Sunday 22 April 2018

Dear David Coleman: My daughter is only five and is in trouble in school

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My daughter, who is nearly five, is having trouble settling into school. Her teacher told me she doesn't pay attention, challenges any requests and when she goes to the bathroom, doesn't come back. I work full-time, and she has also moved to the after-school in her crèche. We are due a new baby at Christmas, which she is really looking forward to, so I will be able to reduce her after-school soon. We also lost a baby very late in a pregnancy last year, which devastated her, so I am conscious that she has a lot going on. How should we handle this?

David replies: A lot has changed for your daughter, and, as you have spotted, she has a great deal going on. It may be that some of the distractibility and oppositional behaviour she is showing in school could be linked to this.

Many young children will show us in their behaviour that they have difficult and troubling things on their mind. It is as if the behaviour is just an outward expression of their inner turmoil.

Indeed, many of us, parents, may have similar experiences when we can have lots of stress and pressure in our lives and this is also expressed outwardly in frustration or conflict with others. If it can happen for us, then it can happen for our children.

Coming back to your daughter, she has had to contend with two very big changes recently; going to school and moving to the after-school group at crèche (probably populated by a wider range of ages of children than she was used to in the crèche).

These two changes alone could be enough to disrupt her equilibrium. However, in her case, she also has the trauma of the death of her little brother or sister last year to contend with as well as the likely anxiety, within the family, about the potential for a further miscarriage or other complications with this pregnancy.

It is possible that the teacher is only looking at your daughter in behavioural terms. In other words, she sees the behaviour, which is problematic, and may have no clue about any emotional distress that could be associated with it.

If that is the case then the teacher may also be trying to deal with it in terms of behaviour only, using things like consequences or rewards to try to motivate your daughter to act differently.

While some kind of reward system focused on reinforcing positive behaviour might help, I can't see an equivalent punishment system having much impact if the behaviour is, as I believe, primarily linked to her emotional stresses.

I think it might really help the teacher to understand the particular stresses that might be on your daughter right now. It might change her attitude towards your daughter - who may even be earning an early reputation as a trouble-maker - to know about the distress and probable anxiety that might be pervading your daughter's life at the moment.

The teacher will, naturally, still have to respond to your daughter's misbehaviour, but she might be a little more tolerant or understanding if she realises that it isn't your daughter's "fault" or down to some "boldness" inherent in your daughter.

At home, I think it will really help your daughter if you can begin to speak more, with her, about the changes you notice that she is having to cope with and about how she might be feeling, both in terms of grief, or about the new baby.

Creating opportunities to talk about these things, that might otherwise be a little bit hidden, could free your daughter up to process what may be some very complex and difficult feelings. The best way to do this, because she is so young, is to use empathy statements to show her you might understand how she has felt, or is feeling.

Don't be tempted to further punish her for any classroom behaviour. Do support the teacher but don't add any additional consequences for any misbehaviour. You can take it that she will have suffered some kind of consequences already in school.

Keep an open dialogue with the teacher, trying to help her focus on the underlying emotional reasons why your daughter may be acting out, rather than focusing only on the behaviour, and continuing to work with her to help your daughter to settle.

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