“Will You Be My Friend?” Preschool Friendships

As adults, we value friendship because of the many benefits it affords us.  Our long-time friends make us laugh, support us through difficult times, and know us inside and out–the good and the bad. We want our children to also feel the security of warm friendships.  The relationships we hope they will build, however, require the child to learn a lot about social grace through trial and error. Children need a significant amount of coaching to understand what it means to be a good friend.  We as parents sometimes get anxious about the social situation in a classroom or during a play date, but it is important to remember that the relationships our 3-5 year olds have are not the same thing as the relationships we have built over the years.  Friendship means something very different to a small child as compared to an adult. Parents can work with their children to help them develop the social skills they will be using throughout their lifetimes in order to build the kind of freindships we all cherish. The early childhood staff has offered advice as a guide to help parents work on these skills throughout the school year as well as on the playground or in the backyard during the summer.

PLAY
It can be helpful to coach children about ways to join play already in progress. Often when a child simply asks a group “Can I play?” the answer is a quick “no”.  This response is not really a mean reaction to the child-though it certainly feels that way. Young children have a difficult time stopping their play when they are in the groove.  If there is a group of children playing house, it is difficult to stop play, think of a new character, make space for that character and then continue with play. So the answer from the group is an off-hand “no.”  The child interested in playing with a group needs to complete some of the tasks the group is not able to.  It is helpful if your child watches a moment to get a sense of the game, and then decides on a character or a helpful role she can take on herself. She can then enter the play without a question, but with a statement: “You are playing house. I will be grandmother and I brought a basket of bread.” Children are not often exclusionary out of maliciousness, and they will often incorporate the grandmother into play easily. Parents can encourage their child to follow this method of joining play by role playing the process with them, as well as coaching them to join play in this way during play dates or other events with friends.

Another issue that often comes up around the play of preschoolers is the way in which they play.  Children aged three are often not yet interested in cooperative play. They are moving towards play that involves others in projects, but they often are not skilled at doing this until they reach the age of four.  When we see children playing in the same area, but not necessarily playing the same thing or playing together, note that the children are most likely still satisfied with this interaction.  Even older children need a break from the group dynamic sometimes, and their solitary play is a means of regenerating energy, not a result of an inability to interact. For this reason, one phrase that is often encouraged in the preschool classrooms around play is a way in which a child can respectfully ask for more personal time.  When a friend asks “Can I play”, a reasonable response can be “Not now, maybe later.” This shows the friend that they are still friends and play will happen later, but that the first child still needs some space. Parents can discuss with their child that the child has permission to not play with others if they feel they need a break. This can create great relief for the child who expends a lot of energy during her social time.

One important step the teachers in a preschool classroom take during play is to be near at hand during social interactions. Children are always monitored and are at first given the opportunity to naturally create their own solutions if they are able. If a problem between children needs re-direction the teacher steps in to the play. Often, simply the presence of the teacher will create the re-direction needed. A teacher does not need to be explicit about the help that is offered, she can simply enforce the turn taking that should be happening, or offer a double of a toy or another way to engage play for the children having trouble. This gentle nudge toward social grace is often enough to get the children back on track. This sort of problem solving during play creates a respectful atmosphere and encourages social competence in all.

Parents can continue this coaching at home. Play dates are a wonderful way to keep children working on their social graces; some parameters around the children can help the event to be successful. It is often least stressful to  have just one other child over to play. This way they can focus energy on each other and concentrate on being good friends without having to be the “host” of a party. In addition, neutral territory for a play date creates a successful event.  A play date based in a park, rather than at someone’s home, allows either parent to  leave when the children are beginning to show signs of tiredness, rather than needing to stay until an allotted time for a parent to come and pick up the child. Lastly, the children involved often need the parents to be advocates for the relationship between the two friends. Although preschool children don’t need parents to be involved in all levels of play, they do need parents to be involved if the interactions are becoming disrespectful. Problem solving in a natural way, or redirecting the children to something more socially acceptable is the parent’s job, because children don’t yet have the skills to work out all the issues around their play.

PROBLEM SOLVING
There are multiple ways to solve problems with friends, and parents can work to show children a variety of ways to be respectful about working out differences. It is important for children to understand that they are not always going to be happy with their friends–sometimes problems will occur. Conflict is a natural consequence of being together, not something to avoid. A parent can remind her child that people who are friends can have disagreements and still be friends. It is important to work through the disagreements respectfully so that the friendship can strengthen. Research has shown that children are more successful in social situations when parents and teachers encourage them to meet conflicts and problems with a multitude of resolutions. Discuss issues that come up with friends, and work through three or four ways your child can solve the problem. Having a lot of tools in her social-grace tool box will help her to meet the challenges of the classroom more confidently and successfully.

