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Is My Child Just Willful, Or Does Her Behavior Point To A Bigger Issue?

by Sarah

Hi Annie, it's Sarah.
I really wanted to get your input on something Angie's preschool teacher said to me last week. As I have mentioned before, my 4-year old is a very bright but also very willful child (she knows what she wants and is upset when things do not go her way, generally).

Although I appreciate the benefits of these personality traits in the long run, at the present moment her willfulness has lead to many conversations about obedience to authority, whether it be my husband and I, her grandmother who watches her, or now her teachers who have recently brought up the problem.

Her teacher pulled me aside last week and told me that they are routinely starting activities circle time, for example) without her because she will not come when everyone is called. They say she says "no" to putting down her book and moving to the next activity in the daily line up.

I calmly asked Angie about her take on the issue and she gave me her classic "Idunno". I will also say that this is a girl who is very familiar with routine and a daily schedule at home. The teacher said she did not want to mention the problem because Angie has been making strides with speaking in class (half of the year she would not speak to her teachers, although she does chat with her friends).

She has been making huge improvements in other areas, such as the potty issue, which had been a huge problem again. Is this just 4-year old willfulness or should I be watching for other behaviors? Is there something I can do at home to prepare her for those transitions at school when they seem to need her to "move faster"?

Thanks Annie!

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Stroppy Four Year Olds - Part One
by: Annie Desantis

Hi Sarah,
Lovely to hear from you. It is SO hard for parents when teachers or well meaning family and friends point out aspects of our children that they think need improving.

Our schools in particular are set up to cater to the average child. Due to the sheer numbers of children a teacher has to manage, the dominant requirement is conformity. Of course as much as possible a good teacher will try to help a child to do their best within the requirements and constraints of the class. But the bottom line is, while some children do "quite well" in school situations, the bright, creative, strong willed child will tend to run into more conflict.

You mostly talk about Angie's strong will as a negative thing and I know it is a challenge. But it is something to be celebrated! I hope she never looses her sense of self belief and her ability to stick up for herself.

Of course learning social skills help to grease the wheels in society, and conforming and respecting rules is part of that.

Developmental issues such as potty training, speaking in class are not something to stress about. All the developmental milestones, are simply a guideline for so called "XSpurts" to be sure there is nothing wrong. But instead those milestones have been something miss-used to judge and compare children way too much.

All children do not get to the same stages at the same time, and are most certainly not all ready for the constraints and demands of school at the same time.

I suspect Angie is a creative little being much like her Mom, and when you are absorbed in a left brain activity it takes time to become aware of bodily functions such as needing the toilet. Similarly when she is absorbed in an activity and probably loving it, she may either need extra time to transition to something new, or she simply can't see any compelling reason why she would want to!

There is definitely nothing you need to be concerned about in terms of a bigger issue. What will make it an issue is making a big deal out of it. Of course you want to be informed of what is happening at school - but NOT in front of Angie, and do not bring it up again with her. It is up to the school to deal with what happens at school, and up to them to find strategies to engage her co-operation.

Of course she says "I dunno" when you ask her what is going on - she is way past that event, it happened in the past. You bringing it up starts to create an issue where she may feel she is wrong, bad, or has lost your love and approval.

Part Two Follows . . . .

Stroppy Four Year Olds - Part Two
by: Annie Desantis

You can only deal with things that happen when she is with you. And the same goes with her Grandmother. If you have strategies that work you can share them with the school or her Grandmother, but it is not up to you to sort out
issues that they should be dealing with.

Having said that, when as she learns better strategies for transitioning at home, some of that will hopefully carry over into school.

A four year old can be pretty stroppy! They have gained a lot of confidence, and have mastered a huge range of skills and they just want to get stuck into the world. Being restricted is SO frustrating.

My son never had a single tantrum as a two year old, but my goodness, his four year old tantrums were a bit of a shock! When I really sat and thought about when they happened, it was always when there was an expectation he would drop what he was doing and comply with my demands - and of course often when I was in a hurry to get out the door, we would have a 15 minute drama that made me late anyway!

I don't actually believe kids always have to conform to suit us. I think we have just as much responsibility in learning better ways of relating with them. Because I am the parent, and I say so, is not a good enough reason, and is a
hopeless way to motivate anyone! Of course we have the responsibility of the bigger picture and we know what needs to happen for that to fall into place. But children tend to behave badly when their needs are being ignored, or not taken
into account.

My son needed MUCH more time to be ready to change activities or complete what he was doing. Like Angie, he was an incredibly creative child, give him a roll of sticky tape and some scissors and card and he was in heaven. But he was furious when suddenly he had to switch to right brain activities such as putting on shoes and brushing teeth.

Now if someone told you to stop your craft activity right now because brushing your teeth was the best thing for you - would you be all that keen? Probably not!

Meltdowns in kids usually happen when emotionally they can't cope with the demand put on them. Then if the tantrums work to get what they want, of course it can then become a learned behavior, which of course you don't want.

Part Three Follows . . .

Stroppy Four Year Olds - Part Three
by: Annie Desantis

At home, you can help her develop transitioning skills by giving her more time, and helping her to switch brain activity. Don't make it into a threat, simply explain what is going to happen and what is going to be required of her, as
simply as possible.

The use of a buzzing timer or a piece of music can be a great way to help her to become aware of time passing. So you can explain what is going to happen, then say, in ten minutes the buzzer will go off and that will be your reminder that it is time to start finishing what you are doing. Then set the timer again for say Five more minutes and explain, the five minute timer is on, when that goes it is clean up time or what ever it is you want.

