Communicating with Children and Supporting them in Difficult Times

By Hiromi
Niwa Doherty

Thumbnail image for angel statue.jpg[NOTE: In response to the recent tragic shootings in Connecticut, parents have been asking how to talk with their children. Hiromi’s article after the tsunami is so excellent that I’m reprinting it here.]

a native of Japan, and having family members and many friends in the midst of
the devastation, I continue to struggle to find strength to overcome my own
fear and sadness.

a question came to me–how do I talk to my 4-year-old about this? This awoke me.
I felt called to stand up and do something, anything if I can, to protect my
own child and to help fellow parents as we work together to protect our
children from further harm. How can we support our children while we adults are

I have re-written my findings in English and would like to share them with you.
Although many of my points are for those directly affected, you may still find
them applicable. I thank Ms. Andrea Gambardella of Green Meadow Waldorf School
for giving me a jump start with her thoughtful input and support.

1. Turn off the TV

it is obvious to adults that the TV is replaying the same footage over and over
again, these repeated inflow of graphic images and shocking news make young
children think that these scary events are still ongoing. Additionally, they do
not have a sense of distance, so even reports from a far away country have a
strong impact. They may well think what they see on TV is happening right in
their own neighborhood.

2. Make them feel safe

express their anxiety in various ways. They can become dependent and clingy, afraid
to go to bed or bathroom alone, or behave aggressively. Some children may experience
physical pains such as a headache and stomachache. Those who have long ago
graduated from diapers may have accidents. Give them hugs and physical

time together reading or taking a walk.

them assurance by telling them we love them and we will continue to take care
of them.

3. Be open and receptive to how
a child reacts/expresses himself

them know that their feelings, thoughts, questions, reactions, however they may
communicate (or not communicate), are all valid and we accept them as they are.
Invite their expressions with open and receptive attitude, so they can speak to
you about anything, when they choose to. Some children prefer not to talk at
all–let them be silent. Young children live in the moment and have dream-like
minds, which means they may not accumulate or linger on specific emotions or
memories, as adults do. Children may find ways to express and soothe themselves
by drawing or playing out their experiences. I will come back to this point

4. The best time to talk is
when a child asks questions

of us remember the events of 9-11 clearly. I know I will not forget about the
3-11 earthquake. We will all have particular events in our lifetimes that will
have great significance. At such moments, we are given a possibility to
transcend our old selves. It will not be an easy talk. But you know your child
the best, her temperament, thoughts and possible reactions. With that deep
knowing, you can address her with sincerity and love.

5. Avoid scientific explanation
or frightening graphic images, give simple narrative

know intuitively when we are not truthful. Ignoring and understating the fact, or
telling a lie (however well meaning it is) will make them more fearful. Give
them simple explanations in words they can understand. Children are born
resilient, adaptable and cheerful. Trust their strength, and with your striving
to do your best, your child will be able to get the message. Do not leave this
task to the TV or anyone else, for if we do this, the parent-child relationship
will not be the same. This will be one of the very important moments for you
and your child.

6. End with hopeful,
encouraging facts and words

quote from Mr. Rogers,

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,
my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find
people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I
remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are
still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

may not always give them a happy ending, but we can end our story with focus on
hope and recovery rather than fear and sadness.


7. If asked, repeat the same
story as many times as necessary

like repetition. When it is difficult to understand or believe what has been
told, they may ask you the same question over and over again. Repeat the same
story as many times as they ask you. They feel secure by your consistency and
can then process the information at their own pace.

8. Regain rhythm and routines
of everyday life

just do children like to feel the comfort of the repetition of stories, but
children like repetition, and in fact, they thrive on it. Even as adults we
will feel anxious when we are out of our routines and we may have physical
ailments as a result. As early and as much as possible, bring back the rhythm
and routine as before.

nothing else, we can at least say “good morning” or say grace before and after

your life has been changed drastically and it is difficult to bring back the
familiar, start a new tradition, something that is small and easy to do. Exercise
with children in the morning, say a blessing before meals, or simply pray. If
you repeat it every day in the same manner, it will increase the sense of
rhythm which will become a security blanket for children. It will be our
guiding light, as we sail in the sea of uncertainty.

9. Give children time and space
to play

work is play. Under extremely difficult situations, it may be difficult to even
think of the cheer and fun of play. As described before, children may process
and digest their experiences and emotions through drawing or playing out in
“let’s pretend” scenarios.

temporarily, if children can be immersed in play–by moving their bodies and letting
their inner feelings out, it will greatly help them in their healing processes.
Let them be children, as much as you can. Give them time and space. Show them
the games you used to play with only a stone. Give them pencil and paper that
they may use as they wish.

