A colleague asked if I would speak to a mother who had concerns about her three-year-old son and school. The school he was in last year was raising questions about his behavior and what an appropriate placement would be for the coming school year. She and her husband would be attending a conference with the director and she was hoping I could give her some direction on how to participate effectively in this meeting.
The family lives in a different location and so the request was for a telephone discussion. Not having met the parents or the boy, what I took from the conversation meant using my experience to read between the lines of what I was hearing. Although initially presented as a school issue, gradually what emerged was the mother’s own questions about her son’s behavior, namely his seeming disinterest in other children and detachment from the teachers as well as from various activities.
The mother reported that she is able to help him overcome these issues when he is with her and wondered if I could give her some tips on how to present to the school ways of effectively dealing with the child’s behavior. Listening to this mother, her underlying unspoken question was very familiar. She seemed to be really asking if the behavior indicated a significant problem requiring intervention of another kind or if he could be helped to function successfully in a mainstream setting.
This is a question that many educators and parents of young children confront at the start of the school years when children are required to function within a group setting and to respond to unfamiliar adults in authority. It is a question that has arisen with greater frequency in recent years as children enter school and various pre-school groups at younger and younger ages.
The problem arises because when children are in group settings, expectations for behavior begin to change even though development itself takes its usual course. Unrealistically, all children are expected to follow certain developmental norms at the same time. A degree of compliance is expected with little appreciation of individual differences. Not everyone is in the same place developmentally at the same time.
Along with earlier school entry, a great emphasis has been placed on early intervention. It is all to the good that various kinds of help are available when needed. The question becomes at what point is that both necessary and useful. Unfortunately, once that process begins a “more is better” approach seems to take hold without regard for what specifically might be most helpful.
The real problem is that in many situations it is difficult to determine if particular behavior in question signifies a developmental delay or deficit, or simply developmental unevenness in a given child. The difficulty for a parent is that there are pros and cons in courses of action to be considered. On the one hand, if a child can be helped to move forward in an area of difficulty with a specific intervention, such as language therapy, that would certainly be desirable.
On the other hand, it is also desirable for children to remain in regular classrooms with positive models of behavior if a child can be helped to function successfully at his or her own level in such a setting. In the example cited here, this mother was really hoping that the school the child was in would be able to accomplish that. Not knowing the child or school I could not answer that question.
The real question though, is one that is difficult to answer at these young ages for parents and teachers alike. Serious problems are more readily identifiable, but variations in individual behavior remains confusing requiring ongoing observation and evaluation.
Teachers can be most important in helping children with areas that are difficult for them if they do not demand compliance with what are really artificial norms. Some behavior is confusing even to “experts.”