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Tuning in to the Backstory


Arriving at school, a four-year-old has an unpleasant surprise. She reaches in her jacket pocket for her mask, but pulls out only a wrinkled white one, not the one she was counting on. “On no, you really wanted the strawberry mask, didn’t you?” her father asks. She nods, frozen in place, tears in her eyes.


Dad looks closely at her and says, “We have other sad things going on. Mom is away, and you didn’t get to see her at breakfast.” He then made a surprising decision.” Let’s run home and get your strawberry mask.” Since they live in the neighborhood, they return in five minutes, looking happy and ready to meet the day.

Many of us might be too rushed or live too far away to undertake such a course correction in the day, but we can all, parents and teachers, learn to understand the backdrop of children’s feelings, and how we can be of help.


Sometimes giving in is the exact opposite of what’s most helpful to the child or those around her. Going along with a tantrum or demands simply teaches a child to feel entitled and repeat the behavior. Yet there is always a backstory, and it’s our job as adults to understand the effect of events in a child’s life, on their terms, not ours, and try to find significant ways to support them.


The best way to walk the tightrope of balancing what matters in a child’s life with everyday demands is to travel back into our own childhood perceptions. Can you remember an adult tuning into your feelings, showing empathy, and offering support? That person isn’t always a parent.


Telling teachers when something is impacting a child’s life allows them to help the child in meaningful ways and supports our underlying sense that we are unified in our efforts to treat children with compassion and respect. As one adult said to me recently, “I’d be upset if I didn’t have the mask I planned on too.”