10. Children imitate adults. Be
a role model

imitate adults. They are keen observers and do exactly the same. They take in not
only our actions, but our conversations with other adults, and our innermost
state of being — how we feel and what we believe–everything! I am not
suggesting that we become someone else. We cannot make ourselves up or stand
taller than we actually are.

see us struggle and stand up again, while keeping our spirits high and fighting
our fear and hardships. We do make mistakes and fall back sometimes, but it is
our striving, despite it all, that children find strength and courage to

refer to the inspiring article at the link below, written by Susan Weber,
Director of Sophia’s Hearth Family Center, Keene, NH, a master teacher and my
mentor, with whom I am fortunate to have studied:

11. Be active and do something
meaningful (pray, donate, help with chores)

ready and willing, involve children in meaningful activities, they like to help
and be part of the bigger world.

12. Give them stories that talk
about courage and overcoming sadness and hardship

started looking for such stories and would like to create a list and/or
compilation. Meantime, I was also advised that while the content of a story
remains important, it is how we tell them the story, which is more significant.
Create a peaceful environment, take a deep breath, so that you can calmly
connect with the spirit of the story. Then both you and the children may
receive wisdom, comfort and healing from the story. May we trust our instinct
as parents and act courageously. May children smile and laugh again very soon.

Hiromi Niwa Doherty


Psychiatric Association Website,

Child Study Center Website,

Rogers’ Website,

conversations with Ms. Andrea Gambardella, kindergarten teacher, Green Meadow
Waldorf School,

Toddlers Need Naps, Study Shows!

sleep napping.jpg[Note: LifeWays offers a video of putting children down for nap in a childcare setting.]

It’s always nice when science and academia support what we already know: toddlers need naps! A recent study at the University of Colorado showed that missing just one nap can cause toddlers to be more anxious and frustrated when faced with a challenge. Children in the study were 2-1/2 to 3 years old, and missing just 90 minutes of sleep brought similar results to what adults experience when they pull an all-nighter.

The researchers videotaped the expressions of toddlers given two different kinds of simple puzzles–one had all the correct pieces, but the other was insolvable, with a piece that wouldn’t fit. They found that sleep-deprived toddlers were less likely to act confused–an adaptive emotion that signals an understanding that something is not right–and more likely to show no emotion or to become frustrated.

“If you have a problem, let’s say you can’t find your way and you’re lost, the response is confusion, and that’s a good thing,” Monique LeBourgeois, leader of the study said in the article. “When (toddlers) don’t get enough sleep — in this case from a nap–they don’t show that response. What they show instead is a flat response or a neutral response–they’re just blank–or they show more anxiety.”

This study is being published in the Journal of Sleep Research; to read the full article, see the Boulder Daily Camera from Jan. 4 2012. LeBourgeois is now recruiting 40 toddlers born between March 2009 and October 2011 to study how sleep restriction may affect emotions and cognitive abilities; the study will take place over four years.

LifeWays Training

Things are in full swing right now at the LifeWays trainings in Wisconsin and at Rudolf Steiner College in California. The Wisconsin students are halfway through their training and are looking forward to an inspiring weekend in March titled Nurturing and Nourishing:Caring for Children and Ourselves. With two medical practitioners and a curative eurythmist they will be bathed in nurturing experiences including massages, wraps, soothing inhalations, foot rubs and more. Every caregiver of young children deserves a weekend like this! In fact, this is one of the weekends we open to public enrollment. Due to the size of this LifeWays class, however, outside enrollment is limited. If you are interested, let Cynthia know soon at

The students at Rudolf Steiner College are also in for a treat in March. At the end of their week of training they will have a three-day workshop with Suzanne Down of Juniper Tree Puppets. She brings such joy to storytelling and puppetry. This is one of the students’ favorite parts of the training, and it is the other piece that we open up to public enrollment. If you are interested in joining the California students for this delightful treat just contact Rudolf Steiner College at Tell them you are interested in the LifeWays workshop with Suzanne Down.

Probably our most exciting news, however, is that our new East Coast training is ready to launch this July/August and enrollments are coming in already. The training will be located at the beautiful Merriconeag Waldorf School in Maine. The early childhood center there, a lovely, artistically-designed strawbale building, will house most of the classes, but the whole campus will be there for the students’ enjoyment. They can even stay in the farmhouse right on campus. As is keeping with the LifeWays training, nutritious, delicious organic lunches will be served on site, and a LifeWays-trained caregiver is offering child care for students who need it. Susan Silverio, the East Coast LifeWays Director, has gathered an impressive teaching staff for this new training. For more information contact Susan at

Agression in the Preschool

A preschool teacher asked for help: “My class dynamics are just unbelievable. I have 12 boys and 3 girls. All age 3. I work everyday on teaching them how to relate socially but I still feel like I am drowning in temper tantrums, aggressive behavior, and yelling (them, not me).

