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The Whole Child
For Parents
Frequently Asked Questions
abc's of child development
for parents
for early care providers

  1. How can I make separations easier for my child?
  2. How can I get my child to take a nap without a struggle?
  3. What should I do if my child won't eat?
  4. When and how should I start toilet training?
  5. How can I make a safe outdoor play environment?
  6. What are the best kinds of toys or play equipment for my preschooler?
  7. Is it all right for my preschooler to play on the computer?
  8. How can I tell if my child is gifted?
  9. What's the difference between normal activity and hyperactivity?
  10. What are some ways to deal with aggressive behavior?
  11. How can I help my child get along with other kids?
  12. What kinds of things should I look for in a childcare facility?
  13. What do I need to know before my special needs child starts school?
  14. How can I help my child deal with death or divorce?
  15. What's the best way to help my child prepare for a baby brother or sister?
  16. What should I do if my child has a temper tantrum?
  17. How can I help my child sleep through the night?

  1. How can I make separations easier for my child?

    From about 10 months to 2 years of age, many children are especially anxious about being away from their parents, but separation anxiety is fairly common among 3- and 4-year-olds as well. Whenever possible, help your child adjust gradually to a new place and unfamiliar people by taking her for a short visit well in advance of the day she'll be there on her own. Plan another visit shortly thereafter, this time leaving your child for a brief period.

    Whenever you leave your child with a new caregiver or in a new setting, allow yourself some time to remain with her while she gets comfortable. You can help your child feel secure by reminding her that you will be coming back and then returning when you said you would. Preparing some special items (a photo in her lunch bag, a note to be read, or some other sign of affection) will help her know how important she is to you.

    Despite your best efforts, your child may still show fear, anger, or grief at your departure. Experienced caregivers or teachers will acknowledge these feelings while comforting your child. They may also have ready a toy or activity that your child especially enjoys to smooth the transition. For a parent who must leave a crying child, it is often hard to keep this transition in perspective. But before long, most children make excellent adjustments to new settings and begin to enjoy the novelty and excitement of new people and experiences.

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  2. How can I get my child to take a nap without a struggle?

    Different children have different sleep needs and patterns of napping. Some children fall asleep quickly. Others may take as long as 45 minutes to fall asleep. To help this time go smoothly, try to establish a daily routine so that the events leading up to your child's nap unfold in a predictable way. You can help your child settle down by reading or singing to him, combined with comforting gestures like rubbing his back. If more than one child is napping in the same room, try to arrange a separate space for each so they don't disturb each other.

    Directly before his nap, darken your child's room, take off his shoes, and make sure he has with him any special belongings, such as a blanket or doll, that he needs to feel completely comfortable. Your firm but affectionate tone of voice will let him know that naptime has come. Once your child is asleep, keep the room as dark and quiet as possible. (These are just suggestions, not hard-and-fast rules. If your child settles down more comfortably in your presence-as you talk on the phone, sit at the computer, or sort laundry-that's perfectly okay.)

    After about an hour, most preschoolers will begin to wake up and move about. When possible, let your child wake up on his own. He'll be in a better mood and more ready to begin other activities.

    When a young child seems to need a nap but can't fall asleep, some parents find that motion helps. Try an outing in the stroller or in the car (in a car seat, of course). If your child does not want to nap on a particular day, or is making a transition to less daytime sleep, a quiet rest time may be a good substitute.

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  3. What should I do if my child won't eat?

    For children, as for adults, appetite can vary. If your child won't eat at a particular meal, consider the possibility that she simply isn't hungry and allow her to skip the meal without a struggle. Treat your child's refusal to eat in a casual manner, but do not offer special snacks or treats either during the skipped meal or soon thereafter.

    Some children are more enthusiastic about mealtime than others. Many families find it helpful to establish a daily routine of meals and healthy snacks and stick to it as closely as possible. Others take a more casual approach. In general, it's best to avoid offering treats as a reward for special accomplishments or withholding them as a consequence for unwanted behavior.

    Of course, if your child refuses to eat for a prolonged period of time, or if she limits herself to a very few types of food, you should consult your health-care professional.

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  4. When and how should I start toilet training?

    Most children are ready to begin toilet training around their second birthdays, but others need more time. Different families (and different cultures) have different ideas about the best time to start. Whenever you begin, keep in mind that toilet training is a process, not an overnight event. Begin by naming bodily wastes for your child, and giving him the vocabulary to describe the process ("You made a b.m."). Once he has mastered the words, you will be able to offer reminders or prompts ("Do you have to make a b.m.?").

