It’s been quite a while since my last posting. I think I’ve been blogged out (a brand new term!). My hope is that readers use my blog as a reference.
The kids in my playgroup start in September and finish mid-June. The three boys and three girls that make up the group are between the ages of two and two-and-a-half. Thinking about this year, there are a few things that stand out.
Joaquin stepped right inside on the first day with what felt to me like an expectation. He didn’t cry or look back, but seemed very tentative. Then there was Frances. She had the most opposite of personalities. Frances cried piteously, in the beginning of the year, when her mom dropped her off. I remember saying to her mom after the first day: “Frances is a very passionate person.” She would calm down after a while, but a number of things triggered her anxiety, like changing her diaper, or sitting at the table to eat lunch with the other children.
Early on, her anxiety took the form of physically attacking other children; pushing, hitting, grabbing. Within a few weeks Frances started biting. But not just anyone: Joaquin. It was distressing for all of us (most of all him!!). Naturally, his parents and caregiver were very upset. Especially when it happened a second time. I’ve seen this so many times: aggressive kids seek out passive ones. The other troubling aspect of it was that Joaquin had no apparent reaction.
My response to biting, as always, is dramatic. After inspecting the wound and comforting the bitee, the biter is placed in a time-out, but within visual contact of everyone. I let the biter know that I’m very upset with her/him. The bitee is further comforted, and the other children reassured. It’s a really big deal for everyone.
Frances stopped biting after the second time, but there were other attempts that kept us all on our toes. I kept encouraging Joaquin to speak up when he didn’t like something. As with most children of this age, it was impossible to tell if the message was getting internalized. At the same time, I kept telling Frances over and over that she had to calm down and think before she reacted. (You can actually teach children of this age to take deep breaths.)
Sometime around November, we were getting ready to eat lunch, as usual around 11:00am. Everyone had washed their hands and were going through the process of selecting a spot on one of the two benches at the kitchen table. (By the way, they quickly come to understand that only three kids can sit on one bench at a time comfortably – amazing when you think about it.) Just prior to getting up on the benches, Frances leaned into Beau, another boy in the group, with open mouth and the possible intention of biting him. She was still unpredictable at that point, but she stopped herself when I warned her and when Beau started crying, hard, even though she hadn’t touched him. (This shows us how much children are paying attention all the time!) After Beau calmed down, it was time to sit down, and he and Frances ended up sitting next to each other. I don’t like to control every move they make, and didn’t prevent this from happening, and, besides, it’s a delicate balance. You can’t harp on one child, warning them constantly to not misbehave before they’ve done anything wrong. Without that little bit of trust, there is nothing to build on. However, you have to be vigilant, watching closely for signs of imminent danger! At some point during lunch, Frances leaned into Beau again. As I warned her to stop and Beau started to cry, I was lucky enough to hear Joaquin, who was looking at them from across the table, say softly: “Just tell her no.” Beautiful!! I showered him with praise. He just smiled and kept on eating his lunch.
This message of encouragement is meant for the whole group. They all understand what has taken place. It was meant not only to encourage Joaquin and to dissuade Frances, but to show all the kids that they can do the same thing. They can all stand up for themselves, and each other. And they can check their aggressive feelings too.
By the end of the year, Joaquin was fully in his element. Still quiet by nature, but completely confident and able to stand up for himself. His good nature, and that of the rest of the group, affected everyone as a whole. And Frances, the one with a zest for life, found her softer side and clearly loved that side of herself. And so did everyone else.