I need some advice that I can do on a larger scale. I use the word “no” firmly when there is dangerous or aggressive behavior. I separate them for safety when a child is overly excited and needs some calm “down time” or when they have been overly aggressive. But everyday it is the same yelling, same fighting, same behavior.

Any suggestions on something to help me make it through the rest of the school year? I have a degree in Education and I feel as lost as if I didn’t spend a day in school.”

Cynthia replied:
This is a difficult situation for me to respond to. Do you have any option at all to begin to move toward having a mixed-age group? Part of what you are dealing with is that a group of three-year olds are surrounded by three-year-old behavior. There are no slightly older children for them to emulate – for example, the creative play of the 4 1/2 or 5 year old. There are no slightly younger children for them to help care for – for example, helping with diapering or feeding. They are simply stuck in limbo land of being with a group of children who are not yet ready to share, who are still exploring somewhat by mouthing (biting), and who are in one of life’s biggest transitions – having just recently learned to really communicate in complete sentences, having just recently learned certain aspects of bodily control, and really just learning how to think some of their own thoughts. I have communicated with a few teachers who have said that they will never again have a class of only three year olds. It is unnatural when you think about it. Since children primarily thrive in the activities and experiences presented through practical daily life found in a healthy home life and through creative play, how many families would you find who had only three-year olds?

Now, having said all of that, I acknowledge that you are not in a “family” setting and perhaps are being asked to articulate a “curriculum” that is not necessarily developmentally ideal for the children in your care. So, what can you do aside from convincing your colleagues that having single-age rooms of children is crazy-making?

Without knowing your exact school situation,here are a few questions:

Do you have a working partner or assistant? If so, could you split the group during parts of the day? For example, a center I visited in Vancouver had a mixed-age group of infants to three-year-olds – again no models of older children to help to balance the energy. After snack, some of the children went outside to play while others stayed in and played while one of the caregivers began making lunch for everyone. The play during those times was lovely. It was more like “home” and less like “program” because the numbers were reduced, thus less overwhelming for such young children, and it was easier for them to play independently or even to explore playing with just one other child. This could happen a couple of times a day. Or, if everyone goes outside at the same time, is there the possibility of two different play areas.

What I am trying to do is help you reduce the volume of children throughout the day, so that they can breathe a little easier.

Are you able to provide a good length of time outside for them? Nature can have such a healing influence on little ones, particularly uncultivated nature as opposed to playground.

This age still needs lap time. Is that possible for you? Perhaps not every day, but in the course of the week, is every child getting an opportunity to be in a lap playing a body game or finger play or looking at a book or just quietly cuddling?

Does the room have enough “nook and cranny” space where the children feel like they can “disappear” at will? For example, can you put a big cloth over the table so some children can play under there? At this center I mentioned, once a week they gave the children the cardboard boxes that the vegetables were delivered in.

Do you have the opportunity for water play inside – even helping to wash the dishes every day can be thrilling for this age? You just need to have changes of clothes and/or good aprons when you bring in water play.

What about working with food? They love to begin chopping and peeling at this age.

Regarding nurturing, could you provide warm foot baths for the children, hair brushing after nap, soothing things like that?

So, often we are being asked to do curriculums that require the children to “do” projects throughout the days and weeks. What they primarily are compelled to do, however, is to imitate what we do (cleaning, food prep, singing, dancing, resting, etc.) and to play freely.

I think a starting point toward helping your situation is to get on your hands and knees and go throuogh your space imagining what would be interesting to a three-year-old. They still like to put things into things and take them back out again. They like to undress baby dolls. They like to play kitchen. They like to hide and get under things. They like to climb. They like to draw (scribble) without anyone having expectations about it. They like to paint sometimes. They like to play with dough. They like to help in the real, big-people kitchen.

On absolutely crazy days, don’t be afraid to just sit in the middle of the floor, put your head down, and be really, really still. This is often more effective than calling out to the children. It draws them in. When they begin gathering around you, hold the stillness for as long as you can. Then perhaps you can slowly raise your head with a twinkle in your eye and do a simple little finger play or game. Moments like this can break the spell of chaos – at least for awhile.

