A five-year-old in my class has been classified as having a social/emotional disorder. It takes him awhile to settle down in the morning, and he has great difficulty with transitions during the day He cries for his mommy, appears needy and sad, then suddenly lashes out aggressively Sometimes he acts recklessly and seems out of control. For example, in the parking lot we have to watch him to make sure he doesn't run in front of traffic. He's had tantrums in school, breaking things and throwing himself on the floor. What can I do for this child and for the other children around him? 

It is not uncommon for a child with social/emotional difficulties to vacillate between depression and aggression, although some children are predominately depressed. They might say they wish they hadn't been born and are so sad that they isolate themselves and seem to not experience the joys of relationships, learning, or even playing. Other children with social/emotional disorders may be more needy and fearful: They might be afraid of other children pushing them or feel wary in situations where there's too much going on. Often such children have nightmares. Their troubles sometimes cause them to retire into a corner, rather than participate; they often have few, if any, friends.

It's important to remember that every stage of a child's development has its normal challenges, including fears and anxieties. It's common for four- to six-year-olds to have bad dreams--for instance, about being kidnapped or otherwise harmed. Some young children are afraid of the dark or seem cautious about a new experience. Most want "Mommy" when they start school.

A good way to distinguish such normal fearfulness from more worrisome emotional problems is to consider whether a child's fears interfere significantly with age-expected activities. If the child is able to play with his peers, enjoys learning, and participates fully in family life, even though he may periodically need extra comforting and reassurance, there is no reason to believe that he has a social/emotional disorder. In fact, if in two out of the three main spheres of a child's life--home, school, and peer play--things appear to be going well, you can presume that the child is OK. On the other hand, if in two out of the three things are not going well because of a child's sadness, fear, or aggressive behavior, he may indeed have a social/emotional disorder.

A word of advice: Having nightmares or anxieties over recent or anticipated normal experiences is a part of development and usually temporary. If a child's worrisome behavior is in response to some current event or events-- for instance, the arrival of a new baby, entering a new school, or a recent family move--it's not a sign of social/emotional disorder. However, if the child's problems continue for a long period of time in at least two of the three primary spheres of his life, the situation is more serious.

Analyze the Cause

The most significant factor that distinguishes adult depression from the depression we see in children is that in children, family dynamics and relationships with teachers and peers are often significant contributors. And making a change in these relationships and situations can often help a child feel a lot better about his life and himself fairly quickly. So the first thing I try to do when helping a child with a social/emotional disorder is get a general sense of how much an environmental situation is interfering with his well-being. I then consider what can be done to make family life or the school experience more fulfilling for that child. I look at each of those three major domains--home, school, and peer play.

Let's say a depressed, anxious; and irritable child has a younger sibling who the older child feels is favored. The younger child appears to get away with everything, while the older child feels like the designated "bad boy." He is angry with his parents and sibling, and he begins to feel hopeless and helpless. In this case, simply getting the family dynamic worked out and establishing a sense of equality can help the child feel better.

Working With Parents

When you are considering whether a child may have a social/emotional disorder, it is very helpful to ask parents whether they see similar behaviors at home. The teacher and parents are the core members of an important team approach to understanding and helping the child. Respectfully inquire about what may be happening at home that might raise the child's level of anxiety. Consider whether minimizing family conflict or preventing the child from being overstimulated and/or frightened by aggressive play would lessen the problem.

Together, you and the parents can try to create safe, secure, nurturing environments in school and at home. You might also strive to incorporate reassuring structure, responsibility, and discipline into the child's day. A child with social and emotional troubles needs discipline that is gentle and respectful, but also firm. Sometimes the extra structure and clarity of expectation helps a child to feel calmer. But if his anxieties persist even after you've worked to improve the environment, this child might benefit from a consultation with a mental health professional.

Safeguarding Peers

Because the boy in your class is impulsive as well as sad, you need to be sure that the other children feel protected from his outbursts. Encourage them to come up and tell you when the distressed child is misbehaving. Keep a watchful eye out for anything that could harm other children, and tell the assistants and volunteers in your class to do the same. Don't hesitate to hover around this unpredictable child while he's playing and be ready to move in quickly if you sense trouble brewing.

If things don't improve quickly with these measures, you may have to hire an aide, at least temporarily. If you have a cooperative program, the boy's mother or father could be invited in to offer assistance or ask other parents to volunteer. I find it very useful to have a rotating series of parent-volunteers, because in most classrooms, the adult/child ratio is not quite good enough for these young children. An extra staff person will provide an added sense of security and will help the teacher feel less overloaded and overwhelmed.

If all of this is not enough to make the desired change in the child's emotional/ social state, and the child's parents decide to seek the help of a mental health professional, the teacher might offer to be part of the enlarged team. Since you spend a lot of time with the boy, you can be of great help in implementing the learning goals. You may also provide valuable ongoing information to the mental health professional about whatever may be happening at school. With the ideal cooperative team of teacher, parents, and a mental health professional sharing goals, the long-range outlook for this boy is quite good.