    It's best to begin your child on a small training toilet or potty, rather than a full-sized adult toilet. Small children may be afraid of falling into the toilet, especially while the toilet is being flushed. As your child becomes comfortable with using the potty, encourage him to take on more and more responsibility for his own toileting by using training pants and dressing him in easily removable clothing, such as pants with elastic waistbands.

    Don't be surprised or upset if your child has an accident. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Children are especially susceptible to accidents when they are tired, sick, or experiencing stress. If he has an accident, take him to a private place, help him into dry or clean clothes, and don't dwell on the incident. Speak matter-of-factly to your child and reassure him that he's not the only child to have an accident while learning to use the toilet. Offer some hints for the next time ("Tell daddy just as soon as you get the feeling that you have to go").

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  5. How can I make a safe outdoor play environment?

    Outdoor equipment does not need to be expensive or complex to interest preschoolers. You can make your own equipment from well-sanded boards, hollow blocks, ropes, tires, and sand. Preschoolers are still mastering large-muscle coordination, so outdoor play equipment should be sturdy and should encourage activities like balancing, hanging, and climbing. Inspect the play area frequently to check for broken equipment and remove any sticks or sharp objects.

    The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that three out of four playground injuries involve falls from high places. For that reason, it's important to cover the ground beneath play equipment with sand, rubber mats, or mulch to cushion the impact of a fall. Grass is not sufficient. A rule of thumb: don't lift your child onto a piece of playground equipment that she couldn't get on by herself.

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  6. What are the best kinds of toys or play equipment for my preschooler?

    Researchers say that early experiences, including play, build a foundation for later learning. They have shown that creative, spontaneous play helps children develop physically, intellectually, and emotionally. This doesn't require expensive or elaborate toys. Storybooks are wonderful, but if none are available, babies will enjoy looking at pictures in magazines. Many parents have bought expensive musical toys only to find that their toddlers are happier beating on pots and pans with a wooden stick. Basic play materials include blocks, sand, containers that can be stacked or nested, and art materials (such as non-toxic crayons, paint, dough, or clay.)

    For babies and toddlers, the most satisfying games often involve interactions with a caring adult, like peek-a-boo. Spontaneous play often involves exploring materials in the physical world: water is wet, mud is thick, sand is soft and pours. This extends to toys as well: a rattle makes noise, a ball rolls and bounces.

    Preschool children use play to learn about cause and effect, integrate information from various senses, explore or imitate the things they see around them, and learn about their bodies. Play allows them to express emotion and gain self-confidence. In the preschool years, children may play simple games together but will sometimes prefer to "do their own thing" in the company of other kids. By the time they are in elementary school, children usually enjoy more complicated games that have many rules and winners and losers.

    As children play, you can stimulate their creativity by:

    • Expressing interest, asking questions, and encouraging them to talk about what they are doing. The talk that surrounds play is often as important as the play.
    • Understanding that children may be more interested in the process of play than in its product. Questions like "what is that supposed to be?" may not make as much sense to them as they do to you.
    • o Seeing what happens when you avoid providing a model or task for your child ("Draw me a house, Tommy") but encourage experimentation instead.

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  7. Is it all right for my preschooler to play on the computer?

    Many parents are eager to begin their children on computers as early as possible because they believe it will give their kids an advantage when they get to school. In fact, studies show that children who haven't been exposed to computers are able to master necessary applications and "catch up" in a relatively short time span.

    Researchers say that the preschool years offer special opportunities for many kinds of learning and that children benefit from having a variety of activities and experiences. They need many opportunities for physical activity, verbal and non-verbal exchanges with peers and caring adults, and lots of time for make-believe and imaginative play. Electronic entertainment and play-including computer or video games and television-can be both fascinating and educational for young children, but should be limited so they don't take too much time away from other important activities.

    When used wisely and in limited ways, computers can be good learning tools for preschoolers. Look for programs that spark creativity and allow children control over content. For example, choose a program that lets children dictate a story, print it out, and then illustrate it with crayons. Or, show them how to use a drawing program.

    If your preschooler is curious about computers and wants to try them, keep these guidelines in mind:

    • Be present while your child is using the computer. Encourage your child to talk out loud about her thoughts and decisions.
    • Avoid computer use in rooms with flickering lights, overhead glare, or in rooms that don't allow a distance of 30 to 36 inches distance from the screen.
    • Kids tend to stare at computer screens. Remind your child to blink.
    • In rooms with more than one computer, avoid setting up computers back-to-back, as the back of the computer emits the most radiation.
    • Follow the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics by limiting preschoolers' total screen time (TV, computer, videos, etc.) to one hour a day.

