ParentingFilter: Improve my 4-year-old
November 18, 2016 8:57 AM   Subscribe

My delightful 4.5-year-old son has many fine qualities. He also has many areas in which he is behind the curve of his peers. Please recommend some resources to help me help him. Specifics inside.

1. Empathy: Despite a nonstop diet of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood since the age of 2 and two absolute bleeding-heart parents, my son still has a big problem in the empathy department. He's not mean or aggressive, but he has a very hard time talking about his own feelings or understanding the feelings of others. His own emotional pallet is fairly shallow from what I can tell. He's either happy (90% of the time) or pissed off/sad that his desires have been thwarted. He doesn't notice or care that anyone around him is sad or angry or happy. Other people being sad does not make him sad. Or rather, I'm not sure other people being sad is even on his radar ever.

2. Impulse Control: He's getting in trouble at preschool a lot, for the first time. It seems that most of his problems stem from poor impulse control. Once he gets silly, he can't stop. We don't really see this that much at home, which is an extra layer of difficulty. At home, he's an only child and impulse control is just less necessary. But apparently at school he doesn't listen to his teachers when they tell him to stop doing something--running around, hiding toys, making up games that are only fun for him. He thinks he is hilarious and is unfazed when no one else agrees. We're meeting with his lead teacher tonight to try to nip them in the bud because I really really really do not want him to be That Kid. And right now, he's being That Kid.

3. Laziness: Okay, so I'm a bleeding-heart rule-follower so points 1 and 2 are really alien to me but this is right in my wheelhouse. Kid is super smart but very very lazy about things he's not automatically good at. (Why yes, hello every report card I received in my entire life!) Right now, the skill he's most lagging behind his peers with is fine motor skills. This kid can read and spell but cannot write his letters worth a damn. And that's fine, he's always been a gross-motor-first-fine-motor-later kid, but he's driving me bananas with his refusal to even try to learn to print. See also: every toy we give him that requires a little work to get going. He wants us to do it for him because it's haaaaaard. (FTR he has been evaluated by an OT for fine motor and declared not bad enough to receive early intervention services.)

My secret terror here is that I'm going to accidentally raise a whiny, emotionally-stunted man-baby. Yes, I know he is an actual baby and a lot of this is normal for his age (I think? IDK I only have an n of 1). But I really feel these are all things that need to be worked on seriously now before they become too entrenched. I'm getting quite concerned for his prospects in full day Kindergarten next year.

Please recommend any books, websites, videos, strategies, anything that might help with one or all of the above. Thank you!
posted by soren_lorensen to Human Relations (31 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Impulsive, doesn't listen, can't write his letters, doesn't care if others are sad, happy 90% of the time and angry / sad for 10%...

This sounds like a super typical four-year-old to me. I'm not a professional by any means but there was nothing here that screamed 'abnormal' here, other than maybe a mom who is a bit over-anxious. Enjoy your son, he sounds like a spirited and lively little man. Before you know it he'll be a grunting fifteen-year-old with 1% of the empathy he has now and you'll miss your little tornado.
posted by matthew.alexander at 9:02 AM on November 18, 2016 [32 favorites]

It's not a book (like you asked for), but this PBS article puts into perspective the emotional development of children. Very generally speaking, kids are egocentric until about the age of 7. Some boys can't even read until the age of 7. Emotional development is an organic process that cannot be easily directed and facilitated, although it can be very easily derailed.
posted by My Dad at 9:04 AM on November 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

The fact that he's happy 90% of the time means he's a happy kid. Your son doesn't seem behind to me, relax and give it time, he'll be fine!