And of course you can help her learn to tell the time and you can build that in - this can work well using her age number - when the hand is on number four, then that is the time to . . .

A bit harder with digital numbers!

Generally my son needed about 15 minutes - (A 10 buzz and a 5 buzz), depending on what he was doing, to be able to adjust to the next activity.

Sometimes 2 lots of 3 minutes was fine if it was something I could see was coming to an end.

You can also teach her to negotiate depending on what is happening and what is required. This works well when she is used to the timer at 3 minute blocks, and also for activities that have an end point or natural break. So you can ask,
"How many buzzes of the timer do you need to be finished?"

If it looks like she is about to throw a wobbly, call a halt, and get her to say what she needs, then you can negotiate around that. This is not giving in to the tantrum, you need to get in quick before she lets loose.

Whoa! Lets stop a minute and you say what you would like to be able to do before pack up time. Do you need a buzz block on the timer to finish what you are doing?

Of course, being the bright little button she is, she will test what happens when she demands an EXTRA buzz block. And that is when you stand firm and say, "no, we agreed to ..... or you have had your extra time, now it is time for you to clean up"

Part Four Follows . . .

Stroppy Four Year Olds - Part Four
by: Annie Desantis

You can also start rewarding the times she complies to the new buzz system. If she likes star charts you can create one where she is earning stickers and then when she has gone a week or earned a certain number of stickers, have a reward of something she loves - doing a craft activity with you, or Daddy taking her to the park. It doesn't have to be buying something, but it can be if you know there is something smallish she loves. A trip to Macdonalds is often a good
motivator, but just vary the rewards she aims for.

Don't be fooled into thinking you have the only four year old that doesn't like being told what to do! You have simply had other people point it out, and then you start to feel like a bad Mom who is raising an out of control child!

She will learn some conformity (hopefully not too much!) to be able to fit in a little better as she gets older. But I would be concerned at a preschool requirement that is insisting a four year old should be conforming to that extent.

Social skills are a huge part of development in children, and it is not something that is mastered by the age of four. Maybe most of these other little children have learned to comply, but there is a lot more to social skills than compliance.

She will be observing and making up her own mind about if it is in her interests to join in, and quite frankly, I think that requires a far more inquiring and creative mind.

Just enjoy her energy and determination as much as you can, and don't be at all concerned about her pushing back and resisting compliance. It will balance itself out as she works it out for herself, and making a more conscious choice when she complies is far better than having been trained into it unconsciously.

Wishing you many wonderful times with her,
Annie D:)

Thank you so much!
by: Sarah

Wow- what a fantastically thorough reply! I love the idea of the buzzer, and you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned how I might feel when I'm in the middle of a project and asked to move on - I react the same way she does! :)

As much as I seem to be complaining about her will - I do love her determination and brainpower. I truly believe this kid will be doing big things in her future - Thanks so much again - will let you know how it goes!

A bright little spark!
by: Annie Desantis

Thanks for your comments Sarah, I'm glad you think the buzzer idea could be useful. I know you value her determination, and great that you recognize some of that in yourself!

She sounds like a bright little girl, and I am sure with a creative entrepreneurial Mom like you in her corner, she will thrive and go on to make her mark on the world.

If we all end up being the same, conforming and not questioning, there would be no change makers, no leaders, and very little artistic expression.

I have a lot of respect for teachers - my husband is an overworked run-down one! But they have to work in a system that does not allow much in the way of creativity or self determination. My heart always goes out to the very children he struggles with, because I know they are not the "average" child who is able to adapt to our school system.

Angie is a gem, let her flower in her own way as much as you can, and rein her in creatively when you need to!

Wishing you JOY,
Annie D:)

by: Anonymous

Absolutely brilliant!
I have had my daycare trying to convince me my 3 and a half year old needs to be diagnosed with some disorder because he is too engaged in one activity and doesn't wish to transition to another!

They tell me he has a meltdown and cries, but eventually joins in the new activity.

At home we rarely have this problem - mostly at mealtimes(coming to the table) or occasionally nap-time or bath time. I just say I'm going to count (similar to the timer!) and I rarely get to '3'.

Maybe they don't explain to him why they are changing activities?

Thanks so much for your words of wisdom,

Intense Concentration Is GREAT Thing
by: Annie Desantis

Hi Sonya,
Thank you for adding your comments, it saddens me when I hear so much emphasis on diagnosis in young children as soon a child behaves outside what is considered average.

My goodness, we need kids that grow up to be creative, to persist in discovering new ideas, to think outside the box.

Unfortunately daycare's and schools need children to conform so teachers can handle large number of children. They can't cope with kids all wanting to do different things. That is NOT a good thing for our children. Sure there are times when it is necessary to learn to do as they are told, or participate with a group. But when a child is intent and deeply concentrating, that is a wonderful thing.

Your little boy sounds like he has extremely good concentration levels, and persistence and knows what he wants.

Great if they can encourage him to try other activities - sometimes boys want to stay in the sandpit all day - and helping him to transition to different activities would be good. When I worked with pre-schoolers we used to take other activities out into the sand pit to encourage the boys in particular to do other things.

Your son is at the age of beginning to learn socialization skills and may well be still playing at the parallel play stage. But definitely do NOT worry about your son having such great concentration and persistence in his play. There would need to be a great deal more indicators to suggest he needs any diagnosis or additional help. Simply wanting to keep on with his activity and not yet having the maturity to deal with those feelings of frustration, is just a learning curve, not a psychological issue.

Best of luck,
Annie D :)

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