    Generally speaking, parents should avoid the following:

    • Programs with flashy graphics or distracting sounds that make it difficult for your children to focus their attention.
    • Programs that don't allow kids to set their own pace or talk to others about what they are doing.
    • Programs that don't follow real-world cause-and-effect relationships, which are very important during the preschool years.
    • Programs that involve violence or show racial, ethnic, or gender stereotypes.

    For more information on media and child development and to ask questions about media and parenting, visit the PBS Parents Web site, Growing With Media.

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  8. How can I tell if my child is gifted?

    As a poet once said, "we start with gifts." All children are eager to learn from the very beginning, and each has great potential. Many have abilities that will not be fully apparent or appreciated for years to come.

    When educators talk about "gifted" children, however, they are usually referring to a small percentage of children whose intellectual capacities develop sooner or more fully than those of their peers. Compared with other children, gifted preschoolers may be better equipped to consider hypothetical scenarios ("What would happen if….") They may be better able to take things apart and reassemble them, use a richer vocabulary in spontaneous conversation, or develop more complicated narratives when they tell stories. If you think your child has special gifts that need to be nurtured, you might request an evaluation from your local public school system. Many communities have educational programs geared to such children.

    Parents need to remember, however, that intellectually precocious children have the same emotional needs and social challenges as other kids. It is also important to recognize that intellectual giftedness is only one type of special ability. A gifted child's siblings or friends should be recognized for their unique skills and talents as well.

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  9. What's the difference between normal activity and hyperactivity?

    ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral problem of childhood. It is possible to diagnose ADHD during the early years, but it is not easy because the symptoms listed in diagnostic manuals sound very much like behaviors found in any preschool classroom, such as restlessness, fidgeting, and not paying attention. Children with ADHD make many demands for adults' attention, have difficulty dealing with transitions, and find it hard to wait for things-but so do all young children.

    According to the National Institute of Mental Health, experts should diagnose ADHD in very young children cautiously, because it can be hard to distinguish developmental problems (especially language delays and adjustment problems) from ADHD. Even very active, easily distracted children are not considered to have ADHD unless these behaviors seriously interfere with their functioning in more than one setting (for example, home and preschool) for at least six months. If you have questions about your child's behavior or activity level, talk to your health-care professional.

    For more information on children with special needs, diagnosis, and educational approaches, visit the PBS Parents Web site, Inclusive Communities.

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  10. What are some ways to deal with aggressive behavior?

    It is normal for preschoolers to be assertive, especially in the year or two before kindergarten. They may brag, tattle, and boss other children around. Episodes of aggression are common as well. Sometimes the aggression is a means to an end (say, pushing another child aside to get to a favorite toy); at other times, it may seem more direct (such as hitting another child or smashing a toy against the floor).

    As with many parenting issues, it helps to look at the situation from your child's point of view. It may seem obvious to you that different settings call for different behavior. But young children need help understanding that the same fearless, assertive style that wins approval on the playground will not go over well in a shoe store or during story time at preschool. They may not appreciate the difference between objects that can be thrown (a plastic Frisbee or a bean bag) and similar objects that cannot (a china plate or a pin cushion).

    As part of your daily conversation with your child, share your ideas about right and wrong. Even preschoolers can understand the difference between behavior that's wrong because it breaks a rule (for example, talking loudly in the library) and behavior that would be wrong anytime and anywhere (for example, kicking the librarian).

    Adults are not helping aggressive preschoolers when they take approaches that are rigidly authoritarian, overly permissive, or inconsistent from episode to episode. Parents may need to take a few minutes to think through their reaction before they respond, but withholding affection or ignoring a child for more than a little while ("the silent treatment") may worsen the situation.

    When young children act aggressively, many parents find the following approach helpful:

    • If there is any chance that your child will hurt himself or another person, take control immediately, and remove him from the situation.
    • Keep him beside you rather than isolating him.
    • Encourage him to verbalize his feelings, and use questions to help him to put into words what's really bothering him or what he really wants.
    • Reinforce rules-keeping them simple-and explore different ways to handle the situation.
    • Help him decide when he has his feelings under control and is ready to rejoin the group or activity.
    • Don't dwell on his outburst once he has resumed more appropriate behavior.

    Find more tips on dealing with challenging behavior in children.

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  11. How can I help my child get along with other kids?

    During the preschool years, children are increasingly able to understand other people's feelings and show generosity. Parents and other caring adults are important models for developing the kinds of behaviors you want your child to have. If you show generosity and fairness in your dealings with other people, most children will (eventually) follow suit.

