Zuzu completed her first year of Montessori preschool this year. We feel that it was an excellent experience for her overall, but we also had some challenges. After the holidays, things seemed to be going smoothly, but when the weather got nice this spring, her teachers struggled with getting her to come inside after playtime and also at other transition times. She was getting along fine with her peers, but she would occasionally (frequently) resist the teacher's authority and refuse to do what was asked of her. Eventually, the director of the preschool reached out to me because they were finding that when Zuzu wanted to do something that was counter to what the teachers were requiring all of the children to do (like come inside from outdoor play to take a rest, or stop individual activities to join circle time), she would refuse to cooperate and have a meltdown--screaming, kicking--if she wasn't allowed to continue to do what she wanted.
If you've been reading this blog a while, you know that Zuzu is not a pleaser. She does not care about adult or peer approval. She wants to do what she wants to do, and she gives zero f**ks how you feel about it. The idea that I might be disappointed or upset is of no consequence to her. She has a fierce determination and she thinks that her ideas are the best ideas. If every other kid on the playground goes inside for rest and she is the only one outside and the teachers are telling her to come in but she doesn't want to? She would run away from the teachers. And when (if!) they caught her and made her come inside, she would physically kick and hit them. (This happened. More than once.)
This was obviously embarrassing for David and me, and also kind of baffling. I asked the director what we could do to support them, but we weren't having the same kind of issues with Zuzu at home. Sure, she was challenging or difficult on occasion, but since we don't have twenty-four other three to six year olds to deal with, we could either have a discussion with her to resolve the problem (yes, I admit that sometimes this included bribery in the form of a promised package of fruit snacks), or--if things really went off the rails--we'd just take remove her from whatever was causing the issue until she calmed down.
I felt that the director of the school seemed frustrated by Zuzu's behavior, and she actually suggested that maybe Zuzu was having trouble processing her emotions. Frankly, I thought she was expressing her emotions quite clearly. They just happened to run counter to what the school's expectations of behavior were. It didn't seem to be a issue of processing as much a conflict of wills. She was certainly capable of doing the things they were asking, but if she didn't want to do it, she was not about to cooperate just for the sake of being cooperative, and she'd physically resist. The director thought we might want to discuss Zuzu's behavior with a therapist, but I kind of thought Zuzu was just being a total brat, and I wasn't sure how therapy would fix it. (I also wasn't sure how atypical this was... I mean, I don't think that behavior is okay, but she was a strong-willed three-year-old, so I figured she'd just outgrow it?). And I found it hard to believe that she was the first kid in the history of the school to have these particular issues, but it was clear they felt that the situation was serious enough that we needed to do something.
Since the director of the preschool was obviously concerned, I became concerned that these incidents would have a cumulatively negative affect on Zuzu's experience at school--which in SO MANY ways has been nothing short of wonderful. Part of me wanted to do everything I could to make sure Zuzu had the resources she needs to behave appropriately, and part of me wanted someone to tell me that the director of the school was overreacting.
Since David works in elementary education, I've tended to come down on the side of the teacher/administrator when it comes to dealing with "unreasonable" parents, but I can tell you that no matter how nicely the director or teachers would talk to me about Zuzu's behavior by leading with the positives, and no matter how often they reminded me that they adore her, I ALWAYS felt defensive.
I mean, I KNOW she can be a pill. Logically, my brain understands that she probably is one of the more challenging children because of her particularly personality quirks. But my gut reaction when we'd have these conversations was more along the lines of THIS IS MY PRESHUS PERFECT BAYBEE we're talking about and so MAYBE YOUR SCHOOL IS THE PROBLEM AND ALSO YOUR FACE.
At any rate, I decided that a second opinion would be a good place to start. After making a few phone calls trying to figure out who that opinion should be (hint: not a child psychologist--they are busy helping preschoolers who have real problems, like severe trauma or medical issues, not preschoolers who occasionally lash out physically when recess time is over), I hit the jackpot when I found a retired early childhood specialist from a local school district who now works as a sort of consultant or coach for parents whose kids are having behavior issues.
I was a little skeptical, to be honest. I mean, I can read the internet and I'd checked out a bunch of books from the library. Was she really going to tell me something I didn't already know? And was she going to be able to figure out my complicated (PRESHUS) kid in one evening?
And yet, we bought the three package deal, which felt pricy (spoiler: WORTH EVERY PENNY) because not only would she come to our house for the initial visit, she'd also go to Zuzu's school to observe her there, and then meet with us again later for a follow-up. I really wanted her to see what was happening at school, since that was our main concern, but I also wanted to discuss some of the behavior challenges we were having at home (which, now that I thought about it, were plentiful, and I was curious about how "normal" it was).
The evening she came to our house was pretty normal in terms of Zuzu's behavior. We sat in the living room and chatted with her and Zuzu played with some toys and talked with her a little bit. She then said that it would be better if just the grown-ups talked, so I put on a show for Zuzu and the consultant (her name is MJ) turned to us and said, "She's intense!"
