The night before classes start, some kids are so anxious that they can’t sleep. Others are ecstatic, counting down the hours. What causes such different reactions, and how you can help each of your children achieve success in school?
Hindy comes home from her first day of school glowing.
“Mommy, we have the best teachers!” she raves. Five minutes lat-er, she is hunched over her new notebook, surrounded by pens and markers, concentrating on every word she writes.
“How much homework can you have?” asks her mother. “It’s only the first day.”
“Mommy,” Hindy replies, “I want to recopy my notes and color-coordinate my loose-leaf.”
Her mother smiles, but inwardly sighs. She can see how this will play out: Any time one of Hindy’s younger siblings comes near the precious notebook, Hindy will throw a sulking fit. Instead of playing out-side with friends and getting some fresh air, Hindy will become obsessed with working on her already-perfect notes.
A short while later, Gershon comes home from school pouting.
“What’s wrong?” his mother asks. “Aren’t you excited to have Rabbi Jacobs as your teacher? You’ve been telling me all week that he tells the best stories and gives the nicest prizes.”
“What’s wrong is that Rabbi Jacobs decided to as-sign seats and I’m not sitting next to Sruly!” Gershon exclaims. “Rabbi Jacobs is the meanest, strictest rebbi in the whole school, and I’m not going back tomor-row. If you make me, I will faint. I will just die!”
His mother sighs again. Now that Rabbi Jacobs is on Gershon’s “bad list,” it will take him several weeks to move past the seating incident.
Many mothers can predict with amazing accuracy how their kids will react to the first day of school. There are those children who only want to socialize, scarcely noticing who their teachers are or what subjects they’ll be studying. Some are anxious about midterms and finals before the first day of school even begins. Others are on edge, convinced that the year will be a disaster if every small detail doesn’t go exactly their way. And many children sim-ply dread the first day of school. They hate meeting new teachers, perhaps new class-mates, and getting used to new routines.
What causes these different types of reactions? In many cases, temperament is the key.
DECODING YOUR CHILD’S NATURE
What exactly is temperament? It’s a “consistent reaction style that a child demonstrates across a variety of set-tings and situations, particularly those that involve stress or change,” explains Dr. Sandee McClowry, a professor of psychology and education at New York University. She believes that under-standing a child’s basic temperament can help you be a better parent.
As a graduate student, I learned un-der Dr. McClowry and later became a re-search assistant in her temperament-based parenting laboratory at NYU. After gath-ering years of data, Dr. McClowry created four temperament categories, known as dimensions. For each, a kid can either rate “high,” “low,” or “neutral.” To determine your child’s temperament, try to answer these four fundamental questions:
- Can your child stick to a task, even in the face of strong distractions? A kid who is low in this dimension, known as task persistence, is easily distracted.
- Does your child have strong negative reactions to common life stressors? A kid who rates low in this negative reactivity dimension is generally easygoing and unflappable.
- How much is your child attracted to new situations, people, or environments? In this dimension, known as approach/withdrawal, you’ll usually find that a kid who resists change or anything new will be low in “approach” and high in “withdrawal.”
- How active is your child? How much does he or she need to move around? A kid who is low in this dimension, known as activity, can usually sit still for long periods of time. In contrast, a child who rates high will find it unbearable to sit, and will need ample time for active play.
To get a clearer picture of these tem-perament types, imagine the following children. Let’s start with Gershon, who, as we discovered earlier, always reacts strongly when things don’t go his way. If Mommy said there would be pickles with supper but serves olives instead, Gershon will loudly voice his displeasure. When Gershon is studying for a test, you can hear his yelps of frustration at the other end of the house. If his little brother dares to touch his possessions, Gershon will throw a major temper tantrum. Children with this type of temperament are high in negative reactivity.
On the other end of the spectrum is Hindy. In many ways, she is a dream child. She works hard, whether she’s doing a homework assignment or a household chore. Even if the task is frustrating or boring, Hindy will be able to press on until she’s successful. Sometimes, she can be a bit of a perfectionist, and when pushed, she generally becomes sulky or whiny. Hindy is high in task persistence and relatively low in negative reactivity.
Kalman is high in withdrawal. He tends to avoid the unknown. He’s cautious about meeting new people or being in unfamiliar environments. Sometimes Kalman becomes tearful when pushed into a situation he finds threatening. Other times, he simply withdraws to ob-serve from the sidelines.
Faigy is Kalman’s opposite. She is high in both approach and activity. She’s never met a stranger or new situation that she didn’t get excited about. She tends to jump into things with both feet. Faigy, who is generally all over the place, likes to be constantly stimulated. She finds it very hard to sit still. At a playground, Faigy will immediately introduce herself to all the girls there.
