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Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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Monday, October 15, 2007

If you can't have the patience of a preschool teacher, you can at least have the same strategies


Today is the beginning of my last three days at the Boston Globe, ending 19 years as the Globe's parenting columnist and a 28-year career here. In these last days of blogging, I'd like to reprint some of my favorite columns.

As I mentioned on my chat today, my most requested column ever was called Mini-Magic. In it, I marvel at how preschool teachers cast a kind of spell over children. Did you ever see a preschool teacher raise her voice in anger at a child? Visibly lose patience, shake a finger at a child or throw up her arms in frustration? Do these teachers all have a saint gene the rest of us don't know about?

Child Caring
By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff


Have you ever wished you could hide inside a cubby at your child's preschool and spy for a morning, just to make sure teachers aren't casting spells on the kids? What else, after all, could explain why teachers are able to bring children back into the fold calmly and quietly, without loss of self-esteem or a power struggle, while at home we back ourselves into corners, raise our voices, and say things we regret?

The truth is, preschool teachers do work a kind of magic. First, they create an environment that is totally child-centered: Everything a 3- or 4-year-old can reach is not only safe for her to use but intended to bring her enjoyment. Secondly, they focus entirely on the children: With no dinner to cook or laundry to fold, teachers have no distractions. Unfortunately, even if we could create the same environment at home right down to the red rug for circle time, even if we could free ourselves of other responsibilities, it wouldn't be enough.

``What teachers have that parents tend not to have is a repertoire of strategies to head off power struggles,'' says early childhood educator Ellen Galinsky. Power struggles are anathema to preschool teachers and should be to us, too. ``As soon as you dig your heels in about how something has to happen, you take away what's most important to a preschool-age child: the ability to be autonomous, powerful, and strong, to do things himself,'' says Galinsky. She is president of Families and Work Institute in Manhattan and co-author of ``The Preschool Years'' (Ballantine Books).

It's not that parents don't have coping mechanisms; the problem is we often inadvertently feed into a power struggle. To ensure success, she says, strategies need to be developmentally appropriate, tailored to the 3- and 4-year-old.

Gerry Pedrini, director of the Sunshine Nursery School in Arlington, says, ``You'll never see a good preschool teacher issuing loud commands or scolding, because that doesn't make a child feel good, and feeling good is what leads to autonomy.'' You'll also rarely see a timeout chair in a quality preschool; in a classroom setting, it's shaming.

So what should we do?

We asked directors of some of the area's leading preschools to share their strategies:

Offer choices
This sounds simple but it backfires for parents if we let it drift into negotiation, says Pedrini. Negotiation gives a preschooler too much room to move around in, and too much power. ``It creates anxiety,'' she says.

Offer a preschooler no more than three options; anything more is overwhelming. When choices are contained, a child accepts the boundaries and makes a selection. If he begins to negotiate -- ``How 'bout the cookie before dinner?'' -- stay on track: ``That isn't one of the choices.'' Calmly repeat what they are.

Early childhood educator Janet Zeller, director of the Tufts University Educational Day Care Center, says choices work well because they empower a child and defuse the issue at the same time. ``When you tell him, `You can take the bath before we read a story or after,' he's in control of something desirable, the story, but not about what he doesn't want to do, which is the bath,'' she says. ``It allows him to save face.''

Say what you want, not what you don't want

Sentences that begin, ``If you don't,'' tend to get us in trouble because what follows is typically a threat, says early childhood educator Judith T. Wagner: `` `If you don't pick up your toys, then you can't watch the video.' ''

It's as if a preschooler has a button set to automatically respond negatively to that kind of language. ``Reacting against it is one of the ways they separate,'' says Wagner, who is a professor of education and child development at Whittier College in California and director of Broadoaks Children's School there.

Substitute ``when'' for ``if'' -- ``When you pick up your toys, you can watch the video.'' That detoxifies your request by putting power in her hands, making it more likely she'll comply.

Always tell why

The typical preschooler responds to logic if it's genuine, offered with respect and offered before he is out of control. Keep your reasons simple, accurate, and age appropriate. ``Parents have a tendency to go overboard with this,'' says Zeller. Here are examples she says a preschooler can understand: ``You need to take this medicine so you won't have a fever and feel sick.'' ``The reason I'm asking you not to pick your nose is because it will make it bleed.'' ``It's not OK to swear because grown-ups will tell kids not to play with you.''

Offer praise

If you ask a 3-year-old to pick up the blocks and he puts only two in the bin, a parent is likely to focus on what didn't happen and react angrily: ``You didn't pick up the blocks!'' Before you know it, you're into a power struggle. But something good did happen: ``You put two blocks in the bin. Good job!'' By focusing on that -- ``Let me help you finish cleaning up'' -- you head off a battle and help define your expectations.

``Look for moments of goodness, even microscopic ones,'' says Chris Giguere, director of Lexington Playcare Center, a preschool in Lexington. Praise provides clarification for preschoolers, who aren't always clear about what we expect of them or what makes them good. Be as specific as possible.

