Fit for school? Fit for life?

by Dr. Eliane Perret, remedial teacher and psychologist

Today it is very common to foster children at an early age. They attend language courses, learn to play a music instrument or play tennis. Their weekly schedule is fully clocked. They want to have the best possible chances for success at school. Often there is the fear that the child will not be able to meet the requirements and compete with its peers. However, current research clearly shows that emotional balance and the ability to make a constructive contribution in social interaction are just as important for later success at school as early reading and arithmetic. Encouraging these skills in a child is often challenging, as the following example will show.

“But I want this dinosaur!”

Recently I was looking for a nice puzzle in the store of a zoo. A mother was staying near me with her son. After the holidays, Noah, he was called, would start with the first grade. This I could gather through the conversation between the two.
   The mother wanted to pick out a keepsake of the beautiful day together with him. The selection was large. She referred him to the beautiful animal books and games. But he had other things in mind and headed for the plastic dinosaurs which were available in all sizes. And it came, as you can already guess.
   Soon Noah’s determined voice was heard: “But I want this dinosaur.” The mother reacted calmly and spoke to him: “Look, you have already bought many such dinosaurs. Then you played with them for half a day, and they’ve been lying around ever since. You can choose. We buy a game or a book. Then we can play together and look at the book.”
   The boy could not be convinced, his voice was pressed and very determined: “But I want this dinosaur!”

Linguistically dexterous

Well, this is an everyday situation. I could empathise with the mother that it cost her a lot to stick to her opinion. Her son showed an impressive perseverance. Soon he would go to school. I could deduct from some remarks that he could already read and write his name and knew many numbers. Still, I wondered if Noah was well prepared for his upcoming school entry. Noah had already acquired an important skill that was needed at school: He was linguistically skilled, could express his wishes and had a differentiated vocabulary that did not exhaust itself in “super”, “mega” and “cool”. But how did he use language as a “bridge to other human beings”? Obviously, he was used to the lively exchange. He argued with his mother like a world champion to get another dinosaur. He had learned at an early age how to use language to shape relationships and give weight to his own ideas. At school, it would help him to follow the content of the lessons with close listening. He had the language skills to understand the rules of living together and thus contribute to a good learning atmosphere.

Being able to do without something

But I wondered whether Noah was also able to respond to his counterpart, empathise with his situation and, if necessary, put his own wishes aside. His mother had probably experienced with her son that after an initial brief enthusiasm, his interest quickly waned. He could also stubbornly stick to an idea. It seemed important to the mother that her son learnt to be more flexible in adapting to new challenges. However, winning him over was a demanding task. Noah became more and more excited and persisted in his desire to buy a dinosaur. The mother stayed calm and composed. She assumed that her no would not harm Noah and that she did not have to please her son. Her life experience gave her the necessary foresight. She knew or had a sense that such experiences would later make it easier for her child to give up something and overcome disappointments. This would also be part of Noah’s everyday school life.

Not only knowing a lot and being smart

Noah had a good chance of becoming a successful pupil in several ways. But he would not always be able to do what he enjoyed and was easy to do. Success in school also means being able to deal with disappointments, success and failure, and accepting that he is sometimes the stronger and sometimes the weaker. This is also part of building and maintaining true friendships. Being together with other children will certainly lead to differences of opinion and conflicts – children also have a right to this. Misunderstandings will arise, and Noah will have to deal with how he can make up things he has done. Small children often see their own way only, feel right and quickly become desperate, powerless and angry and can be offended. Noah had already outgrown this infantile phase, but it was obviously difficult for him to abandon an idea he had once grasped.

Remain steadfast

Still he stayed with the primitive animals. His mother had meanwhile moved towards the cash register. Noah grabbed resolutely his dinosaur and stomped after the mother. Would she still be able to resist his stubbornness? She referred him once more to the large selection of puzzles and games from which he could choose one. Then she turned to the cashier. She had chosen a book. Noah put his dinosaur next to it. The mother informed the cashier that she would only pay for the book. Now Noah obviously realised that “nothing could be done”. He put his dinosaur down and was offended. The mother gave him a short time to think it over, then she paid and turned to the exit. Noah behind.
   A few minutes later I met mother and son again. They were on their way to the parking lot. The mother told him in an easygoing manner what she had liked most about the day. Noah had still put on his offended face. But he could not help but smile when she told him about the funny monkeys.

A step forward

Noah had learnt and experienced a lot today. Not only exciting things about animals. The mother had put an obstacle in his way and thus enabled an important learning step. He had to do without his dinosaur and had to accept a disappointment. That had demanded something from him (not only from him!). Noah had succeeded in enduring the conflict with his mother without a tantrum. The mother had given him the necessary support through her calmness and inner security. This had made him stronger and allowed him to take a step forward in his social-emotional development, and he had come a little closer to success in school and life.       •

For further reading and deepening:

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