Observing a group of two-year-old’s and their parents, one mother-child pair caught my eye. The little boy’s attention was drawn from one thing to the next, making it difficult for him to stay focused on the project at hand. The mom kept moving with him from one thing to the next without trying to limit or constrain him.

In a second group, a little boy at certain times would move away from the group into an alcove formed by an obsolete fireplace opening. He later would move back to rejoin the group. His mother was upset by this behavior and tried to signal him to stop.

In both of these situations the behavior of an individual child stood out from the group, which often draws the attention or concern of a mother or teacher. Because we now have children in groups at younger ages than ever before, differences in children from others in their age group become more apparent earlier, at a time when differences in development can diverge significantly.

Differences in a child’s behavior from the group may be of concern to a teacher if the child’s behavior presents an issue, such as aggression toward other children or disruption of particular activities. An issue for education in having young children in group settings is the inadvertent pressure this may cause for conformity to group behavior.

Differences in children can cause concern in parents about whether these differences are “normal” or if they signify a “problem.” Although it is not unusual for parents to compare their children’s development to others, it is often disconcerting to a parent to see her child’s behavior seemingly different from other children in a group setting. In general, parents often react to children seeming not to follow a teacher’s directions or not participating in a group activity. Often, expectations are not in keeping with what we know about children’s abilities at various stages of development.

Because of the usual range of development in preschool age children, it is difficult to evaluate or make judgments about the differences in behavior that may emerge in a group setting. The question of whether the behavior in question is “normal,” may be the wrong question to ask. The question really being asked is whether it is abnormal - something requiring intervention.

Answering the question requires understanding the meaning of the behavior for the child in question. The examples of behavior given above point to the importance of understanding the purpose the behavior is serving for that specific child. It is not a question about the behavior itself but about the child.

In the instance of the child withdrawing from the group, observation made it clear that the withdrawals occurred in response to specific activities. This child removed himself whenever the teacher went around the circle seeking responses from the children individually. It was interesting that the child was avoiding individual attention yet his solution was actually drawing individual attention of a different sort.

The example of the child with seeming short attention requires answering questions about other life situations and general development. He was the youngest child in the group and perhaps unready for the expectations of group participation. His mother seemed unfazed by his activity level and it would be important to know how she perceived his activity level. Did his behavior interfere with other experiences important to development?

The point is that in both instances intervention meant understanding and then helping a child master those situations that are causing him difficulty. At times, that may mean changing the situation rather than trying to change the child.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.