Make eye contact

It's easy for a child to disregard what we're saying when we literally speak over her head. Position yourself at her level so she can see your eyes, suggests Pedrini. ``When you look in her eyes in a friendly way, as if to say, `Oh, there you are!' it's much harder for her to ignore you,'' she says.

Address the feeling you think she has

Three- and 4-year-olds have a hard time identifying and naming their emotions. When they have a fear or worry, they act out. What's tricky is that what they're acting out about often has nothing to do with what they are upset about, says Mary Ucci, director of the Child Studies Center at Wellesley College. A recent incident with her 2 1/2-year-old grandson comes to mind.

He was spitting, she asked him to stop. When he didn't, she said, ``I wonder if you're upset about something. You don't usually have spit coming out of your mouth.''

``I'm angry at Aunt Michelle,'' he said. Michelle had just arrived, diverting Grandma's attention.

``If I had just gone after the spitting, I wouldn't have gotten anywhere,'' says Ucci, ``but because I could address the source of the problem, the spitting stopped.''

Giguere says validating feelings is one of the most magical strategies she knows. ``A child can be puffed up with anger, red-faced, ready to lash out, and you utter one sympathetic sentence -- `It's hard to wait your turn for a shovel, isn't it?' -- and it's like you popped a balloon: `You understand me!' They're so grateful. It's very powerful for them,'' she says.

Slow down

Pedrini thinks a big reason we end up in power struggles is because we're always in a hurry. ``Preschoolers move at a slower pace than grown-ups,'' she says. She tells parents to build in extra time so children can function at a pace that meets their needs. When you try to speed a transition, don't just issue a warning -- ``We have to go in five minutes'' -- but provide a definition: ``You have time to read one more book.''

Pick your battles

This is perhaps the most frequently repeated strategy and one most parents know about. Trouble is, says Zeller, we don't take it literally enough.

``For every 10 things you think a child needs to do, only the safety related ones matter,'' she says. ``Battles around food and clothes are almost always unnecessary. Why does it matter if he doesn't sit still at the dinner table?'' Zeller asks. ``Let him stand. Even let him come and go. What's more important: That a 3-year-old acts like an adult or that he gets the nutrition he needs? You're worried about manners? He's only 3! There's time for that.'' To one mother who was in shouting matches every day with her preschool daughter over clothes, Zeller asked, `` `What do you care if she wears the same two outfits all year long?' It had never occurred to her that it didn't matter,'' she says.

Enlist her help in problem-solving

This also empowers a preschooler, but it can easily backfire, says Kathy Roberts, director of the Dandelion School in Cambridge. Don't ask, ``How can we solve this problem,'' until you state the problem clearly: ``Your brother wants to build towers and it seems like you want to knock over towers.''

Timing is critical. ``Problem-solving doesn't work if the situation is too far gone,'' says Roberts. If you catch it early -- you see a child about to knock over a block tower and you can engage him in some other activity before he does -- then you can say, ``Let me know when you aren't going to knock over Josh's tower.'' That tells him what he was doing wasn't good without shaming or humiliating him. It also puts control in his hands: ``When I'm ready, I can play there again. It's up to me.''

A less tricky way to problem-solve is after things have calmed down: ``I wonder what we could do next time Josh wants to build and you don't.'' This won't work if you're angry, cautions Roberts. ``Then it sounds like punishment.''

Use natural consequences

This is another frequently talked about strategy that typically doesn't work with preschoolers unless the consequence is connected to the behavior in an obvious and immediate way. Sending a 4-year-old to her room or depriving her of TV later that day because she's teasing her 2-year-old sister won't make sense to her, says Roberts. But she will get the message if you tell her that you and Molly are going to a different room so Molly can play without being frustrated by her big sister. Then tell her, ``If you want to join us, let us know when you're ready to play in a cooperative way.'' That tells her her behavior is a matter of choice and she has control of it.

Distract him

Most parents know how to distract a child by engaging him in some other activity but few of us think about using humor as a distraction. When you see a power struggle looming because he won't put on his snowsuit, try to put it on yourself. Your mock cries of, ``This doesn't fit me!'' will tickle his funny bone and likely defuse the situation.

Planning ahead

In the spirit of ``an ounce of prevention . . .,'' Ucci tells parents to anticipate a child's needs and reactions. If six cousins are visiting on Christmas, how will your preschooler cope with sharing? Talk about it -- ``I wonder how you'll feel if your cousins want to play with your teddy bears? -- and problem-solve: ``You don't have to share all your toys; we could put the bears in the closet . . .''

Adding these strategies to your repertoire will reduce power struggles but may not eliminate them. When one erupts, Chris Giguere's advice is to end it as fast as possible. ``It's your choice to let it escalate or not. You're the adult,'' she says.

Her favorite strategy for getting out of a power struggle in a way that no one loses face is something she calls ``hand over hand:'' ``We step behind a child, take his hand under ours and do whatever needs to be done together, like pick up a book. `We need to put the book away. Let's do it together.' Although a child may be unhappy, even crying, hand over hand is fast. It puts the incident behind you quickly,'' she says.

``Then it's up to the adult to be able to move on.''

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 02:32 PM
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