By Rob Levey
While advances made in the respective emotional, physical, social, and intellectual capacities of infants and toddlers are often quite dramatic — walking, laughing, talking, etc — developmental progress within preschool-age children cannot be so clearly defined.
However, with such progress measured in degrees rather than in kind, experts say there are still some significant, albeit subtle, changes that take place for preschoolers between the ages of 3 and 5.
Whereas for 3 and 4-year olds, emotions exist largely on the surface and can swing from one extreme to another within minutes, 5-year olds generally possesses the ability to regulate their emotions in more socially acceptable ways.
According to many experts, parents play a crucial role within their preschooler’s emotional maturation process.
Infant Toddler Behavior & Development Therapy Services’ Dr. Carol Andrew agrees and said preschoolers’ ability to control their emotions correlates somewhat significantly to the amount of time they are able to meaningfully interact one-on-one with their parents.
“Parents have to be involved,” she said. “How to share, be patient, how to wait to take their turns — these are the things parents must teach at home.”
Dr. Ellen Wheatley, administrator for the Child Development Bureau within the Division for Children, Youth, and Families for New Hampshire, said taking time to spend with one’s preschooler does not have to be completely structured either.
“Spend time playing, talking, and enjoying — that’s absolutely essential,” said Dr. Wheatley, who also cited the importance in allowing preschoolers to help with basic chores around the house. “Time spent together allows for conversation and learning opportunities.”
She said another important development in preschoolers’ social skills during this time relates to their ability to control their impulses.
“At around age 4, a part of the brain wakes up that helps a child in their ability to control their impulsivity,” she said.
According to Julie Golkowski, who has more than 25 years experience in psychotherapy, parents also need to remember that children have unique temperaments.
“Some children are highly sensitive children, some are more defiant and argumentative, and some are more aggressive,” she said.
However, she noted parents should speak with their pediatrician about their child as early as at the age 3 if their behaviors “are beyond [their] capacity to manage effectively.”
“[Pediatricians] may recommend some family therapy,” she said. “Family therapists can assist parents in finding healthier ways to interact with children who have challenging or difficult behaviors...When we intervene early on we can have some very positive outcomes.”
As 3, 4, and 5 year-olds develop new cognitive and language skills, they also begin to interact more with their peers.
Echoing the sentiments of Dr. Wheatley, Dr. Andrew said that by age 4, children should begin to develop the ability to negotiate with their peers, including how to take turns with one another when playing games.
By age 4, she said kids should also begin to develop a better sense of time and consequently a longer attention span. She added that parents can assist their child in developing these critical social skills by reading to them.
“Reading to little ones is crucial,” said Dr. Andrews, who noted that by age 4 children should be able to listen to entire paragraphs and chapter books by age 5. “The interaction part is so important…Education is an emotional and social experience.”
As for what parents might want to avoid during their child’s preschool years especially, but later on as they get older, too, Dr. Wheatley referred to either excessive and/or unsupervised viewing of television.
“Their brains get overloaded — they can develop cognitive and emotional problems,” she said. “A child at 3 can’t distinguish between TV and reality.”
Jodie Lubarsky, Spectrum and Therapeutic Mentoring team leader at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, agrees and said too many kids rely too heavily on television and other electronic mediums for their entertainment as they get older.
“It helps create that cycle where kids don’t use their creative minds and entertain themselves and do the things many of us as adults can recall doing as a child,” she said. “When preschoolers become over-dependent on TV, it turns into video games and computers later on. That affects their social development.
Citing her belief that a child’s use of the television be linked in part to his/her behavior, Lubarsky suggested parents consider it a privilege for their children and not a right.
For parents who might be concerned as to what their child should watch on television, Dr. Wheatley said “kid shows” on public television may be the best option as they are often educational in nature, although she offered one general rule of thumb.
“Don’t leave your child alone [watching television],” she said.
While research is clear as to the long-term benefits that result from reading to preschoolers and keeping them engaged, it is also conclusive in demonstrating the importance of downtime.
According to Dr. Andrew, however, parents are too often tempted to “over-program” their child in today’s frenetic pace of life.
“Kids need downtime without media disturbing their thoughts,” she said. “We need to slow things down for them. This is the time to refine and modify their social skills.”
Acknowledging that as a society “we don’t build enough downtime into our days,” Dr. Andrew said the end result may be that “we’re socializing our kids to not be able to relax.”
Dr. Wheatley added that pushing preschoolers past their logical and somewhat chronologically ordered developmental limits may yield the opposite intended effect.
“Children will avoid learning and see themselves as failures,” she said. “If your child is not able to sort socks, how are they going to distinguish between a capital ‘A’ and a lowercase ‘a’?”
According to Lubarsky, the difficult question parents may want to ask themselves is for whose benefit has an enrichment or learning activity been planned.
Exposing kids to things is great, but saturation is a bad thing. Don’t force an issue,” she said. “Kids need to be kids and enjoy themselves. If they’re overscheduled, they don’t have time to breathe.”
Rob Levey is a development and communications associate at Seacoast Mental Health Center and a freelance writer.