By the way, a lot of the things you mention, seem to depend expectations based in culture. In the Netherlands, a kid that reads and spells at 4.5 is way ahead of his peers, and no one would expect a kid that age to be able to write. Same for his impulse control: that's why kids his age are in kindergarten, which is where they learn those 'classroom skills' like sitting down for a while, listening to the teacher, etc. I know it's different in the US, but maybe this offers some perspective.
posted by Ms. Next at 9:07 AM on November 18, 2016 [11 favorites]

I do not have kids, but this all sounds normal compared to what I hear from my friends who do have kids. The one thing I can think of is to reward him less for just being naturally good at stuff, and start deliberately rewarding him more for persistence at becoming good at stuff. This might be tough to do because it seems natural to be delighted when your child is brilliant at something, and it's pretty much impossible to hide a genuinely delighted reaction from a child. (Nor...should you?) So it might require you to actually change what you feel, not just what you think, because IME kids pick up on what people feel with scary accuracy and completely DGAF about what people actually think.

So practice being delighted at persistence? Maybe with others, too? Like in front of your kid?

Again, I don't have kids, so this might be more animal-trainy than you're comfortable with, but otoh...4.5 years old.
posted by schadenfrau at 9:10 AM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

(I know you said he doesn't care if people are sad etc, but does he respond to positive attention? That's sort of what I'm thinking, that it's easy for kids to be like YES EVERYONE LOVES ME WHEN IM GOOD AT THINGS, I WILL ONLY DO THINGS I AM GOOD AT, and their experience might not go beyond that, but that's something to work with)
posted by schadenfrau at 9:13 AM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

HE'S FOUR. There's no such thing as being a lazy four year old. Cut your kid some slack! I did a few things related to things you wish your kid would do, and I was billed a child prodigy. Your kid sounds totally normal for a four year old, if a little isolated and inexperienced at being out in the world of other kids.

Here's what I would do:

A. Get your kid into more situations where he needs to interact with other kids. Not just school but activities, playgroups, the park, cousins, etc. Ideally as unstructured as possible. Let this mostly be self-directed by him, and let him suffer any consequences of not being empathetic, annoying other kids, etc. About the 20th time someone you like and want to play with cries and says "I HATE YOU! I'M MAD AT YOU! WHY DID YOU HIDE ALL MY TOYS?", (or worse, hits back) you start realizing you can't act that way.

B. Martial arts, maybe? There's a pretty strong concept of the sensei as a non-parental authority figure, and clear rewards for obedience. Especially being calm, docile, and listening to direction.

C. Stop giving your kid toys he's too little to actually operate. Every time he says "no, you do it for me!" re a toy, put it in the closet and bring it back out in six months.
posted by Sara C. at 9:16 AM on November 18, 2016 [11 favorites]

The laziness in #3 is much more likely to be perfectionism. He may be picking up body language cues of anxiety about him not trying from a parent's encouragement and that pressure of parental expectations for a kid can make them decide it's safer just not to try something they're not immediately good at than risk a parent being disappointed. You can try things like colouring in and drawing pictures together so you're doing it as an experience together, rather than handwriting he does alone, and talking about how both of you are trying and making mistakes and improving.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:18 AM on November 18, 2016 [9 favorites]

Occupational Therapy! Works wonders :))
posted by jbenben at 9:22 AM on November 18, 2016

I really really really do not want him to be That Kid

Toughy toenails! You might have That Kid!

I had That Kid, really truly That Kid. And my That Kid had emotional delays but he's finally caught up, to the point that recently he got an award at school for, basically, no longer being That Kid. Even if your son is That Kid today, it's not necessarily going to be true a month or a year from now.

I've volunteered in a Kindergarten, and the range of letter-writing is huge. Some kids can, some kids can't. If you've gone so far as having him professionally evaluated, I want to gently suggest that you're worrying too much and should try to relax.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:26 AM on November 18, 2016 [9 favorites]

Sounds super typical to me too. In fact, my very empathic, good-listening, rule-following kid slid into being more selfish with way less impulse control right around the age you're talking about. He just gets very excited about the things he gets excited about. The biggest manifestation of lack of impulse control right now is constantly interrupting conversations to tell us that the sky is blue, for instance. We just keep reinforcing the lessons and boundaries that have always been in place. I feel confident that, like everything else with kids, it's just a phase.
posted by vignettist at 9:26 AM on November 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

every toy we give him that requires a little work to get going

What kind of "work" do you mean? Like building a Lego model? So stop giving him toys that require (what to him is) "work". Toys shouldn't be work. A lot of "boy's" toys are construction orientated, but given it's nearly Christmas maybe talk to him about toys he wants and focus on those that work straight out of the box.