    You can also help your child develop good social skills by role playing difficult situations ("Suppose we both want to play with the fire engine…"); connecting her own experiences to those of others ("That's like when you were learning to swim..."); providing opportunities for children to help and comfort one another ("Let's get a band-aid for Miguel"); and choosing activities that emphasize cooperation and compromise, rather than competition or contests.

    Find more tips on fostering friendships in children.

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  12. What kinds of things should I look for in a childcare facility?

    Many parents assume that all childcare settings are regulated by the government or by some other responsible agency, but this is not always the case. Even large programs may be exempt from regulation or inspection if they are affiliated with a religious organization, take care of children part-time, or have parents on the premises for part of the day. Some home-based caregivers are licensed, but most are not.

    For this reason, parents have major responsibility for making sure their children are safe and well cared for. To choose a good setting, begin by visiting several childcare homes or centers. On each visit, consider your first impression. Ask yourself, does this place look clean and safe for my child? Do the caregivers or teachers enjoy talking and playing with children? Do they talk with each child at the child's eye level? Are interesting toys and learning materials easily available?

    But don't stop with first impressions. Ask staff whether the program or home has been accredited by a national organization. Ask whether it is a licensed facility, and if so, how often it is inspected. Find out about the training and experience of the adults who will care for your child. Ask how long the staff have been working there (frequent staff changes are hard for young children). Some parents feel uncomfortable about asking such questions, but experienced caregivers and teachers will be happy to respond and will understand your concern.

    Consider the number of children in the group and the number of staff caring for them, keeping in mind that small children (especially babies and toddlers) need a lot of individual attention. Experts say that each caregiver should be responsible for no more than four babies or seven toddlers.

    Once you have narrowed your search, visit the home or center you are considering more than once. Stay long enough to get a good feel for the kind of care and activities your child will experience. Even after you start using the childcare, continue to visit from time to time. For more information, contact your local child care resource and referral agency.

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  13. What do I need to know before my special needs child starts school?

    First, it is important to understand your child's legal rights as they are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA guarantees every child a free public education and establishes an individualized education program (IEP) for every child who is found, on the basis of an evaluation, to have special needs. This includes preschoolers. ADA legislation requires that all public buildings, including preschools, be accessible to the handicapped.

    Your child's IEP describes modifications that teachers will need to make in their curriculum and classroom procedures to help your child be successful. The teacher will develop the IEP in cooperation with you and the evaluators in you child's school community. If your child needs special services, like speech therapy or physical therapy, IDEA requires schools to provide and pay for these services. IDEA also requires schools to educate your child in the "least restrictive" environment. This means whenever possible, your child will be in "mainstream" classes rather than in separate classes composed primarily of other special-needs students. By law, parents who believe their children aren't being educated according to these provisions have the right to appeal.

    Of course, knowing the law is not enough. It is important to get to know your child's teachers so you can help them understand your child and so that you can work together well. Meet with them well in advance of your child's first day so that you can review the IEP together, discuss your child's strengths and needs, and discuss any concerns you or the teachers may have. This is also a good time to show confidence in their ability to educate and support your child, and to demonstrate your expectation that your child will receive a high-quality educational experience.

    All preschoolers are apt to be anxious about entering a new setting or meeting a new caregiver or teacher. Children with special needs may be even more concerned. You can help by taking your child to school before the first official day of attendance. Together, you can meet the staff, practice getting around, and try to anticipate any difficulties that may arise.

    For more information on children with special needs, inclusive education, and your child's education rights, visit the PBS Parents Web site, Inclusive Communities.

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  14. How can I help my child deal with death or divorce?

    First and foremost, don't pretend that nothing has happened. Children are usually sensitive to parents' moods and can pick up when something is wrong, whether you verbalize it or not. Secrecy about the problem may only deepen a child's confusion or anxiety. Instead, explain in simple terms what has happened, without providing more detail than your child may be able to understand. Allow plenty of time for questions. Don't expect or insist on a response right away.

    Over time, if your child seems unable or unwilling to talk about his feelings or to ask questions directly, you might try role playing, keeping him company while he draws or paints, or reading stories with related themes. When your child does open up, don't pounce. Take it slow and let him know that you are listening.

    Find ways to let your child know that he are not responsible for what has happened, and that it is not his job to fix it. Keep in mind that preschool children often see events as consequences of their own actions; they also may believe that a wish or thought can make things come true. Set realistic expectations for what will happen next. Instead of assuring your child that everything will be "back to normal" before long, talk about what may happen in the days ahead and how this may make him feel. In cases of divorce, children benefit when parents can put aside differences in their presence. Let kids know that they don't have to choose loving one parent over the other.