Here is the basic thing: Find what children of this age naturally, developmentally want and need to do, and find ways for them to be able to do it. Often part of our problem is that we are not set up in such a way that their primary developmental needs are being met – such as I mentioned above. So, for example, if they want to climb but you do not want them to climb on the dining room table, then figure out where can they climb? If they want to throw things, but you do not want them to throw toys, where can they throw. If they want to scream and shout, and it is too loud in the room, then where can they scream and shout?

My hat is off to you and my heart goes out to you as you care for these little ones. Don’t think badly of yourself. Many of the early childhood trainings available today do not prepare us for what we are then expected to do. And even when they do have the appropriate content and approach, the real learning curve always comes in the practice with the children!

Blessings on you, the children and your most important work!


Difficult Child in Preschool

[Cynthia Aldinger answers an inquiry from an experienced preschool teacher concerning a five year old girl who bullies other children in the class of 10 three-to five-year-olds; the parents say she isn’t that way at home, so it must be the teacher’s problem.]

As a former Waldorf Kindergarten teacher for many years, I certainly could sympathize with your dilemma with the little girl in your class. It sounds like you have tried many of the right things with her and none of them have been working. When we are caring for early childhood age children, our work is so much more fruitful when we are working in partnership with the children’s parents. >From what you described it does not sound like the parents are pursuing partnership with you. Do you have any idea why that might be?

One reason might be exactly as you are suspecting – that they are not nurturing at home and, consequently, do not want to reveal themselves to you. What other reasons might you imagine? Is there illness in the home – physical or emotional illness? Do they feel like they are looked down upon by you or the other families in your pre-school and thus may be defensive? Are they overwhelmed by other commitments – ailing grandparents, other children with problems?

I don’t want to get stuck on examining the parents, but it might be worthwhile to consider some of these questions in order to support you in your continued ability to extend yourself to them with warmth. Sometimes when a difficult family feels real interest coming toward them, their attitude will turn around and they will become more interested in you and your work with their child. Then, in partnership, you can begin to tackle what needs to change at home and/or in the preschool to better support the child.

Unfortunately, the family profile you have described indicates that the family is not interested in introspection and instead places all the blame on you. One of the most difficult, but helpful, things you want to try to achieve is not to take their attacks personally. Otherwise, your own frustration or hurt feelings can diminish your ability to work full-heartedly with the child.

So, one suggestion is to find a way to hold this family in your heart with love and forgiveness. If you have a faith practice that includes prayer, then pray for them. This will often change a situation. If it does not change them, it may change your ability to cope with them. I have had this exact experience more than once.

But now let’s focus more on the child. Besides the things you have tried, all of which sounded good to me, here are a few other suggestions for you to consider:

1. See if you can perceive a pattern in her behavior. What happens just before she misbehaves? Does her body language tell you anything? The tone or volume of her voice? If so, can you involve her in something else before it escalates?

2. Note her food intake. I have had a few children whose behavior improved when I gave them small bits of food – dried fruit or a cracker, for example – intermittently, rather than waiting for snack time or lunch. The other children simply understood that that child needed that. This is not rewarding her bad behavior. It is simply looking for ways for her to become the best she can be.

3. In a similar vein, note how she is dressed. Is she warm enough? Sometimes just putting on a warm sweater can help to calm a child. Or holding her in your lap with a soft wrap around her.

4. Does she consistently arrive late? If she could come early, this could help a lot. Then she would not have the problem of having to enter into an already active room and feel that she has to bully her way in.

5. Now that she is five, you can try the “whisper in the ear” method to discipline. In other words, you can take her aside and quietly tell her what is needed – not in front of everyone.

6. When she hurts another child, try involving her in comforting that child. Can she administer some soothing cream, gently rub the hurt child’s hand, get the child a drink of water or perhaps draw the child a picture. Often when a young child hurts another child, the aggressive child is also feeling wounded. She does not feel good about her behavior. When she can be part of the healing, it can help her to grow into her integrity.

5. Do you have access to a basin in which you can keep warm water? Sometimes children like this can really benefit from water play, particularly warm water play. It soothes and calms – even just washing dishes or painting jars.

6. Which leads to another possibility: involve her in the domestic care of the pre-school. At five she could be given a special responsibility – setting the table, taking out the garbage, mopping the floor or something that makes her feel like she is really making a contribution. Do you ever need to send a note to the office secretary? Perhaps this child can be the messenger – or better yet, let her take a snack to the secretary every day. Putting her in a position of serving others can be very helpful.

7. Try humor. I had one child years ago that I always ended up nose to nose with in battle. His mother actually suggested humor and it turned everything around. For example, if the child is about to get into a physical conflict with another child, you can go over to him or her and make up a little rhyme that takes their attention somewhere else. One that I have taught many people goes like this: holding up your two pinkeys, you say:
“Winkey and blinkey were acting quite stinky” (as the two pinky fingers bump against each other) “one particular day. Said Winkey to Blinkey, ‘Let’s be nice pinkies'” (as you are saying this, each pinky softly slides down the other pinkey) “and off they went to play.” When you do something like this, the children forget what they were in conflict about and are amused by your antics. There are many others styles of humor, but you can explore that for yourself. Mostly you want to avoid sarcasm or teasing with young children.

8. Try picturing this little girl each evening before you sleep. Just hold her in your thoughts, picture her in a moment when she was really being her best self, and hold that image for a moment. That’s all. You don’t try to analyze anything. Just warmly hold that image. In doing this you lift the child up and, I believe, you invite the child’s angel to help you. Often when you do this over a period of time, you will receive inspiration for things to try with the child. I call these the whisperings of the angels.

I realize that this is a long answer, Karen. I hope some of it may be helpful. Unfortunately, there are those times when we have to let a child go, particularly if the family is making things worse instead of better. But I hope you can find your way with her, and wish you all the best.

Many warm regards, Cynthia


Here are a few ideas about naptime for little ones in group settings:

For toddlers and pre-school and kindergarten-aged children, it helps to have very clear routines and rituals around sleep. Think about what you are doing for the two hours before sleep, what you will do to prepare them for sleep, and what you will do when they first wake up. I call this “framing” sleep. The routines and rituals provide the frame.

Here is an example of a sleep frame:

Two hours before nap, the children are outside playing. It is important that they have a full experience of the natural world and can play as freely as possible. When you bring them in, perhaps a special song or game gathers everyone together, and you playfully return inside.

Everyone takes off their shoes and places them where they belong. A container of warm lavender water is waiting for them. Each child then receives a gentle foot wash. Then their feet are dried and a soft cream is rubbed in.

Now it is time to wash hands to prepare to eat. Perhaps some of the children help to set the table, while others pour the water to drink. A blessing is sung, perhaps a candle is lit. Maybe one or two short finger games are played. Then the food is served, and everyone eats.

After eating, the children take care of their dishes. Now it is time for toileting. Then each child is given a warm face cloth to wash faces and hands.

Perhaps a story is told as they gather around the storyteller. Or maybe the story is told after they are lying down.

It is important that they lie down in the same place each time. This becomes their special spot. If it is cold, it can be quite nice to warm the bed or cot with a hot water bottle before they lie down. Each child may have a special cover from home that they sleep under, and some may also bring a special cuddly doll that they sleep with.

It helps if the teacher or caregiver can go to each child and gently stroke the face with light fingertips. This is very soothing for most children. If there is a child who really does not like it, then it should not be done to that child. Perhaps instead a gentle pat on the shoulder, or a little foot rub would be accepted.

After each child has been gently touched, then can come some quiet singing (or a story if it was not told earlier) or strumming a gentle instrument like a kinderharp. Live music or singing is preferred over recorded music. Eventually everything is quiet, and the caregiver may just sit in a rocker and slowly rock or just sit still and rest herself.

What makes a difference is if the caregiver can truly feel restful herself. This helps the children to go to sleep. If the caregiver is busy thinking of many other things or is restless, it will be more difficult for the children to feel restful. It is a good time for the teacher or caregiver to take a very brief moment to let her thoughts rest on each child. Picture the child in a moment during the day when he or she seemed to be most balanced, and hold that picture in your heart. If you find yourself, instead, picturing a difficulty you are having with a child, then try to see the behavior objectively and with interest and warmth. Taking the time to briefly picture each child strengthens your partnership with the child’s angel.

Some older children may not fall asleep, although I find that most children do. It is nice if the children can sleep for at least a half hour and, if they are younger, then perhaps one to one-and-a-half hours.

When the children begin to wake up, it is a nice time to brush each child’s hair and put a refreshing oil on their faces. I saw this done at the Awhina Child Care Center in New Zealand, and it was so beautiful. Then they need to have a drink of water and go to the bathroom.

If it is allowed, older children could go outside while they wait for the others to wake. Otherwise, they can draw or be given quiet things to play with or ongoing projects to work on, like sewing or finger knitting.

After all the children are awake, hair brushed, and faces oiled, it is time for a simple snack. Then cleaning up and going back outside until time to go home.

The important thing to remember is that sleep is a time for children to restore themselves and for their angels, our silent partners, to quietly watch over them. Nap time is one of the most sacred times of the day in our work with little ones. This is why we want to bring so much consciousness to how we do it.

I hope this is helpful. Many blessings on your work.

Cynthia Aldinger