Hold On A Second!

Watching our preschoolers rush with energy and exuberance is exhilarating! We often dream of capturing that energy because our adult selves can’t imagine what we would do with it.  It is important to remember, however, that the youthful energy we all admire is still part of us — we have just learned as adults how to channel it more effectively.  We may not run at top speed across a playground anymore, but we harness our energy to complete tasks at work, take care of households and children and find a moment or two for our favorite hobby.  Throughout our life spans, our ability to regulate our energy changes.

The staff at Stepping Stones has the opportunity to watch that energy channel itself productively throughout the school year. The young preschooler continuously is developing her ability to focus and control her energy; as she enters kindergarten she has many of the skills around self-regulation that will help her get the most out of her school experience.  We talked recently about the value of developing these self-regulation skills, and we wanted to share with you their benefit as well as discuss strategies for helping your child gain more and more control over all that energy.

The typical kindergartner will need to exhibit focus skills in order to best meet academic goals. Although we rarely expect a three year old to have these skills, it is reasonable to assume that a 5 year old will – and that a four year old will be working on them. It is typical to expect that a kindergartner will be able to sit and listen to teachers for 10-20 minutes at a time. She will need to focus on directions and information even while sitting in a larger group of kids on the rug during circle time. It will be a great skill to be able to wait to take a turn, rather than insist on immediate action because the other students in the classroom will also be waiting for their turn. Being able to meet unexpected situations and transitions with a reasonable emotional response – honest and regulated ‑ will help the kindergartner move smoothly through a day that involves many activities and lots of jostling to get from one place to another. These are all self-regulation skills: skills that ask the child to show control and focus.

The staff at Hopkins preschools are working with our young students to help them gain mastery over their bodies and emotions. One of the most important ways that this happens is through friendships and relationships. Taking the time to discuss with students how a certain action felt for another, and problem solving ways to address the situation are key elements in building self-regulation skills. For example: two friends are looking to play with the same teddy bear and during their “discussion” around who gets to play with it one friend grabs it roughly away and throws it in anger. The adults will sit with these two children and talk about how that action caused hurt and frustration rather than a solution to the problem. The children are encouraged to voice their feelings around the teddy bear problem, and then work on a solution. Being able to talk about feelings without behaving in a way that is uncontrolled is self-regulation. It will help the future kindergartner have relationships and friendships when he is on the playground during recess and there isn’t an easily accessible adult to help him work through disagreements.

Another way that the preschools are helping students develop the social and emotional regulation of students is through awareness of the group.  Students are asked to wait until everyone is seated at a table to begin snack, to raise hands to speak rather than talk over each other, to be aware of the next person’s personal space and not crowd or kick to get comfortable. This sense of personal responsibility helps the preschooler to see that others deserve the consideration he would hope to get himself.

In addition, the emotional focus of a child will be especially helpful when working through kindergarten tasks. Learning new things is often challenging, and when a child is able to work through frustration she is more likely to find success in a task. The teachers use various strategies to help a child who is growing frustrated. For example, they may encourage deep belly breathing, hugging themselves in a tight squeeze or pressing hands together in a lap.  Having an acceptable physical outlet for the frustration we all feel sometimes will help the child to move through daily frustrations and focus on solving the problem at hand.

Parents play a significant role in helping a child learn to self-regulate.  For all of these early years your child has been using your energy to help her regulate her own energy. She feels your tenseness or frustrations as well as senses your calm in different situations. She then uses your mood to help her decide how to adjust her own mood.  If you tend to have an intense reaction to a frustration, she will also tend to escalate her reactions in that situation. Children learn best through imitation through the age of seven years old, so offer your child the sort of coping strategies you would like to see them imitate. When you are frustrated or unhappy, talk about your feelings and narrate the steps you are going to take to calm down.  For instance, if you are feeling especially grumpy about a situation, say out loud “I am really unhappy right now, and to calm down I am going to go into the other room and take 5 deep breaths.”  Then go ahead and do just that in order to calm yourself down. Talk to your teacher about the coping strategies that are being used in the classroom so that you can use these same methods with yourself and with your child. The consistency between the different locations will help your child to practice this calming-down skill.

Parent can also help with self regulation by maintaining a schedule throughout the day and the week.  Part of scheduling for the family is to know when to say no to events or programs if it disrupts the healthy schedule you have created.  If your preschooler is getting 11-12 hours of sleep per day, three good meals and two snacks at predictable times and family time when you are all enjoying each other, then you have a schedule for your family.  If more and more activities are crowding into the calendar and getting in the way of the basics, it is time to say no to some of those opportunities. A good night’s sleep should likely trump any other activity because self regulation can not happen in a sleep deprived person—whether that person is 4 years old or 40.

When you say no to your child—whether it is no to an outing, a cookie or another book at bed-time, stick to your no. Your child will surely show displeasure at being told no—none of us like to hear it—but one of the difficult lessons we need to help our children learn is to be able to handle a no, and get through the disappointment. It is a valuable social skill to learn to say to ourselves “That is not what I want, I guess I will need to do something else.” Preschoolers need to be working very hard at learning this skill. Without a tolerance for frustration and a problem solving approach to unpleasant issues, the grade school years may be a tumultuous crisis after crisis.  Better to work with your three year old who is upset about not getting a second cookie than a teenager who is upset about anything!  Parents teach this lesson by remaining calm when their child is upset, and accepting the sadness and frustration. “I see you are sad that you don’t get to have another cookie. It is hard not to get what you want. We can go read a book together when you are ready.”  Let your no remain a no, but be available to your child when she is finished being sad about it.

Ellen Galinsky has written a book about seven life skills parents need to work on with their children entitled Mind in the Making. Self control and focus is the number one skill she discusses.  Here are some ideas she offers to help your child gain this important skill:

  • Encourage free play and projects while at home. Projects that encourage children to work together to achieve a goal are great for preschoolers. Dramatic play does this particularly well. When children decide to play store they take the empty boxes from the recycling bin and set up a stand with a cash register.  They collect coins and sort and organize them fairly among the players. They find costumes so that each person is a specific kind of person when they go into the store.  They discuss with each other what each person will do and when each turn is over so the next person can be that.  The project builds and builds and so do the focus skills and social self control skills.
  • Play games that require children to pay attention. Games that do this well are some of the old favorites: Simon Says, I Spy, puzzles
  • Read books to your child in a way that encourages listening and focusing. Be engaging when you read: change the voices for characters, let your voice get loud and then soft, have your child fill in the blanks of stories that have repeating lines.
  • Remember that background television can be very disruptive to a child’s focus and concentration. Research has shown that having a television just playing in the background disrupts a young child’s play.
  • When you hear the complaint “I’m Bored”, sit with your child and ask them to come up with a plan for something to do. With young children the plan is small and simple. “What can you decide to do for 15 minutes? Look through books? Color a picture? Build with blocks?”  Don’t offer TV or screen time as an option.  Have your child carry out the plan, and then when he is done, ask him how it went. “What did you enjoy about doing that? What did you make? What are you going to do now?”
  • Make sure your child is well rested and has breaks.  A preschooler needs her sleep as much as we adults to. Ensure that she is getting 11-12 hours.   Make sure the schedule of her day includes quiet time and down time.  She needs that too in order to regain her energy for the next activity.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: