher. She's scary!" At that moment, I realized that it could be the teacher's size that was bothering Alma.

The teacher is a big woman and she dresses in a way that may exaggerate her size, with flowing sleeves and scarves, lots of fabric. Her dramatic presence seems to endear her to many other children. In fact, parents have told me how much their children love her. They tell me that their children spend time at home on the activities she introduces to them at school. They beg to hear the same books read at home, with the proviso, "Read it the way the teacher does." Then why does my child have the opposite reaction? She's never been standoffish before. It's embarrassing, and I don't know what to do about it.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

We all know that some indefinable chemistry between people may evoke a strong sense of discomfort, although no one is to blame. Maybe Alma's teacher is visually reminiscent of a character from TV. To one child, such a character may be funny, while to another, she's scary. We don't know the thoughts the teacher elicits in Alma, but there may be ways to ease the strain.

What the Teacher Can Do

The teacher is on the right track. She should continue to be very low-key with Alma, and she might do well to soften her style of relating to others in Alma's presence for awhile. The teacher should respect Alma's need for physical distance but continue to offer warm approval with her eyes and a gentle voice.

It would be wise to work especially hard at establishing a good relationship with the parent. The teacher may consider making a home visit, if the family is comfortable with that. Seeing her mom and teacher getting along could help to build the child's trust.

What the Parent Can Do

While some embarrassment is understandable, the parent should also try to accept this behavior as part of Alma's growth and development. The parent can help too by encouraging every opportunity for the teacher and parent, as well as the teacher and child, to get to know each other better.

The parent can help the teacher to understand Alma's temperament and her behavior at home by describing the ambience of the home. (Are they a very quiet, nondemonstrative family? If so, that might help to explain Alma's discomfort with effusive behavior.) And the more the teacher learns about the child's interests, the easier it will be for her to select stories, games, even group-time activities that would enhance the child's comfort.

At home, the parents can "play school" with Alma in charge. By following Alma's lead and accepting what she expresses, the parents may gain insight into their daughter's feelings about the teacher.