Sharing is often an issue parents struggle with. Preschool children are just moving into the developmental ability to begin to share their items with friends. One way to encourage this is through turn taking. These two concepts are not the same. When two friends take turns, they get an equal amount of time with one object, and they pass it between them. Sharing can be seen as both children having use of a number of toys. Often children share the play-do in a classroom because there is a lot of it. However, if there is one pretend telephone in the play area, the children need to take turns. Parents can encourage turn taking between friends because it is respectful to both parties. Children can respond to a question “Can I play with that?”  with “In a minute.” This allows the child who has the object to be able to finish with it, rather than have to hand it over right away-which is an unrealistic expectation. The friend knows that she will get the next turn.

Another problem that occurs during play is that sometimes friends try out strategies with each other that are inappropriate. When this occurs, it is important for your child to understand that he does not have to play with a friend who is not being respectful. Your child needs to have permission from you and from his teachers to say “I don’t want to play” when his friend is doing something unkind. Parents and teachers have the job of talking about what a good friend does. He uses his words, he does not use force, he takes turns rather than grabs things. When a child feels he is being treated unfairly, he is then able to use the words we teach him to get out of the situation, rather than feel stuck in something that feels unhealthy.

Problems sometimes arise around a lack of fair play during a game. We live in a competitive society, and that sometimes encourages behavior that encourages any means justifying the ends. In addition, preschool children are developmentally just moving out of the sense that the world revolves around them. Developmentally this has been appropriate for them for years, and it is a real transition to move into the world as just one piece of it, rather than the whole. When parents are playing games with their child, focus on the fun of the game, rather than who wins.  Show your child fair play and the results of following the rules.  When your child wins–or you win–don’t make too big a deal of it, just discuss the joy of playing. Teaching our children fair game playing etiquette makes them more enjoyable to play with in a group, and helps everyone to focus on the fun of the activity rather than the stress of having to outperform peers.

BOOKS TO READ
When looking for an opportunity to discuss the trials and tribulations of friendship, we hope that we can discuss situations objectively, rather than having to dry tears after having a sad experience with a friend. One series of books that is highly recommended to jump start discussions with your child is the series entitled “Learning to Get Along” by Cheri J Meiners. These books discuss social and emotional skills in a child-friendly, honest and engaging way. Children receive information about respectful relationships and parents are provided with learning activities they can do with their child to help reinforce the skills.

We love our friends, and we all remember difficult times we have had to overcome with some of them. Our preschool children are just now beginning to learn about friendship, and how to develop the skills and tools to get along with others. This social learning takes a significant amount of time and energy and trial and error. Whether your child will be enjoying the preschool programs Hopkins offers throughout the year or are playing in the back yard with neighbor kids, be sure to take the time throughout the days to talk about expectations you have for them about being a good friend–and about what they can and should be expecting from their peers.

Speak Up When You’re Down

During pregnancy the joy and anticipation of motherhood is celebrated with all the people excited for your new baby. The actual experience of motherhood is often a lot more demanding and exhausting than anyone ever told you it would be. The shift in hormones, the lack of sleep, and the changing responsibilities and relationships often create a sadness and feeling of loss that very few people talk about. The early childhood staff of Hopkins want to support the important conversations around post-partum depression and perinatal mood disorders. Only through talking honestly and openly can we reach out to and help the mothers and families dealing with these mental health issues.

According to Pregnancy and Postpartum Support Minnesota (PPSM), eighty percent of mothers experience the “baby blues” during the first weeks after giving birth. These episodes of mood swings and weepiness can resolve on its own, without further medical help. However, within the first year after a woman has a baby – and some experts in the field now look for symptoms during the first two years – there is a possibility that you will experience more significant symptoms. Fifteen to twenty percent of women experience a deeper depression or anxiety. It is not difficult to see why anxiety or depression can occur during these difficult early parenting years. Often, parents are not getting enough sleep or healthy nutrition. There is a great physical and mental strain on a mother as she cares for her infant. It is possible that even the most well-intentioned partner can’t find the best way to support mom when the caregiving is often so focused on just the pair: mother and child. The strain can have effects for months, these issues are not easily resolved. Whether you have had a history of anxiety or depression before pregnancy or not, because of the hormonal shift you are experiencing through pregnancy, birth, nursing, and even weaning you can be susceptible to perinatal mood disorders.

Talk to the people who care about you, and remember that having heightened anxiety or depression does not make you “crazy”. It means that your body and mind are reacting to the incredible stress involved in raising a child. Do not hesitate to seek medical help if you feel you need to better understand your concerns. Remember that it is typical to have anxiety around your parenting and it is normal to feel a level of sadness as you adjust to motherhood. If these feelings are disrupting your day to day routine, if these feelings or anxious thoughts are getting in the way of enjoyment, or stopping you from carrying out your daily tasks, then you may benefit from talking to a health care practitioner. If you need to talk to someone, contact the free PPSM helpline at 612-787-PPSM (7776) and leave a message; a mental health professional will call you within 24 hours to answer questions, suggest resources, or connect you with a volunteer who has been in the same situation and who can provide support.

