EDUCATIONAL AND EMOTIONAL TRANSITIONS
IN CHILDREN AGES 3 THRU 10
BY TERI JACOBSON, MA
Not every child comes with an owner’s manual. The parenting experience would be much easier if a personalized book pertaining to your child’s needs growing up, would pop out right after birth. But if that happened, all the experts, including myself, would be out of a job. Through all the trials and tribulations of raising a child, parents need to remember that each child is an individual responding and experiencing life in myriad of different ways, one day things will go smoothly the next day a parent will be found dragging a child kicking and screaming through life.
The educational and social transitions will continue throughout the lifetime of a child with the emotions of fear, anxiety and sadness being a constant with reacting developmental behaviors changing as the child matures. The role of a parent at each growing milestone is to communicate by acknowledging, identifying, connecting the emotions with the situation and assisting the child to problem solve an appropriate response.
The need to establish independence starts at age two and continues during the ages three and four, as a child further separates from the parents expanding an interest in the surrounding world. The language abilities of a preschooler, compared to the toddler years, grow in leaps and bounds but there can sometimes be a learning deficit connecting the words with the feelings. Again, not every child will experience fears and anxiety while growing up but the common fear of new places and separation from parents, especially when starting preschool, can be present during this time.
The school environment expands the world of a three and four year old. The safety and familiarity of home is now replaced, in the beginning, with a room that is full of exciting areas to explore, a large number of strange children the same age and an adult or adults who are not familiar. There are many ways and resources a parent can help alleviate a child’s fear, anxiety and sadness connected to this exciting time.
The child can accompany the parent to the school and with the permission of the teacher, participate in a typical school day, being introduced to the many learning choices in the room, and getting to know the teacher. Pointing out the positive of the school (there are books here to read like at home; the playground has a lot of swings and I know how much you like to swing) helps the child see that there are some commonalities between the new school and the child’s life. The parent can support the feelings connected to the school experience by identifying and acknowledging what a child is feeling at the time. If a parent can remember the first school day, it would be a good story to share.
The teacher is a good resource in assisting the child in understanding what it will be like going to school and will be there to help both the child and parent separate on the first day though it will probably take about two weeks for a typical child to settle in to the new routine. The eagerness to explore and learn does not stop after preschool and neither does the push for independence.
The world of a child age six to ten continues to grow and tantalize a child upon the entrance to elementary school. Unlike preschool, a child will be in class more hours than at home during the school year strengthening and exposing a child to a wider social network of their peers. This means that parents are no longer able to shield and filter some of life’s scarier information. For example a child hears that the parents of a friend are getting a divorce and begins to wonder about his/her own parent’s relationship; the puppy of a friend dies and a child is upset that a favorite pet might die too; someone doesn’t want to play one day and a child doesn’t understand why, thinking it is something he/she has done.
Parents need to support and encourage a child to describe the feelings of a particular situation, like those above, helping to identify the correct words that can be used to communicate to playmates and others what a child likes and doesn’t like. It is not unusual for a child to use his/her body by hitting friends when angry or frustrated. This is a time when a parent needs to calmly explain that anger is an ok feeling but is not ok to strike out and hurt someone.
Anger is a strong emotion for a child and sometimes it gets “stuck” in a child’s body and needs to be released in an appropriate manner. A parent can suggest and support appropriate releases such as playing with playdough, running outside, jumping around, scribbling with crayons, riding a bike, hitting or throwing a ball, and yelling into a pillow anything that involves a physical release and that a parent is comfortable about using.
A child learns that having feelings is a part of life by watching and imitating adults, older children, teenagers and parents. If yelling, screaming, hitting is a way a parent thinks anger should be shown, chances are that child will too. A parent who models using words to describe or explain feelings and appropriate ways of handling anger and frustration will show a child it is possible to have positive interactions with others.
The job of parenting a child through transitions can sometimes be overwhelming. Two good resources available are teachers and other parents who can provide suggestions based on the benefit of their experiences. Professionals in the area of child and family counseling are also good resources helping parents develop additional tools for working with a child and helping a child understand that parents are there to help.
Each age milestone has its own special challenges, some of which I have covered here in a general way. There are no hard and fast guidelines that come with being a parent, each child and parent develops a unique relationship that needs to include key elements of communication and support. Dialoguing with other parents, a child’s teacher, reading books and magazines on parenting or the researching the internet are good resources available to all parents. A professional counselor or psychologist who specializes in family and children can also provide suggestions and new information. The best resource for a child is a parent who can identify, acknowledge and connect the main emotions of fear, anxiety and sadness during life’s educational and social transitions, because, believe it or not, you are the first and foremost life teacher for your child.