Also, this might be obvious but praise effort not results. If he draws a picture, don't say "that's really good" (he hears: parent only likes "good" pictures). Say "I really like how you [added specific feature]", e.g. made the cars different colours, or made all the people look really happy, or "wow you must have really concentrated to draw all those details". That conveys "parent likes it when I put effort into something".

With writing, if he does even one good letter, praise that rather than the rest of it. "Wow, that's an awesome E, you must have practised writing Es loads!". That said, 4.5 is still early for writing, and he will practice that a ton in school. My kid is the same age range and the difference in writing ability in his class is huge. It will even out eventually and he will catch up.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:32 AM on November 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

We have the opposite scenario in terms of behavior, acts out at home, and is relatively (within bounds of his age) a good listener at school. Probably because he wants attention from his little brother.

Maybe working on drawing or cutting things with scissors may be a fun way? At this age sometimes development goes in bursts. Our kid was slow to pass the letter recognition exercises in preschool but now is catching up quickly in recognizing words.

Also, try to find a way to ask him about why he doesn't want to write letters in a round-about way. Sometimes when my kid is resisting something it's been for a weird reason that I can talk him out of.. or we've let him do something usually off-limits such as writing letters with the "adult" writing utensils (eg pens, permanent markers) and he's been willing to do it to use them.

Finally, could he possibly be left-handed? My kid was slower in writing letters but writes equally well with both hands and throws much better left-handed. We told the teachers to try to be sure they'll letting him use whatever hand he wants.
posted by typecloud at 9:35 AM on November 18, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks all! Just to clarify: I'm not concerned that he can't write his letters, it's just his general "this is hard therefor I will quit immediately and demand that someone else do it for me" orientation. The letters thing is just an example. And he was evaluated not at my prompting but through his preschool as part of a routine early intervention visit by the local public school system.

With the toys, yeah, it's stuff that has to be built (definitely not Lego models--I can barely do those!). He really likes Making Things Happen, but in order for Things To Happen, they have to be set up first. Like, the ramp has to be built out of blocks first before the car can be sent down it.

I'm willing to accept that I am just having out of whack expectations here. But it is true that he is getting singled out by his teachers for poor behavioral reports more than his peers. They have a three-level rating system and I look at the chart when I pick him up. He's often the only one in the "red" zone by the end of the day.

posted by soren_lorensen at 9:46 AM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

They have a three-level rating system and I look at the chart when I pick him up. He's often the only one in the "red" zone by the end of the day.

Is this chart something all the kids can see? Because that sounds to me like a setup for disaster.
posted by praemunire at 9:51 AM on November 18, 2016 [10 favorites]

Elephant and Piggie has some good books on waiting / patience / empathy (I can't think of one that specifically talks about effort but it's related) if you don't have them already.
posted by typecloud at 9:52 AM on November 18, 2016

Re empathy, I was super concerned for my kid over his lack of empathy (or so I viewed it). He always said please and thank you but he wasn't particularly grateful when someone worked hard or went out of their way for him. He also had a bit of a shitty time in school for the first couple of years and was "on the red" very frequently. LIke yours, he sucked at impulse control and thinking about the consequences of his actions before he did them. We had "That Kid" and it was very difficult for us and we felt like we must be horrible parents.