The first step in dealing with the symptoms of perinatal depression or anxiety is to talk about it. Speaking up when you are feeling down is a necessary way to keep your support network aware of what you need. Speak up for your need to take care of yourself, so that you can best take care of your baby.

How Much……Exactly?

Feeding our young children can be a numbers game. Ounces, grams, cups, tablespoons; we often question how much is enough when it comes to feeding our children.

A young child’s natural progression of growth can cause our questioning to get even more intense during the dinner hour (and the breakfast hour, and the lunch hour, and the hour around snack time…….).  During the first year of life our children grow dramatically–and it is hard to know if we are providing enough food to support them in this growth.  In the next years of life their growth actually slows considerably, so what we have become used to feeding our children in terms of quantity, well, they act like they just don’t need it all anymore.

This leaves us with the constant question–“How much food is enough? How do we know our children have had enough food, enough nutrition, enough liquid, to keep them healthy over the course of the day or the week or the year?” Adults have a tendency to build on the concrete evidence that surrounds us. It seems logical to answer these questions by looking at the food pyramid, by mapping out meals that include all food groups, by insisting on our child eating “a bit of everything” because that is what we have provided.  Unfortunately, parents of young children already know that these logical questions and answers and nutritional facts go right out the window when they refuse to open their mouths at the dinner table.

The staff at Harley Hopkins is interested in providing some helpful hints around feeding and nutrition. Understanding typical toddler behavior helps families understand that what is going on around food is often a result of the child’s emotional, social and physical development–not an on-purpose clash of the wills over the table.  Charts of serving and portion sizes encourage a closer look at how much your baby or toddler is expected to eat during this period.  Our hope is to take some of the questioning out of meal time.  However, we can’t provide information without offering one really significant caveat:

Toddlers are famous for being completely un-categorize-able! Toddlers are consistently inconsistent.  They rarely follow exacting standards on anything.  Instead they explore boundaries.  For this reason they will explore the outer boundaries of what is considered “normal eating” regularly.  Therefore we want to stress one over-arching rule:

Trust that your children know their own feelings of fullness and hunger. During mealtimes, trust that they eat because they are hungry, and that they will stop because they are full. Try to honor their cues.

Ellyn Satter is an authority on eating and feeding within families.  The Hopkins staff often refer to her information when discussing nutrition with families.  We would like to share some of her information with you.

In her book “Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense” she offers the following chart which lists typical daily formula intakes for bottle feeding babies.  This provides a wide window of “normal intake”, but offers parents who are in the beginning stages of feeding a sense of what they might be able to expect:

0-1 month         14-28 ounces
1-2 months       23-34 ounces
2-3 months       25-40 ounces
3-4 months       27-39 ounces
4-5 months       29-46 ounces
5-6 months       32-48 ounces

As a child moves into eating solids, the amount of formula they will consume will slowly be reduced. Remember that when baby begins exploring with solid foods she is doing just that–simply exploring.  She will not gain a majority of her nutrients from table food for quite some time.  She will be depending on bottle feeding or nursing to provide the majority of her calories for months, until she has mastered the skills to consume the table food that her parents are enjoying.

How much of that table food is enough, then?

Ellyn Satter provides a chart listing portion sizes for children aged 1-3 years (again, in the book “Child of Mine”). Compare the portion sizes to what you often offer in order to check your understanding of what a serving consists of for your child.

Food

Ages 1-3 yrs

Meat, Poultry or Fish

1-2 Tablespoons

Eggs

1/4

Cooked Dried Beans

1-2 Tablespoons

Pasta, Rice or Potatoes

1-2 Tablespoons

Bread

1/4 slice

Vegetables

1-2 Tablespoons

Fruit

1-2 Tablespoons or

1/4 piece

Milk

1/4–1/3 cup

It is important to note that some children will eat more and some will eat less, but this is a starting point for servings which respects the capacity of a child’s body to take in calories. In addition, because toddlers often have only one “good” meal a day, it is best to think of nutrition in terms of weekly totals, not daily intake. If you are interested in understanding more about what can lead to successful family meals, follow the link below to Ellyn Satter’s web site:

Ellyn Satter’s Feeding Tips

The numbers game is often the first thing parents think about when we consider feeding our child. By understanding more fully how to answer that question, we can move our family meal time away from the focus of “How much did you eat” into another realm –“How Much…of our time around the dinner table is pleasant, engaged family time.”