Gershon, Hindy, Kalman, and Faigy are all examples of children with strong, temperamentally driven traits. Most kids are more mixed in their presentation. They might be somewhat cautious, or task per-sistent up to a point.
They can also be entirely neutral in one or two dimensions.
A child’s inborn nature is most evident in situations of stress, such as the beginning of the school year. There’s a lot for kids to contend with — new teachers, new subjects, new challenges, and perhaps new classmates. So, for instance, a cautious child like Kalman, who is high in withdrawal, may not be able to sleep the night before school starts. He’ll feel so nervous about his new rebbi and class-mates that he won’t be able to think about anything else.
If a child has a particular temperament and tendency to react in a certain way, our job as parents is not to say, “Oh, well, that’s just his temperament,” and leave it at that. The goal is to help our children learn to manage their temperamentally characteristic reactions. We can’t change our children’s personality, but we can change the behavioral expression of certain traits.
When a child handles his temperament-driven reactions appropriately, this is called self-regulation. Consider the following scenario: Gershon, our little boy who is high in negative reactivity, comes home from school tired and angry. He stomps into the kitchen, dumps his backpack on the floor and yells, “Uch! Chicken again! I hate chicken. I’m not eating supper!”
Let’s say Gershon’s mother, who is also tired, and maybe somewhat out of sorts after a long day of working, cooking, and cleaning, yells back, “How many times did I tell you not to drop your backpack on the floor? Pick it up. You will eat what you are served!”
If she responds this way, Gershon will end up yelling back. Years of this type of interaction will take their toll, and Gershon will be headed for a very challenging adolescence, and perhaps adult-hood. However, if Gershon comes in with the same attitude and his mother calmly states, “You are disappointed with supper. You know how to tell me about the problem,” and turns away, Gershon will prob-ably be able to calm himself down and articulate his feelings in a more measured fashion. Mommy will then help Gershon find a solution to the problem, and what started out as a potential negative interaction can turn into a positive and nurturing one.
When a child reacts in a typically temperamental way, we tend to attribute intent to them. That’s a fancy way of saying that adults often think children act this way on purpose. For example, it’s hard for Faigy, who is high in activity and low in task persistence, to sit still in class and to focus on the assignment at hand. Her teacher might believe Faigy is being intentionally difficult and chutzpahdig. Yet, Faigy’s mother knows this isn’t the case — the little girl doesn’t mean to disrupt the class. She just has a hard time controlling her need for activity.
The same applies to Gershon, who came home from school “starving” and started yelling about having chicken for supper. Mommy could have seen him as being intentionally chutzpahdig and ungrateful. But a mother who is savvy about temperament knows that Gershon’s high negative reactivity is causing him to react inappropriately. This doesn’t mean that Mommy shouldn’t discipline Gershon — she should and will. But the explosion was not intention-ally chutzpahdig. Chutzpah was the outcome of the high negative reactivity.
If Mommy attempts to discipline Gershon while he’s still busy having his strong reaction, it will just add more to the list of things that Gershon is upset about. What’s more, the rebuke won’t teach him anything. Once Gershon is over his strong negative reaction, Mommy’s first approach should be to have him reenter the house in an appropriate manner.
One technique that I’ve developed that works for children who are high in negative reactivity is called TAPS — or, “Tell About a Problem/Solution.” I have the child tap on a desk, which signals to his mother that he’s about to announce a problem. The mother must then shift all of her attention to the child, go into ac-tive-listening mode, and help resolve the issue. For example:
Gershon, tapping twice: “I have a problem!”
Mommy, tapping back: “What’s the problem?”
Gershon: “This is the stupidest homework…. I mean, I don’t know how to do this homework.”
Mommy: “Do you have a solution?”
Gershon: “Can you please help me figure out the assignment?”
Why does TAPS work? A highly re-active child has a hard time articulating just what makes him so angry and upset.
Using this technique will help him stay focused on the problem at hand, rather than getting distracted by all of the emotions he’s feeling.
The best time to teach TAPS to a child is during a calm period. Start by thinking of things that usually set your child off, or might trigger a temper tantrum this week. For instance, your daughter’s cousin is sleeping over, so there will likely be squabbles about sharing toys. Or, this week your daughter might be given an extra-hard assignment. The key is to start a TAPS training session with your daughter before these situations become problems. That way, when your daughter comes home angry from school later in the week, you can immediately start tapping, which is your way of saying, “Is there a problem?”
With this cue, your daughter can shift into a problem-solving mindset instead of getting lost in her emotions. Eventually, she’ll be able to take a problem-solving stance right away, rather than blowing up every time she feels frustrated.