Then when he turned about 7 something clicked and now that kid is outstandingly sympathetic, empathetic, gracious, appreciative, and caring. He wasn't a jerk before or anything but he definitely wasn't able to imagine himself in someone else's situation, and was sort of blind to the efforts other people were putting in, etc. I think a lot has to do with maturity and the very individual rate at which different kids mature. He is now 9 and I'm so proud of who he has become. He also reacts and speaks about situations in the world in a way that speaks to deep caring and empathy. We had a long talk about the US election (we're canadian) and his response was how scared he was for all those people Donald Trump didn't like. I had a chest infection in september and he always brought me blankets (unasked) and scooted the ottoman towards me to make sure I was comfortable, made sure that he and his father bought me "get better" flowers when they were out getting groceries, and kept saying "I so wish I could just make you feel better!". He acknowledges other people's efforts, even when he isn't hot on the end result. (ie. I'm really sorry that your baked beans didn't turn out, daddy! I know you worked so hard on them and were cooking all day and were excited for them. Maybe you need more practice with beans since you're so good at cooking everything else.) I made he and his father a special valentine's day meal (heart shaped carrots, pink potatoes, etc) and he made me a card, which I was totally happy with but after the meal he declared that the card wasn't enough to thank me for the yummy meal, so the next day he insisted he and his father clean my car.

Anyway, my point is that 4.5 years old for some kids isn't when empathy clicks. For my kid it was 6-7 years old for when it clicked.

ETA: my son was also somewhat behind in his writing and reading and frankly HATED reading. Now he reads very very well, his improvements aligning with his development of empathy etc. I really believe it comes down to his not being ready and his being a little later to mature.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:09 AM on November 18, 2016 [9 favorites]

I agree overall (I've got two boys past 4 now, both very different) that some of this is parent anxiety based, not actually being behind.

That said, there are a few things you can do.

1. Model empathy and be explicit about teaching emotional languages and recognizing faces and so on. Here’s a pretty cool resource

2. Impulse control: I’m not sure I have anything for you at 4.5. He probably is hilarious. This is really where teachers should have some expertise in managing him and getting him involved in positive ways - being a helper for example - rather than negative ways. I’m pretty sure he won’t be hiding the toys in university here.

3. That frustration curve is something I think a lot of us struggle with because we are dealing with it ourselves. (See also: not wanting your child to be That Kid for a year or two while he matures.) But what helped with us is finding one activity (in my son’s case, martial arts - could be swimming or biking or Lego or whatever) where he /did/ have a little extra capacity to stick things through, and point out the parallels. (“Learning division can feel hard but remember when you were a white belt and didn’t know what a block was? That was okay right, and then you practiced and you learned. You’re just at yellow belt in math.”)

Agreed with the advice to praise for persistence.

It’s going to be fine!
posted by warriorqueen at 10:53 AM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I posted in a thread for older kids recently, and I have some of the same sentiments to share with you. Apologize to any who recognize some of the text.

THE NOT LISTENING TO HIS TEACHERS: I have the kid who can be running around, disorganized and unfocused, and if you tell him from across the room to do something, he does not process it. You can tell him twenty-seven times and it just won't register. To ensure that he hears you, you need to stop him, kneel so that you are on eye level, look him in the eye (holding his arms if necessary) and tell him the thing. "Look at my eyes" is something we say pretty often, where listening is involved. This is basically how all the teachers at his school interact with kids when they are speaking to an individual kid.

The next part of ensuring compliance is, what do the teachers DO when he doesn't listen? Do they keep futilely shouting across the room, into the wind, and then throw up their hands? In our house we do two reminders and then a consequence. Ask his teachers how they handle not-listening and see if you can identify where things are going off the rails. Does he get everyone's attention when he's making a ruckus? That can reinforce bad behavior in a way you don't want.

I recently had a thread about similar issues and some of the advice there may help you. I found that, at least for us, some relatively minor course corrections made a HUGE difference.

First and foremost, I realized that for me the whine-flop-I-don't-knooooowww was pushing a giant button that I hadn't been aware of. That behavior from him would instantly make me more reactive and make me push - yes you do know you just need to make an effort grrr, which made him even more sullen and stubborn and our mutual frustration level ramped up.

