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Dr. Don Saposnek, Child Psychologist

Dr. Don Saposnek, Child Psychologist

Almost every mother knows that sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, when she fears there might be “something wrong” with her child.

Periods of developmental transition can be especially sensitive, like the leap from morning preschool into an all-day kindergarten.

In fact, there’s a few kids—like our daughter Lizzie—who have unexpected extreme reactions including angry, disruptive classroom behavior, along with a flat-out refusal to co-operate with the teacher.

During the first week, she began to refuse to sit at her desk during lessons. By the second week, she was aggressively throwing toys.

She had suddenly transformed from a sunny, playful child into an angry, spitting Tasmanian Devil.

Alarmed, my husband and I arranged a meeting with her kindergarten teacher, hoping to get to the bottom of it. Instead, it soon became clear that, after expostulating on our daughter’s negative conduct in vivid detail, the teacher was expecting us to provide the explanation.

We also had the uncomfortable impression that there was “no love lost” between Lizzie and her teacher—could there be a power struggle between them?

It left us shocked, deeply concerned and—yes—somewhat embarrassed by Lizzie’s behavior. Was there “something wrong” with our child?

After the meeting, we pulled Lizzie from the school with growing concern at the angry, defiant child she had become and began the desperate search for answers.

In the end, we talked to an expert who proved to be a kindergartener’s (and a mom’s) life saver.

According to Dr. Don Saposnek—a clinical child psychologist specializing in child development and childhood psychopathology, conflict resolution and mediation, and who also teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz—Lizzie’s reaction to kinder was far from abnormal.

As Dr. Saposnek explained, it turns out that Lizzie was sending us a message in kid-code. To our relief, it was a “light-bulb going on” moment.

Being an older mom and having gone to a strict elementary school in the 1960’s, I had even less understanding than younger mothers might. In my youth, children did not speak unless spoken to in class or they might get a yard stick across the back of their hand.

In this respect, Lizzie’s reaction to kinder was unheard of. I was facing kindergarten blow-up and at a complete loss as to how to cope with it.

“The year between ages 4 and 5 represents a noteworthy shift in development”, says Dr. Saposnek. “Many children may not be emotionally ready to handle the stress of being away from the comforts of home for too long a stretch.”

In fact, kindergarten can be a virtual blender full of stressors that can lead to kids’ inability to cope.

“Handling the increased expectations for focusing on learning tasks may be too much for a particular child”, adds Dr. Saposnek.

“Also, some children do not yet have the social skills to handle the competition for social attention that begins with the kindergarten year.”

However, while it’s easy to understand a child having trouble adjusting to kinder, our concerns about Lizzie went beyond simple explanations.

Where was her anger coming from? Why was she throwing of toys in the classroom? What had caused her refusal to co-operate?

“Another important factor is the ‘goodness of fit’ between a particular child’s temperament, the teaching style and personality of the teacher, and the nature of the school environment”, he says.

“A child who is very sensitive and cautious, placed in a school with an intense, assertive teacher, who has high expectations for performance, would result in a very unhappy camper—a child who refuses to go to school or co-operate with the teacher.”

And while children with other temperaments can experience different types of challenges upon entering kinder, Dr. Saposnek hit the nail on the head in our situation.

His advice for coping with kindergarten blow up? Don’t succumb to knee-jerk fear reactions. Instead, take time to research and learn what school and teaching environment will suit your child best.

From there, Lizzie and I spent two weeks “school shopping”—which meant short-listing several schools, taking scheduled tours, sitting in on classes, ‘interviewing’ teachers, and sharing our findings afterwards.

In the end, we chose a school with shorter days, more physical freedom, and a creative academic focus—all garnished with an emotionally warmer environment where teachers were “nice to her”.

The difference in her behavior was like seeing day follow night—over a period of a week or two, my little girl began to smile, co-operate and enjoy learning with confidence once more.

Dr. Saposnek’s prognosis on such conflicts further validated our experience.

“If there is a dramatic change in the child’s behavior in the new setting, then you made the correct choice”, he explains.

“However, if the problem is recreated in the new school setting, then you need to figure out which needs the child is expressing that are not being met.”

And, if you are unable to do this on your own, he suggests consulting a child psychologist for support.


Contact info for Dr. Don Saposnek:

Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D.

ds‌aposnek@‍mediate.com (dsa‌posnek null@null ‍mediate NULL.com)

http://www.mediate.com/dsaposnek (http://www NULL.mediate NULL.com/dsaposnek)

Angel La Liberte is the founder of the website Flower Power Mom—The Truth About Motherhood After 40 (http://www NULL.achildafter40 NULL.com/) (www.flowerpowermom.com (http://www NULL.achildafter40 NULL.com/)), where she blogs regularly about later life motherhood. You can email her at editor[at]flowerpowermom.com (ed‌itor null@null ‍flowerpowermom NULL.com).

4 Responses to Surviving Kindergarten Blow-up

  1. Karyn Climans (http://www NULL.karynclimans NULL.com) says:

    I’ve always believed that there is no one right school for every child. Thank goodness you took positive steps to find a better school environment for your daughter. It sends an important message to your daughter that you are respectful of her feelings.

  2. Deirdre Hickey Sturm (http://deirdrehickeysturm NULL.com) says:

    Finding someone who can help you to find the best solutions for your child is brilliant. You got good advice in how to set your child up for success in school. A good match between the needs of the child and the structure of the school is essential.

  3. Amy says:

    Some teachers in order to handle the stress of so many little children use one student as an ‘example’.

    Instead of evenly doling out the discipline. It’s easier to ostracize one child and have others curb their behavior on their own to avoid being ostracized.

    In essence punish the child not the behavior which is very 1960s but without the physical abuse ‘corporal punishment’. Still very much bullying and emotionally abusive.

    A principal should see this for what it is and reform the kindergarten teacher’s leadership style.

    It’s not only damaging one child, but it’s teaching an entire class of small children to ostracize, bully and to be intolerant of people.

    My own kindergarten teacher wouldn’t let me use the kindergarten in room toilet. She claimed I was having accidents. Little did she notice I just marched down the hall and use the big kids bathrooms.

    This teacher claimed I smelled of urine and BM. And demanded I have two extra sets of clothes each day (half day Monday, Wednesday & Friday). Suffering kindergarten teacher didn’t notice it was her own breath she was smelling not soiled student’s pants. She retired that year.

  4. Heather (http://onestepatatime NULL.co NULL.za) says:

    I’m glad you took action and found the right environment for her.

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