I was like, "Yeah, she can really be excited about things," but as we talked more, I realized that Intense is a more specific term than I had thought (you can google it and find all kinds of stuff about Intense Kids), and the more she talked about it, the more it really seemed to describe our Zuzu. What seem like extreme reactions to us--particularly when she was hitting and kicking at school--was, according to MJ, an expression of her intense emotions.
At one point in the conversation, Coco came wandering back in the living room, so I pulled out a basket of blocks to stack with her on the floor to keep her entertained. Of course, Zuzu came in to see what was going on, so she started stacking blocks as well. The adults continued chatting--in pretty vague terms--and then Coco started crying. I wasn't sure what had happened, so I said, "Zuzu, it sounds like Coco is upset. Can you tell me what happened?"
Zuzu said, "She fell down and bonked her head on the floor!"
Well, I KNEW this had not happened. This was a big fat lie. And of course I'm suddenly on the spot, thinking, How do I handle this Important Parenting Moment in front of this early childhood expert?Fortunately, MJ didn't wait for me to come up with something, and instead she just said, "Hmmm. That's not what I saw with my eyes. Can I say what I saw happen?"
Zuzu said yes.
MJ said, "I saw that Coco was going to knock down your tower, so you pushed her away to stop her."
Zuzu didn't deny this, but she recovered quickly. "Well, I just put out my hand like this to block her. I didn't shoot it out really fast LIKE THIS." (You can imagine the accompanying hand motions.)
MJ nodded and said, "Well, can you think of a better way to handle it next time?"
Zuzu thought for a moment and then said, "We could built a wall so Coco couldn't reach my blocks!"
MJ managed to hide her smile and said, "Mm-hmm. Can you think of another idea?"
Zuzu said, "We could put my blocks in a tent so that Coco couldn't see them inside the tent!"
Their back and forth continued, and Zuzu suggested that we could carry the blocks downstairs and not let Coco go downstairs, or we could bring up her Frozen castle and not let Coco inside it. It was clear that Zuzu was FULL of ideas, and none of them included her practicing restraint and not shoving her sister.
When I convinced her to go watch the end of her show so we could finish talking, MJ pointed to this conversation as an example of her imagination, but to my surprise, she saw this as a positive thing (as opposed to evidence of being a sociopath). She said that Zuzu's creativity means that her engagement with the world is complicated because what we see on the outside may not reflect everything that's going on. So we want her to leave the park because it's time to go, but she's in the middle of a dramatic, imaginary scenario, and leaving the park means that it's all over and, to her, that's a BIG DEAL.
MJ observed at Zuzu's school the next day, and I was so glad she did, because based on her report, I felt like she advocated for Zuzu a little bit. The director and teachers were totally open and welcoming for her visit, and she said that they were very receptive and appreciative of her advice, which was great to her.
She pointed out that the core of the Montessori program is child-directed, and the only moments in which Zuzu had conflicts or behavior issues were the times when she wasn't being allowed to make a choice about her activity. Now, I'm not saying that she should get to make all the choices--I definitely don't think so!--but MJ suggested that her intense personality responds so well to the autonomy of self-directed work and play that she doesn't want to let go of that independence (basically ever).
Her solution for the transitions that Zuzu seemed to struggle with at school was to put her in charge of them--when it's time for the kids to come in for nap, she needs to be the one who rings the bell and makes sure that everyone lines up. She needs to feel like she's at least partly in control of what's happening, or she will resist it.
Without realizing it, we had been doing a lot of that at home anyway. If I wanted to get her in the car, I'd ask her to help me get Coco in the car (or the bath, or whatever). She normally wouldn't necessarily resist those activities anyway, but she was especially excited to be a helper.
The other thing that we and her teachers had been doing was trying to prepare her for transitions by giving her a countdown (we're going to leave the park or go in for rest time in five minutes, two minutes, etc.). Rather than smoothing the way for the transition, though, it often seemed to backfire. I'd give her the warning, but when it was time to go, she'd either bolt away from me or (if I was quick enough to grab her) she'd have a total meltdown.
MJ's suggestion was to NOT do the countdown. She said that intense kids sometimes get more worked up and anxious when they are given a countdown toward the end of a desired activity. Instead, we need to make a firm statement about what she needs to do, but also redirect her intensity. So, we leave the park now, but on our way home we're going to have a butterfly hunt! Hurry and let's run to the stroller together so we can see all the butterflies!
This is such a small, easy thing, and it has been a total game changer. In retrospect, it seems obvious, but I don't know if I ever would have thought of it. Two days after MJ's visit, we went to swimming lessons and a birthday party, and we had zero problems when it was time to go.
It is sometimes annoying to make leaving the swimming pool into some sort of exciting adventure?
Yes. Yes, it is.
Is it preferable to carrying a screaming, kicking preschooler out of the swimming pool?
Yes. Yes, it is.
We also discussed the way Zuzu would turn on me (occasionally David, but mostly me) in anger and say things like, "You're not my mommy anymore!" or "You're not the grown up! I'm the grown up!" or "I'm not your child!" or (my favorite) "I don't love you anymore!" or "I hate you!"
