Imagine being suddenly uprooted from your job, then being transitioned to a new building the very next day with an entirely new group of co-workers, and completely different expectations from your previous job. What do you think your reaction would be? Do you think you would immediately adapt, making a seamless transition, jumping right into the new responsibilities, while quickly understanding the different expectations? Or do you think you would need time to get your bearings to make sense of what just happened? What would your comfort level be? Do you have a difficult time meeting new people? How do you do with change? New environments?

Now imagine knowing very little of what’s being expected of you and/or not being able to communicate your feelings and needs. Doesn’t that sound scary? If that sounds unsettling for you as an adult, imagine being a very young child — a toddler or preschooler. You have only recently started using and understanding language to express your needs. You have been placed in a new situation with other small people with whom you are expected to be and get along all day. Not to mention, they want whatever toy you have! Looking through the lens of a young child, being introduced into a new child care or preschool setting requires learning to adapt to a significant number of changes and expectations at once. This is while being separated from parents, trying to find comfort when taking direction from unfamiliar caregivers, trying to get one’s needs met, being surrounded by new children in this unfamiliar setting, and adapting to a new routine, just to name a few. Some children can adapt quickly to the new setting and thrive, while other children feel apprehensive. Some simply cannot tolerate all the changes at once. Much depends on the child’s unique temperament.

Now imagine in your new job in this new location with the multitude of changes, one of your co-workers begins bullying you. He/she won’t explain what’s needed to be part of a newly formed team working on a project. Soon, other members of the team are mocking you, calling you names, withholding information you need and giving you incorrect information to block you from being successful, generally just being mean. The group whispers amongst themselves, excluding you from the discussion. When it’s time for lunch, you find your way to the cafeteria, but your entire team is at one table, leaving no room for you to join them, meanwhile giving you threatening looks. No one is welcoming or including you at any table in the lunch room, or offering you guidance in the workings of the cafeteria. How would you feel? Do you think this would be a comfortable environment? What do you think your reaction would be? Are you feeling disliked by this new group of people?

Now imagine being a middle school or high school student who walks into his/her school every day feeling unwelcome, unknown, excluded, mocked, bullied. Does this sound terrifying? If this sounds unsettling as an adult, slip into the shoes of that student, trying to navigate through a hostile, rejecting, dispassionate, albeit combative environment. Would you feel focused, allowing you to learn? Would you feel comfortable, noticed? For children being bullied, excluded, taunted and rejected by their peers, there is nowhere to turn. This is an age when the peer group is most important, when being accepted and included, when wanting others to like you and want to spend time with you, is an integral part of this developmental stage.

The above examples can help us understand that, often, our expectations as parents, caregivers, and teachers may not be realistic. Some very young children, as well as adolescents, can roll with whatever comes their way. They’re adaptive, easy-going, moving through new situations without a glitch. Yet, for some, the changes inherent in child care centers, preschools, middle school and/or high school presents obstacles that feel insurmountable. These challenges often manifest in behavior we may not understand. What’s most important is to pay attention when a child is crying out for help. Think about those job situations that are scary and unsettling, as an adult. Our expectations of children must be set for their success, understanding that their respective behavior, moods, and words reflect whether they’re feeling balanced or feeling lonely, rejected, depressed, anxious.

At any age, even the most fearless need to know what is happening, what to expect. They need to trust that we will unconditionally accept and love them, we will understand their needs, no matter how challenging their school and social environment is. Although they may not disclose what’s going on and how alone they feel, their behavior and attitude will indicate they’re having a problem. Just as any of us would want a partner/spouse, family member or close friend to support and listen to us about a hostile job environment, we need to listen and support our children. That’s our job. Any new environment provides an anxious beginning, requiring parents, caregivers, teachers, and camp counselors to ease each child’s experience, paying close attention to what she/he needs, while observing any signs that this child might be struggling.

“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has — or ever will have — something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.” — Fred Rogers