    When faced with loss or divorce, children may feel that their lives have spun completely out of control, so let them know that their feelings and preferences matter. Give them opportunities to make choices, even small ones, about day-to-day activities. Let them know that they can decide how they want to react to events and express themselves.

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  15. What's the best way to help my child prepare for a baby brother or sister?

    Many parents worry that the arrival of a new brother or sister will be traumatic for young children. Researchers say that, in fact, the arrival of a new baby may be less stressful for preschoolers than parents imagine. The first mistake to avoid is insisting that your child is (or will be) upset.

    That said, it is also true that schedule changes or the absence of parents associated with a birth may be difficult for young children. It is not the arrival of a new baby that is most likely to upset a child, but changes in parents' attitudes and availability. This is especially true for a firstborn child when the second child arrives.

    Before the baby's arrival, it's a good idea to set realistic expectations about what the baby will and won't be able to do. The new baby is unlikely to be the wonderful playmate parents often promise, at least for the first couple of years. It is also important to set aside time alone with your older child, such as nightly reading time before bed, weekly outings alone with mom or dad, or other special times. Finally, you can help your older child adjust by ensuring that she has a sense of personal, individual space: she should be able to share or not share her belongings as she chooses, and have times or places where she can be alone if she likes.

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  16. What should I do if my child has a temper tantrum?

    Experienced parents know that tantrums always occur at the worst possible moment-just when the neighbors are passing by; in the midst of a traffic jam; or at the supermarket. You're a half-hour late already and your 2-year-old refuses to get into her car seat…. Your aunt from Toledo is about to arrive for her first visit with your toddler….

    The first thing to tell yourself when your child has a tantrum is that this happens in all families. Some parents overreact because they feel the need to prove to onlookers (real or imagined) that they are in control. Tell yourself that actions prompted by embarrassment may not be in your child's best interests. Make it your goal to help her calm down.

    When your child has a tantrum, the best thing to do is stay calm, keep her from hurting herself or anyone else, and help her contain her feelings so that she can quiet down. If possible, put your preschooler in a place where she can thrash about safely: the back of the car, with you nearby, is probably safer than a shopping cart or the parking lot. Consider skipping all but essential items on your "to do" list: it may be best to get home now and finish your banking later. Keep in mind that sooner or later (hopefully sooner), she will get tired and sanity will resume.

    Tantrums are very stressful for all concerned. Once the storm has passed, you might want to take time to think about what may have brought on your child's distress. Look at life from her viewpoint. Have any upsetting events or changes taken place? Is a schedule adjustment needed? (An earlier nap? An earlier lunchtime?) Could your child have an earache or an upset stomach? You may never know…but sometimes a conversation with your spouse, a friend, or a caregiver may shed light on the situation. If tantrums are frequent, you may want to speak to your health-care professional about them.

    Find more tips on dealing with challenging behavior in children.

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  17. How can I help my child sleep through the night?

    Sleep deprivation is hard on new parents: you're most tired exactly when you need to be most patient and alert. But it's unavoidable, at least for a while. It is unrealistic to expect babies to sleep through the night for the first few months of life. They have not settled into a day-night routine, and they need nighttime feedings. It's best to be patient.

    But how long is too long? Like many aspects of parenting, this is a personal decision. If your baby is not sleeping through the night by six months, some doctors and baby books recommend nighttime weaning and "cry-it-out" methods. This works well for many families. If parents can tolerate a few nights of crying, staying out of babies' rooms or going in only to give brief, reassuring pats, many babies will get the idea that nighttime is for sleeping and that crying doesn't pay. They will learn to comfort themselves.

    Other families devise their own variation or take a completely different tack. It's up to you. Unless nighttime feedings are causing havoc for you or other family members, you can simply wait until your baby is ready to give them up. But if months pass, sleeplessness begins to take a real toll, and none of your strategies work, consult your health-care professional. Together, you may be able to "troubleshoot" the problem or make a change in your daily routine that will ease the situation.

    Once your baby has begun sleeping through the night, there may still be times when he will awaken. He may want more attention from mom or dad. Perhaps he is teething, too warm or chilly, especially hungry, getting a cold, or excited by a developmental leap (like learning to turn over, talk, or walk.) Babies wake at night for many reasons. You may find that by the time you've figured out the problem, it has solved itself.

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The Whole Child     ABCs of Child Development     For Parents     For Early Care Providers