So I made a conscious effort to break that cycle. I started taking him at face value when he said he didn't know how to do something. In your example of having trouble building the toy, I'd slowly show him how to click two pieces together, then pull them apart again and ask him to do it. More than once if need be, and if he wasn't getting it, I'd put my hands over his and guide them. And praise every instance of effort or perserverance you can see.

For the printing, start small and low pressure: Have him trace a single letter. Done. Ramp up to two if he's up to it. And find ways to make writing fun and engaging! When Micropanda was learning to write letters, we'd watch a video from Here Comes Science, he'd pick a couple of words, I'd write them out for him, and he'd copy them and be amazed that he just wrote "photosynthesis". Especially for these things that he could reasonably be learning but it's not a problem if he isn't ready yet, keep it low pressure and try a bunch of different angles, see if you find something that works, and don't sweat it if you don't yet.

Finally, someone in my linked thread suggested that when their kid says something is too hard and they can't do it, they respond with "Oh yes, we should definitely give up, then." My kid LOVES humor and so we've had some funny runs of "I can't dooooo it!" "My goodness, we should stop right now and never do this again." "Huh?" "Yes, you should absolutely never learn to read, it's a terrible idea." "Nooo! We have to keep going! [collapses in giggles]" If you're good and dramatic with your part, and have a bit of a mischievous smile, you can lighten the mood quite nicely.

THE EMPATHY: This is the stage where you have to be teaching it but you probably won't see any evidence that it's sinking in. It can be disheartening. In time, you'll see dividends. Keep talking about the feelings of characters in books, identify your own feelings, read books that give names to feelings, etc. He'll get there.

Hang in there. :)
posted by telepanda at 11:11 AM on November 18, 2016 [10 favorites]

I'm going to gently suggest that you don't need to 'improve' your kid, ever. Improve your relationship: maybe. Kids don't learn social skills by us telling them to be empathetic. They learn by modeling what we (or teachers) do when they don't meet our expectations. Do we scream and 'enforce'? Or do we try to listen and meet needs? I have a 5 year old (and we had a screaming match this morning) so I totally get your frustration. I just think kids will work it out and we're there to model for them, not model them. There'll be screaming, not listening, poor impulse control...on both sides, sometimes. It's what you make of it that counts. Hang in there and don't put him in the 'thing to be fixed' drawer. Stand by your boundaries but most of all, try to stay in touch with him - by engaging in stuff both of you enjoy, without trying to 'shape' him. That's his job and if he's happy most of the time, sounds like he's doing OK!
posted by The Toad at 11:33 AM on November 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

"this is hard therefor I will quit immediately and demand that someone else do it for me" orientation.

This is a completely logical perspective -- kids are highly logical. Nobody likes doing things that are hard, and if someone is standing nearby who is able to do it easily, why wouldn't that person do it? It's kind of mean not to. From the kid's perspective.

I'm told that when my step daughter was young, teachers were trying to get her to write sentences, and her response was "Why do I have to write a sentence, if I can just tell you what I want you to know?" She wasn't wrong!

Listen -- not every skill has to be practiced. When the need for a skill presents itself, more often than not, the skill will be learned -- often immediately. For example, we don't have two year olds struggling through making pasta because "one day, they'll need to know how to make their own pasta". A fourteen year old who needs to make pasta can pretty much pick up a box of pasta, read the instructions, and make it. No practice necessary.

So much of what I hear from schools and parents is "they need to practice this!" -- that's not how all learning takes place, and when the "this" has no immediate relevance to a child's life, it's actually a form of bullying to insist on it. Kids have agency. Develop it!
posted by vitabellosi at 12:06 PM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Kids that age often express anxiety via hyperactivity and being EXTRA LOUD AND ANNOYING.

It's the same way babies and toddlers cry when they are scared. The preschooler's body and brain are telling them that they are having an EMERGENCY!!! When preschoolers have an emergency, their instinctual response is still to try to get attention from adults. (Just like you or I might turn to a friend when we are feeling anxious).

Being loud and annoying gets a preschooler attention. This is especially true when they are competing with lots of other kids for attention, and quieter bids for attention might not work quickly or reliably enough to effectively calm their anxiety response.

