Behavioral Consult

Are We Pandering to Peer Problems in Preschool?

“The preschool just called for the second time about Jason's behavior! What can I do?” This plea to you the pediatrician makes your stomach turn upside down. “What am I supposed to do about that?” you ask yourself. You're not there to see what is happening, and the parent isn't either.

This scenario is made even more difficult because the parents can be desperate for advice and quick solutions. It is incredibly inconvenient when a child is thrown out of child care or preschool for bad behavior, especially for parents who both work. Parents may even get hysterical because they immediately envision their darling failing to get into Harvard based on an inability to interact properly in preschool.

The differential diagnosis of this complaint takes some good sleuthing, but can make a big difference in the life of a young child.

Young children deal with social interaction issues that also confront grown-ups, but without the skills to navigate and manage them.

Learning social skills is a major benefit of preschool and kindergarten, particularly for children with few siblings or siblings of much different ages. The poem “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” describes many of these social benefits, including learning to share, take turns, act kindly, and use manners. The poem does not mention some of the other less poetic skills developed at this age, however: learning how to tease successfully, pull your punches, stand tall when there is a bully, bounce back when people insult you or after you wet your pants, tell if someone is a real friend, and deal with a critical teacher who is screaming all the time.

Young children normally practice a social interaction known as “inclusion/exclusion,” where one day they say, “Oh, you're my best friend. Let's go have our secret club.” But the next day they say, “You're not my friend anymore. I've got a new best friend. You can't play with me.” In general, the best short- and long-term outcomes occur when children work out minor interaction problems on their own, with a little teacher support, but serious problems are handled privately by the adults.

Ask for specific information about one of the incidents from both the child and the parent. If a child comes home from school and says, “This kid called me names,” parents can ask, “What kind of names?” to distinguish normal teasing from a toxic environment that needs to be changed. Abnormal teasing is more vicious and adultlike, for example, a peer calling the child a “whore” or using a racial epithet.

Don't forget to suggest ways to pump up resilience such as getting sufficient sleep and proper nutrition.

Next, assess the child with problematic peer behavior for skill deficits. A child with a gap may act up to distract others from noticing, out of frustration or as result of discrimination the child experiences. Often children this age who are aggressive have shortcomings in language. They may speak a different language at home or still communicate only in two- or three-word phrases, and therefore are unable to keep up with others and feel – or actually are – left out. They don't have the repartee to negotiate social situations and can become the victim of taunting and teasing, a specialty of girls.

Children with gross motor skill deficits, particularly boys, also may experience difficulty keeping up with their peers. In some cases, they are rejected by the group for being unable to kick a soccer ball or to climb a jungle gym as well as others can, and they are angry as a result.

Check fine motor skills as well. A child with poor coordination may be slow to finish work and/or be ashamed of what they do produce. Children can be very self-critical at this age and even tear up their papers. If the teacher asks everyone to draw a truck, and another student pointedly says, 'That doesn't look like a truck,” the child might punch in return. The child is acting up in frustration.

While children at this age are just on the edge of acquiring “perspective taking” (considering another's point of view), in the most severe form, difficulty in doing this can be a sign of autism spectrum disorder. Peers quickly pick up on this and may tease them, call them names, and/or reject their awkward attempts to engage. Try telling them a joke or asking them to tell one, and you may see why.

You can help by addressing any detected skill deficits with language therapy or physical therapy. Importantly, suggest ways to build their skills while allowing them to bypass social humiliation. Let children who are not athletic skip recess, assigning them the task of getting out the snacks to avoid further humiliation. Then work on their motor skills through after-school karate instead.

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