“Ben” was born after a difficult pregnancy and had “the worst colic (their experienced pediatrician) ever saw”, crying for 10-15 hours per day until he was 4 months old. Because of gastric reflux, he was put on numerous medications and a gluten free diet. Ben is also over reactive to sensory stimuli – stressed by sounds and sunlight, and particularly by touch – , making bathing, diaper changing, and wearing clothes aversive! His parents describe him as always preferring to be in motion. He has seen many specialists and has received OT and speech therapy.
At age 2, he entered preschool. Ben’s classroom has a calm but playful atmosphere, a predictable routine, a small number of children, and three skilled teachers. In this environment, Ben began to make strides in his development. Although his teachers delighted in his sense of humor and in the rapid progress he was making, his parents continued to struggle with meltdowns at home. They described him as a 24/7 occupation. They were worried about having a second child. How could they manage another when they were so busy with Ben?
In particular, Ben’s parents noted his difficulty making transitions. Although he loves school, he often refuses to go downstairs in the morning in order to get ready. He may have a tantrum about getting into the car to go to school. In addition, not surprisingly, he makes a fuss about going to bed at night.
One day, I encountered Ben on the playground. He was crying softly and burying his head in his teacher’s chest. There was a light rain that morning, and raindrops were making dark spots on Ben’s shirt and sweat pants, and even glistening on his hair and forehead. His teacher was holding a raincoat in her hand and attempting to persuade Ben to put it on. She explained to me that Ben did not like to get wet, but he didn’t want to put on the raincoat. She asked Ben why he didn’t want to wear it, and he just shook his head and continued to cry, explaining only, “I sad.” Acknowledging that maybe Ben himself did not know what was making him so sad, his teacher and I continued to imagine why he was crying. Maybe he did not want to wear a different raincoat, since his own raincoat had been left at home and this raincoat was from the lost and found. Maybe he didn’t like the feeling of a coat on his body anyway. Also, he didn’t like to get wet! Maybe he was crying because of all of these things.
Eager to draw from the teacher’s experience, I asked her what she had tried and what she was going to do. She explained that they had a rule that children must wear raincoats if they wanted to play in the rain, and that otherwise they had to go inside. Ben cheerfully said he wanted to go in. His teacher said that he could go in, but she also knew he wanted to play with his friends, and he couldn’t play with his friends if he went inside. Ben looked confused and unhappy. The teacher consulted her watch. She told me that there were only a few minutes left of their outside time, and that she was inclined to let him stay outside and change into dry clothes after all the children returned to the classroom. This was the “choose your battles” approach. I asked her what she would do if the circumstances were different. She said that if it were pouring rain, she would insist on his putting on his coat if he chose to stay outside in the rain and refused to go in, even if she had to physically help him put it on. Often parents and teachers are reluctant to take the concrete initiative to help a child put on his coat. However, I have found that sometimes doing so has a good result; once the initiative has been taken, a momentum is established that makes it easier for the child to collaborate. Of course, one wishes to support the child in taking his own initiative, so encouraging him to do so is the way to begin. Only if that fails would I take the lead. It is always important to have many strategies available.
What was most impressive about the whole situation is that when I called Ben’s mother afterwards to follow up, she told me that Ben had explained the whole experience to her after he came home from school. He told her about not wanting to put on the raincoat, that it wasn’t his raincoat, that he was getting wet and that made him sad, but that he had wanted to play with his friends. I reflected on the remarkable learning experience this had been for Ben. In Ben’s presence, his teacher and I had discussed slowly and thoughtfully the meaning we made of Ben’s dilemma and some possible solutions. We noted that Ben didn’t like any of the solutions we suggested. We came up with others. He didn’t like these either. There was a way in which Ben’s rejection of our suggestions enhanced the learning experience by drawing out the reflective process, by allowing him to consider more and more possibilities, by helping him see that there was a bigger territory in between all or nothing than he had realized, even if he could not bring himself to choose one of those options. Finally, in telling the story to his mother, he engaged in the active process of creating new meaning of his own of his experience. In remembering, in choosing the words to fit the memory images, in making himself known to his trusted and beloved parent, he took a small step into a mind of his own.
I believe that through a repetition of small growth experiences like this Ben will learn how to make transitions more smoothly, because he will be making them in an expanded repertoire of choices.
Photos by Ginger Gregory