Unfortunately, this attention-seeking behavior can backfire when a preschooler's anxiety is about social behavior and about that preschooler's difficulty in complying with adult expectations. The adults around them, understandably, do not always react well to being effectively forced to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to one student.

This can cause a difficult feedback loop where adults respond to a socially anxious preschooler's attention-seeking behavior in a way that compounds that preschooler's social anxiety.

I don't know quite how to fix this, but I do know that teachers (and you) should try to think about this as an ADULT problem. Your son is not getting something he needs to get in order to control himself. He's getting "out of control," which means he is on overload and not really making a conscious choice to misbehave. Keeping him from getting there is your job, and his teacher's job---it's not his responsibility, his fault, or his flaw. Your son is doing the best he can as a little guy with a limited toolkit!
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:25 PM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Parent of a 3yo here...

My kiddo doesn't listen well when he is tired. We are personally terrible at getting him to bed at a reasonable hour, but are actively trying to improve since what follows happened last month. We started getting talks from teachers about him "not listening" and being disobedient the week after he had a fever all weekend. He was just a pain in the butt that whole week and then slept a TON the weekend after, and was a much more pleasant person the next week. He just listens better and sits still better when he's more well rested. We now try much more actively to get him asleep and in bed before 9:30 (I know, I know) where sometimes he could wrangle almost 11:30 bedtimes.

So, how has your kid been doing on sleep lately?
posted by jillithd at 12:25 PM on November 18, 2016

Right, yes, I would say besides anxiety the other things to look at are, as mentioned above:

Sleep deprivation, hunger, thirst, boredom, not enough physical activity.

None of these are things he can solve by himself! I hope his teachers keep that in mind.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:27 PM on November 18, 2016

Response by poster: He sleeps like a log. He has two settings: maximum power and dead asleep. He goes to sleep at 8:00 and wakes up around 6:30 during the week. They still do naps at school and he often also takes a nap there (though at home naps are a non-starter).

Yeah, improve was a bad choice of words. Honestly this kid is super and we have a great time together. He's funny and quirky and incredibly happy and exuberant. At home we just don't have the problems with him that they have at school, but we also don't have 14 other four and five-year-olds to contend with.

The anxiety angle is interesting. I'll really have to think on that.
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:40 PM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't know quite how to fix this, but I do know that teachers (and you) should try to think about this as an ADULT problem. Your son is not getting something he needs to get in order to control himself. He's getting "out of control," which means he is on overload and not really making a conscious choice to misbehave. Keeping him from getting there is your job, and his teacher's job---it's not his responsibility, his fault, or his flaw. Your son is doing the best he can as a little guy with a limited toolkit!
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:25 PM on November 18 [1 favorite −] Favorite added! [!]

Excellent POV. I would also suggest reading everything you can find by Kazdin. I would also suggest finding a good occupational therapist. Before we started OT I thought it might be pure woo, but a *good* pediatric OT is essentially a preschooler whisperer. For example, our OT did this thing where she picked our 4 year old up by his arms in a certain way, he immediately calmed down and started to help clean up, when before he had been running around like a crazy guy.

As for empathy - 4 is too young for actual empathy, I think. But if you're really worried about it, there are research-based curriculums to teach empathy and social skills explicitly, like Second Step.

Finally, you might want to consider switching schools. A preschool that uses a stoplight system with 4 year olds is not really using the best disciplinary methods. The teachers ought to have their own plan and suggestions for how to deal with his behavior, instead of just complaining to you about it. Our preschool uses Second Step and I can't ever imagine them using a red light system for discipline. Make no mistake, they are totally on top of behavior, but using positive discipline methods. And this is just a regular 4 year old class in a daycare, nothing hoity toity or super hippie.
posted by yarly at 12:47 PM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Model empathy and be explicit about teaching emotional languages and recognizing faces and so on.