I had always managed to stay calm, and I'd just say things like, "That hurts Mommy's feelings and it's not nice to say those things. We don't talk like that in this family. We don't say words that will make other people sad."
But MJ explained that when preschoolers act out, they are usually trying to get one of four things: attention, avoidance, power, or revenge. She felt that Zuzu's behavior wasn't attention-seeking, and it certainly wasn't avoidance (that's when kids pretend they can't do something themselves and whine until someone else does it for them). Zuzu gets into power struggles, and then when she loses, she gets revenge by saying she hates me.
Just knowing that this fit into a formula of behavior made it easier for me not to take it personally. But MJ also suggested that we handle it differently by NOT talking about hurt feelings. She pointed out that this was a concept that four-year-old doesn't really understand, and even if she did get it, in that moment, she's trying to get revenge, so knowing she hurts my feelings is making her point for her.
Instead, we handle those outbursts by simply saying, "It's not okay to say that." Period. No explanation of WHY it's not okay, just that it's not. It asserts that we (the parents) make the rules and that the rules are that talking that way is not okay. We don't need to follow up on it later, we just establish it as an absolute.
Zuzu and I had several of these clashes in the first week after MJ's visit, but in the three weeks since then, I can only think of one (and that was on vacation when she was tired and hungry and wanted a princess cup that her cousin was drinking out of).
The other tip that MJ gave me is that when Zuzu gets fixated on something that she wants but that we don't want her to have (like a popsicle before dinner, for example), is to avoid a direct conflict (because Zuzu wants the power struggle) and instead just say, "I'll let you know when you can have one."
This doesn't always diffuse the issue, but it works far more often than I would have expected. It's like she knows how to fight against "No!" but she's not quite sure how to respond to "I'll let you know." More often than not, she gets distracted by something else and never asks about it again.
We've also hit the point where we offer two choices, and she doesn't want either choice. Instead of picking one, she yells, "I want none of those!" or keeps insisting on whatever it is that she wants (like juice instead of milk or water). Instead of engaging in a never ending battle, we just say, "Let me know when you decide." It's such a simple thing, but it ends the stand-off AND it puts her back in charge--she gets to let me know when she's made up her mind (but she still has to decide between my two choices).
This is also not perfect, but I'd say we have about a 95% success rate in diffusing a meltdown by just saying, "Let me know when you decide" and walking away from the argument.
Honestly, the hardest part for me has been NOT overtalking. I'm inclined to want to explain things like, "You had a popsicle for snack this afternoon and I'm getting ready to fix dinner, and popsicles have a lot of sugar in them, so they are not a healthy choice, and that's why we're not going to eat another one today, but instead we're going to have broccoli and meatball and pasta for dinner, etc., etc." I want her to understand that I have GOOD REASONS for not letting her have the freaking popsicle!
But I've trusted MJ's opinion that it can be an overload for an intense kid who's getting emotional about a popsicle, and the best thing I can do to chill her out is to offer her alternatives that work for me ("Apple or carrot sticks?") and then say, "Let me know when you decide."
I don't know if I should attribute some of the shift in behavior to ME being more relaxed because it's summer, or to her being a month older and more mature, or if MJ is just a true miracle worker, but Zuzu has really been so much more easy-going since we've implemented some of these little changes, and I have my little script of go-to phrases that I just repeat calmly when she gets worked up.
(Sort of funny side note: We usually try to acknowledge Zuzu's feelings by saying something like, "I can see that you're upset now. You don't want to do X, Y or Z." When David wasn't feeling well after we went to the beach, I told Zuzu that Daddy's tummy was upset and she said, "Is it angry?" which made me laugh, but also made perfect sense from her perspective, because whenever I point out that she is upset, she's actually super pissed off!)
And it's not as easy as you'd think for me to follow these guidelines. Leaving the pool today did not go really well--she got back in the water after I'd told her it was time to go. But I also sort of broke down and I was giving her warnings like, "We're going to eat and then swim for a little longer before we have to go home" and then I said something like, "We're going to have to go pretty soon" when I knew we'd be leaving in about ten minutes. I personally would want to be prepared, so I WANT to give her these warnings, but she really does so much better if I just tell her the moment we're leaving, and then focus on getting her excited about what comes next--"We're going home for bubble bath and dinner! And then we're going to read FOUR books before bedtime!" It feels counterintuitive, but it works for her.
So now that I've written a novel on this, I just wanted to say that I didn't know if I was going to post about it all because I guess I was embarrassed by some of her behavior at school and maybe I didn't really want it immortalized in writing that my kid was so difficult at school that her teachers weren't sure how to deal with it and we as her parents couldn't figure out how to handle things on our own? But really, she's a creative and funny and INTENSE kiddo, and talking with an expert helped us all understand what we could do to help her, and I don't feel ashamed about that.
As a side-note, Coco is well on her way to turning two and for the first time ever, SHE is taking the role of my more challenging child. She's also stealthy. Poor David had to fish an entire role of unspooled toilet paper out of the half bath toilet this evening, and I'm positive she's the culprit, but I'm not sure WHEN she had the time to do that...