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What to Look For: Early Signs of Emotional Problems in Preschoolers

written by: Jodi Sherman • edited by: Amanda Grove • updated: 8/2/2012

What happens when a dose of being consoled, help with problem solving or redirecting does not do the trick to an emotional preschooler? When digging a bit deeper, signs of preschool emotional problems may be evident. Here are the clues and what to do if you find them.

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    Something Isn't Right

    A beautiful fall day has brought children laughing and playing together at school. During choice time, three preschoolers are having a disagreement about who can play with what dolls; they get upset, but are guided in the right direction to problem solve, and begin playing again. In blocks, two children can't decide if they should make a bridge or a wall. They start to get irritated with one another, but then decide to compromise on their own. One child is in art, and can not paint a flower the way he expects to. He pushes the paint cups over, screams, runs and knocks over the attempted block wall being built. When the teacher tries to console the child, he just gets more and more angry and runs out of the classroom.

    Sometimes, we are faced with a challenge that goes beyond our everyday teachings as parents and educators. How can we tell if a child is just having a bad day, or if something more serious is occurring? If a child's behavior and adjustment problems are repeating on a daily basis, very serious and having a bad affect on the child's everyday life, it is time to look at things more closely.

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    Looking in the Right Direction

    Let's look at a preschooler's typical social and emotional development:

    • A child is able to understand his/her feelings and that others have different feelings.
    • A child can form a friendship and relationship with an adult.
    • A child can join a group and adjust to new situations with success.
    • A child can independently stay on task during activity for some time.
    • A child can follow classroom rules and directions.
    • A child can use thinking skills to try to resolve conflict.
    • A child can take turns, share and respect others.

    Here are some tips to tell if there are signs of preschool emotional problems:

    • A child has a very low attention span.
    • A child has difficulty making friends.
    • A child does not follow directions well.
    • A child performs impulsive actions.
    • A child is very hostile in a friendly environment.
    • A child is very aggressive in a friendly environment.
    • A child is unable to recognize and identify their feelings and other's feelings.
    • A child shuts down and is lethargic.

    It is very important for teachers, parents and caregivers to pick up any of these signs and treat them seriously. Many people tend to think preschoolers will outgrow these attributes, and take a passive approach to dealing with the issues. However, if left untreated, aggression, behavioral problems and delinquency can occur in the child's future.

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    The Next Step

    So what happens now? Keeping anecdotal records and observations in a journal or log will help in recalling events when having a conference and planning. Because preschool children are not in public school, the steps will differ from working with an older child. If you are a teacher or caregiver, have another conference with parents, and introduce the idea about an outside source coming in to help with the issues presented.

    Early Intervention

    This excerpt was taken from the U.S. Department of Education:

    "Early intervention applies to children of school age or younger who are discovered to have or be at risk of developing a handicapping condition or other special need that may affect their development. Early intervention consists in the provision of services such children and their families for the purpose of lessening the effects of the condition. Early intervention can be remedial or preventive in nature--remediating existing developmental problems or preventing their occurrence.

    Early intervention may focus on the child alone or on the child and the family together. Early intervention programs may be center-based, home-based, hospital-based, or a combination. Services range from identification--that is, hospital or school screening and referral services--to diagnostic and direct intervention programs. Early intervention may begin at any time between birth and school age; however, there are many reasons for it to begin as early as possible."

    Pediatricians will surely have information on early intervention, and can be a great place for parents to start their journey in receiving help. Otherwise, researching a state's resource page will certainly bring a parent or teacher to the right information to begin seeking help.

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    A Lesson for Everyone

    Finding signs of preschool emotional problems doesn't need to be a negative experience. The methods, techniques and principles learned throughout the process of meeting this need will help everyone involved feel more in control and live with confidence. Other children involved will also feel a sense of structure, consistency, self-esteem, respect for themselves and others and empowerment.

    Remember not to panic when being involved with a child whom may have emotional problems; take time to breathe, think and respond in an effective manner, rather than just react with emotions to the situation. Keep energy levels up and try to stay in control. With the right tools, only success can follow when working with emotional problems in preschoolers.