Not a parent, but I've seen some compelling evidence for this, and for storytelling - might want to look through some of these (and related citations), e.g.. Nutshell: the more rich and elaborated narratives about the self, family, and others children hear from and engage in with parents, the more sophisticated children's emotional awareness and the better their emotional regulation.

Also: training in acting / role playing (though you could do this at home, of course).
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:51 PM on November 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

You might like The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik
posted by tiburon at 3:00 PM on November 18, 2016

A lot of this sounds very much like typical 4.5 year old behaviour. For his daycare, how much time is allowed for outdoor/gross motor time? Is it really that he is running around too much or that not enough time is allotted for running and being silly? (I work in child care, I completely understand the difficulty of scheduling a day that works for everyone). Is it that he is trying to make others play his games or just that he wants to do things that others don't?

For empathy, try labelling emotions when you see or feel them. "Look, Sally looked really sad when her Mom left." "Timmy looked angry after Bobby took his truck away from him." Being more centred on himself instead of others is very appropriate for that age.

If his evaluation for fine motor skills was fine I wouldn't worry about it for the time being. Maybe provide ways for him to use his fine motor skills aside from writing? Stringing beads, playdough/plasticene, painting, stickers, eye droppers with coloured water etc.
posted by Lay Off The Books at 6:46 PM on November 18, 2016

I've been spending a lot of time with my 5.5-year-old niece, who is really happy but also REALLY raw. Her feelings are all expressed with 100% belief and intensity, until they morph into other feelings of 100% belief and intensity. She simply does not have the emotional rubric to rein in her experiences, even with increasing exposure to other kids. The 100% turns into 150% when she is even slightly uncomfortable, hungry, exhausted, or overstimulated. And this is a happy, relatively "well-adjusted" child in my eyes. She is also a super asshole much of the time—she has zero empathy because it is entirely outside of her kid brain context.

I'd say that the preschool's expectations may be out of whack, but yours might be, too. Keep up the good work, focus on the basics like keeping him loved, entertained, and given lots of options, and opportunities, and wait it out for a while. <3
posted by mynameisluka at 6:55 PM on November 18, 2016

My child is as you describe. She has autism and ADHD. (yes, everyone groan and roll their eyes at the armchair analysts arriving etc.).

The main difference is my child is female and nearly 11. She was not diagnosed until 9. Because the things you describe are, broadly speaking, normal in a 4yo. And even for the autistic/ADHD 4yo were not *enough*of a problem to warrant particular intervention, assessment or a diagnosis at that time.

I have 3 kiddos, #1 is as described above, very like yours only a girl nearly 3x his age. #2 is 6 and neurotypical and was as you describe at 4, maybe slightly better with empathy but then living with 2 autistic siblings will do that. #3 is 4 and low functioning autistic. He cannot SAY his name, let alone write it. He has, and needs, a ton of directed, specific intervention, he is more than half his lifetime behind his age peers in his development.

So from an overall-picture point of view I would say this doesn't sound specifically worrying. All of this could be a typically developing child.

If he was mine (bearing in mind I do already have 2 diagnosed so I would be looking out rather than just idly waiting - I am not saying YOU should look for it, only offering this perspective) I might consider the following:

Does his impulse control only affect controlling things he wants to do that benefit him? Or does he also fail to control self destructive impulses? Does he run about only when the teacher wants him to sit or also when HE wants to sit? (my daughter would run about at that age, at 2am, sobbing "i'm tired I'm tired", she would break her own, beloved toys, she would tip out food she really liked and wanted). It is fairly normal for 4yo kids to fail to control impulses which displease others, it's more worrying if they fail to control self-destructive impulses.

Can he sense tone of voice? Does he react differently if someone asks him playfully to do something than if they ask angrily? At that age my daughter would laugh in my face when I was severely upset by something she'd done. I would hold her upper arms and make a scary face and growl "I AM ANGRY" and she would laugh and laugh and laugh (I know this makes me sound like a monster but oh well, that's the ugly reality of autism parenting sometimes, I know now that she just couldn't tell I was upset, at the time I thought she didn't care). So does he understand the teacher is annoyed by his shenanigans and he just can't stop himself? Or does he not even get that there's a problem?

