Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Picture this scenario: You’re about to walk into the wedding of a distant cousin and you do not know anyone. You’re a little anxious…who will you talk with at the smorgasbord? Will you try to stand in close proximity to your bubbly great aunt from Tel Aviv and hope that she will come bouncing over? Or will you be bold and start speaking with random members of your father’s family? Maybe you should just stand quietly on the side and look super busy with your iPhone so you can avoid talking to anyone!

The truth is that these are real anxieties that adults have today. In fact, the social skills needed to handle such a scenario are first formed and learned in preschool. “Entry behavior” is the ability of a child to break into a game or for an adult, a conversation. It is a complicated skill that ideally one learns in nursery and kindergarten. When a preschool teacher takes the class out to recess, how will the children navigate the playground? If there is a group of girls playing hopscotch or a cluster of boys playing ball, how will a given child approach the group? How will they enter the game? This “entry behavior” is a learned skill, and if not properly addressed and taught at a young age, children and adults alike can have anxiety about how to break into the game or conversation.

Parents and educators at the RYNJ Preschool were privileged to hear these and other words of advice at the inspiring Back to School Night presentation last week. Dr. Norman Blumenthal, a well-known and highly sought after child psychologist, addressed a large crowd of mothers, fathers, teachers, and administrators, and zeroed in on some of the complexities of today’s society. Rabbi Price, Head of the School, was overwhelmed by the positive turnout. “It is exhilarating to know that we have developed a yeshiva which is not only dedicated to the teachers’ development, but also focuses on the parents’ growth and development,” he said.

Dr. Blumenthal is a renowned trauma specialist and speaker. He is the former Director of Bereavement and Crisis Intervention Services for Chai Lifeline as well as a past Vice President and current Board member of NEFESH. In 1992, Dr. Blumenthal helped found CAHAL, a yeshiva-based program for children with learning disabilities, language impairments, and/or attention deficit disorders. He also currently serves as the Director of Trauma, Bereavement and Crisis Intervention for Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services.

Dr. Blumenthal noted that today there is a dramatic increase in anxiety among children. He proposed that one of the salient reasons for this is the loss of “childhood naivet?” due to the onslaught and availability of unfiltered information. “Kids today know everything,” he said. “We can no longer shelter our children as we used to.” He encouraged parents to talk to their children about what is going on in the world. “Obviously, it must be age-appropriate,” he said. “But if our children are likely to learn about something by hearing it from ‘the big bad kid on the bus’ as he calls it, we should be the ones to inform our children.” For example, our children are no longer sheltered even from traumatic events such as the gruesome murder of Leiby Kletzky or the horrific kidnapping of three Israeli teens. Years ago, we were able to keep these stories from our children. But with the advent of the Internet and digital devices where information is disseminated and shared, our children are finding out everything in real time.

Dr. Blumenthal covered other topics as well and was very informative (and entertaining) in the time he had to address the parent body. He was very “real” and blunt in some ways. For example, when a parent asked out of concern that her preschool child wasn’t getting along with everyone in the class and had only befriended two or three kids he quipped, “are you friends with everyone in this room?” Everyone laughed. “Your child does not have to be friends with everyone.” He explained that it is normal for a child to experiment and explore what friendship is at this young preschool age, and one day express that he or she has one “best friend” and the next day claim to have a different “best friend.”

Dr. Blumenthal also stressed the importance of imaginative play among preschool children. Perhaps more important than the extracurricular ballet, basketball, soccer, gymnastics, and music classes that we fill our children’s schedules with, we should make sure to provide our children with adequate time for free play. Particularly, imaginative play such as “playing house.” He explained that oftentimes a child is able to act out some insecurities he or she may be experiencing. He suggested going over to watch our children play from time to time, and also listen to what they are saying. (Not obsessively, of course, but for 5-10 minutes). He encourages parents to actually stop what they are doing and get on the floor with the children.

“Play house or play happy birthday with your child,” he said. “You can also introduce a doll to the game and pretend that the doll is having some difficulty meeting people. Then have your child role play the scenario of what this doll/child can do to make new friends.”

He explained that so much can be taught and learned from simple imaginative play and it is an invaluable way for parents to spend time with their children. Rabbi Price commented, “At times, we ignore some of the behaviors demonstrated by our little children thinking that it is merely ‘child’s play.’”

Dr. Blumenthal encouraged parents to establish limits so that negative behaviors can be addressed earlier on in their development. He also stressed the value of creative play for the sake of social and cognitive development. In other words, nothing is truly ‘child’s play.’”

Mrs. Fran Mermelstein, Early Childhood Director, noted that “Dr. Blumenthal covered three very important topics relating to preschoolers in both the school setting and at home: how to deal with anxiety in children, the importance of play for preschoolers, and how to react to and discipline the different behaviors of children as a parent.”

Dr. Blumenthal’s presentation added a sense of meaning to the usual back-to-school night agenda of meeting teachers and going over the planned curriculum for the school year. After the presentation, one mother noted that Dr. Blumenthal was “informative and inspiring,” and loved how Dr. Blumenthal delivered his information in a “humorous and insightful way.” “It added an element of comfort and reassurance,” another parent said, “and I think both parents and educators felt more confident about how to deal with certain behaviors, and left feeling relieved that many social anxieties at this age were normal.

My friend called this week to tell me that her child was having a rough few days in school. “He was saying something about the children in the class and also mentioned sitting on the side during recess.” While her son had initially appeared to be adjusting well the first few days of school, this week her child was coming home in tears. When my friend called the teacher to discuss the situation, she was pleasantly surprised when the teacher started quoting from Dr. Blumenthal’s lecture. “This is obviously a rough transition for your child,” the teacher empathized, and she promised to keep an eye out and help her son integrate with the other children. But then she reassured my friend, “Remember what Dr. Blumenthal said. This is all normal and part of the process of learning how to socialize in preschool. We are here to help facilitate in the most loving way and we will do everything we can to make your child comfortable. As hard as it is to see your child going through this challenge, please don’t worry. It’s normal.”

Dr. Blumenthal’s message was not only encouraging to parents, but teachers were empowered, as well. Kol Hakavod to the RYNJ Preschool for another successful event.

By Irit Sandler