What if you have a daughter like Hindy, who is high in task persistence and approach? Although this kind of child is usually a parent’s and teacher’s dream, this temperament type needs some extra help with self-regulation. Highly task persistent children, particularly ones who are praised for their achievement, can become perfectionists. They may spend an inordinate amount of time on schoolwork, and lose out on other important aspects of childhood. As a parent, your job is to remind them to get out and socialize, to move around and enjoy life.
In addition, it’s important to be cognizant of how easy it is to take advantage of this kind of child. If she’s asked to collect money for the school play, take a socially weaker child under her wing, or even wash a looming stack of dirty dishes, it’s likely she’ll be able to perform up to adult standards. But she is not an adult, and she deserves to have her childhood. If a teacher is singling this type of child out for more and more responsibility, it’s important to discuss this with the teacher. When a kid takes on the identity of “Morah’s helper” or “Mommy’s assistant,” it can sometimes be taken too far.
Some children, especially those who are high in approach, can’t wait to start the school year. There’s simply so much to be excited about! There are new school supplies, a new classroom, and soon, they’ll get to meet their new teacher! As the mother of this type of child, you know full well that your social butterfly isn’t always perceived so kindly by his rebbis, who would prefer that he remember that school is for learning — and recess is for socializing.
The temperamentally savvy mother, aware that teachers tend to see her son as disruptive and disengaged in the lesson, will call the teacher before the school year and say something like, “Baruch is so excited for the new school year. He’s heard so many great things about fourth grade! Baruch tends to be a very enthusiastic boy, and is very sociable. Sometimes he forgets to keep his enthusiasm for recess. I’ve spoken to him, but if this becomes a problem, please give me a heads up so we can come up with a positive reinforcement plan for him.”
This gives the teacher a sense of the type of child Baruch is, while putting a positive spin on his temperament. It also removes any tendency on the teacher’s part to view Baruch’s sociable nature as disrespectful, instead allowing him to see that Baruch simply needs help controlling his social tendencies during class.
On the flip side, if you have a kid who is high in withdrawal and is exceedingly anxious about starting the new year, try to find a way to make the transition easier. It can be very helpful to introduce the child to the teacher before school starts.
This plan worked for one of my clients, Malka (name has been changed), who was going into third grade. She helped her teacher decorate the class-room before school started. Malka ended up spending most of the time playing with the teacher’s toddler, which the teacher immensely appreciated because she was able to accomplish a lot. At first, Malka hardly spoke to her teacher. She addressed all of her comments to the toddler. However, by the first day of school, Malka was noticeably calmer. In fact, for the first time ever, she actually slept the night before school started.
What about those kids who can’t stop fidgeting or wiggling around in their seats all day? These high-in-activity types, like Faigy, usually come home so full of energy after being cooped up in class that they’re ready to explode. You’re likely familiar with the scene: Faigy flings her backpack across the floor as she enters the house, and “accidentally” smacks into her brother as she runs by him, giggling.
Faigy needs to learn socially appropriate ways of discharging excess energy during class. Some children can channel this type of activity into responding enthusiastically in a highly participatory class. Others cannot. For them, techniques like doodling or using “fidget items” — such as stress balls or Wiki-Stix (little wax sticks that can be bent and smoothed between fingers) — can be helpful. It’s best to work with the teacher so that she understands why your child has a stash of toys in her desk.
One client of mine, a third-grader named Naftali (name has been changed), was extremely high in activity. Whenever he felt that he couldn’t sit anymore, his rebbi taught him to get up and pace in the back of the classroom. When Naftali started fourth grade and got up to pace during class, the rebbi misinterpreted the act as chutzpah. It took some explaining on the part of the child and his mother before the fourth-grade rebbi could come up with a socially sanctioned in-class outlet for Naftali.
Often, a child who is high in activity is also low in task persistence. She has a hard time sticking to one particular topic or subject, or staying focused on an assignment for very long. For this type of kid, Dr. McClowry recommends breaking tasks down into small, bite-sized chunks.
It can also help to make deals with your child, such as “you only have to do the odd-numbered problems,” or “you’re only responsible for the shorashim on the test, not the vocabulary words.” I find, too, that these children can sometimes be persuaded to stay focused longer if they have the right equipment. For instance, teaching the kid about graphic organizers and color-coding can help engage her interest, since she is focusing on two different tasks at once — the color-coding and learning the information.
Before the school year starts, take the time to sit down and think about each of your children’s most salient temperament characteristics. What do you think their trouble spots will be this year? How can you help them learn to regulate themselves? With a better understanding of each child’s temperament — and a lot of advance planning — you can step your way into a successful school year.