He is supersmart, and he is lazy - does he know that trying is normal? Some super smart kids find so much so easy that they don't actually realise it's normal to have to try. A bit like some people fail to understand the physical discomfort of hard exercise is normal and not a signal of harm. Is there ANYTHING he finds hard that he does anyway? Building with lego? Eating a food he really likes with cutlery? Playing any game with small pieces and precision required? It's normal to be lazy about stuff that's hard, grown ups are too. It's not normal to avoid ALL activities that require a certain skill, even ones that one enjoys, to avoid using that skill. So basically if he won't try hard to write his letters that's normal, but if he won't try hard to eat his absolute favourite food or play a video game he's begged for I'd be more concerned.

The biggest things I'd say are sort of opposing. 1) wait. Things sound okay just now. Kids take a huge growth and development spurt around age 5 and in boys there's a big testosterone surge, which brings lots of changes in behaviour and mood. They come through it fine, they're just a bit wilder for a year or so. But also,
2) trust your gut. You know your child best. My kids have all been That Kid at one time or another but my eldest is relentlessly That Kid. I knew before she was even born that she was different but unfortunately I was young, poor and unmarried and nobody would listen to me. Only when the school started agreeing with me did we get a referral (we're in the UK). So don't discard any concerns you have if they are persistent. Most children acting as you describe at 4 are totally fine and will grow up to be "normal". But equally most individuals with autism were showing similar behaviours at that age too.

Feel free to PM me if you want to.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 5:42 AM on November 19, 2016

Your kiddo sounds a bit like my son (3.75 yo), the poor fine motor, impulse control, listening, identification of his and others emotions, and maybe the trying stuff. Our little guy also had a much worse happy to sad ratio then you report, so we pursed a number of evals, "officially" he has some Sensory Processing issues. I believe he also, probably relatedly, has anxiety issues. I'd also be shocked if he doesn't get an ADD diagnoses at some point, based on traits and a very strong family history. A few observations and thoughts which may be relevant to you all:

- It's normal to develop skills unevenly (asynchronous development), but less typical to have very large differences in areas and these can bring challenges. At 3 my son's verbal ability was at least a year ahead of his age, but his fine motor were probably a year behind. His emotional regulation was also noticeably worse then peers. This affects adult expectations - we/they are expecting a greater correlation between skill areas and so are more likely to interpret limited effort in an area as a function of choice and less as an indication of just how hard it is. It can also affect the child's perception of their ability and so discourage them if they're seeing peers (or kids they identify as younger) excel in something. What we've done is to not push on areas that are hard, provide simplified opportunities, and verbally talk about how everyone has different things that are easy/hard.

- The behaviors your describing in school sound like my sons when he's overstimulated and/or anxious. He gets very locked in to whatever thing, behavior he's doing and just can't hear or task switch. We've largely dealt with this by trying to address the overstimulation and anxiety, but the techniques others have described (especially Telepanda) have helped.

- Sensory and anxiety, so I know how this will sound, but we cut out most dairy and gluten (we were getting desperate) and it made a huge huge huge difference. I don't really know why, but at minimum I think it was causing him gastrointestinal pain (we are waiting on the pediatric gastro referral til our new insurance kicks in), and so he was kind of a miserable little grump because he was in chronic pain that he didn't have the self awareness or words to tell us about.

I hope this is a little useful, I've been writing it on the sofa while the 2 & 3 year old climb all over me, watch octonauts, and try to be "helpful" by handing me my coffee and force feeding me carrots. So it might not make any damn sense. Feel free to memail me.

Oh, and I'd take the advice of most non-parents and parents of neurotypival children with a grain of salt. They usually mean well but are often unaware that there are a lot of special needs that can be subtle and a bit hard to tease out especially in an online description of behaviors. So much is in the day to day experience. Trust your instincts if you feel like something is off.
posted by pennypiper at 9:16 AM on November 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

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