Photo provided by mikkimoo.
I have been told I am a patient person. I disagree. I feel claustrophobic in traffic jams, get slightly annoyed when grocery store checkers can’t get the three people in front of me through the line at lightning speed, and I tend to tap my feet when waiting for the internet to connect requires more than one second. I have some unrealistic expectations of life that cause an impatient response. When it comes to working with children, I have learned that understanding some specific things about their development and allowing that to influence my expectations goes a long way in diffusing the normal feelings of frustration. Here are a few developmental insights that may be valuable to you as well.
Preschoolers are egocentric. It’s not a personality flaw, it’s just normal development. At this age, children can only make sense of the world as it relates to them personally. To a child, if she wants a toy, everyone else should want her to have it! Or, suppose another child is hungry, in his mind, the most important thing to everyone else in the world should be getting him some food! One major purpose of sending children to preschool is to put them in an environment with other egocentric children and create situations where they must become aware of others’ needs and develop the essential skills of social problem-solving. In fact, conflict between children, while it should be managed, should not be eliminated. It is through social conflict that children learn to move beyond egocentrism.
Preschoolers are developing self-control. Self-control is not a skill we are born with. Just as we must learn to turn the frantic flailing of our arms into intentional movements, we must learn to turn our impetuous actions into planned and thoughtful behaviors. Young children don’t usually hit their friends because they think, “I’m going to be mean today.” They simply get a strong impulse and they act on it. They don’t make a mess with the flour because they want to drive us crazy or even make the mess, they’re just curious, so they explore. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t correct them. Young children need the boundaries to be set and proper behavior to be explained, as well as reinforcements and reminders to be given (again and again), in order to aid in the development of self-control. At the same time however, we must remember that they do not think the way we do, and their intentions are often innocent.
Preschoolers think in concrete terms. Projecting cause and effect scenarios and weighing hypothetical situations require abstract thinking, an advanced cognitive process for young children. This often causes them to make choices that are obviously wrong to us, but to them, the disappointing result may be a surprise. Again, knowing this is not license to ignore such behavior. Our coaching and modeling helps them to progress past this here-and-now type of thinking. Reminding ourselves of this developmental stumbling block simply helps us remember to take that deep breath and talk with them from a more understanding viewpoint.
Preschoolers are dependant beings struggling to develop independence. Young children depend on adults for their very survival. From infancy they have learned to do what they have to do to communicate their needs to us. Preschoolers have progressed a long way from the days of their infancies when they cried to communicate virtually every need, however there are still moments when their ability to communicate is overshadowed by the urgency or depth of their needs. They may again resort to crying, tantrums, or outbursts, in a basic attempt to get our attention and communicate a need. When we can recognize this, it helps to calmly communicate to the child that he has been heard. For example, “You want it to be your turn now, don’t you?” or “I realize you’re very disappointed right now because you wanted to stay a little longer.” Communicating the need back to the child may not immediately stop the tantrum, but it lets him know we are listening, while also giving verbal labels for emotions and enabling him to better cope with and communicate those feelings and needs in the future.
Follow your statement of understanding with a short explanation of what the realities are. “Right now it’s Ben’s turn. It will be your turn as soon as the timer goes off.” “We can’t stay any longer because we have to pick up your brother now. But we’ll come back again soon.” Again, your explanation may not magically stop your child mid-tantrum, but it gives him a model of how to calmly and appropriately communicate needs.
On the flip side of this dependency, is the fact that preschoolers are trying to develop and establish their independence. They want to have control. Children often act out when they have become frustrated with either their physical inability to act independently (lack of necessary strength or muscle control to complete a task for example), or our personal unwillingness (whether warranted or not) to allow them to act independently. We can help children with this need by first, recognizing it, but also by building in elements of independence and control where appropriate.
We can offer choices (where both choices are acceptable to us) to give them. “This is a parking lot, and we need to stay safe. Would you like to hold my hand, or hold the grocery cart?” We can also give them small tasks to allow them to feel that sense of independent accomplishment. It is helpful be aware of situations where they may want to act independently but are not physically able to do so, making accommodations where necessary (placing stepstools near the sink, for example). We can communicate to them our understanding of this need when we are unable to allow them the independence they seek (“I know you really want to pour your own milk, but this jug is just a little bit too heavy for you. Let’s put some in this small pitcher and you can use this when you want to pour it yourself.”
These are just a few of the developmental components that often perplex us as adults. By understanding where our children are coming from, we can have more realistic expectations for their behavior, communicate to them more effectively, model appropriate behavior, and properly meet their needs. And as a result, you just might fool people into thinking it’s all because you’re just a patient person!
Learn more about Positive Guidance for Preschoolers
*Inspiration Source: Patience or Understanding? By Nancy Weber-Schwartz, Young Children, March 1987.