Sensitive Periods: Understanding A Child’s Sense Of Order

sensitive periods order

Three-year-old Abby, was the perfect cheerful morning preschool student with never a tear or a fret.

Until the end of April.

All week at dismissal she had begun to cry as soon as I opened the car door. Her mother was greeted with big sobs and screams of “You don’t love me.”

Her mom was horrified and I was confused, to say the least.

Thursday morning during class I asked her why she was crying at dismissal.

“Because my momma doesn’t love me anymore.”

“Why do you think your momma doesn’t love you anymore?”

“Because she took my blankie away.”

A clue! I called Abby’s mom and inquired about the blanket.

“Oh my gosh! It’s gotten so warm, that when I cleaned out the car last week, I washed it and put it away. Don’t worry. I’m putting it in the car now.”

When I opened the car door at dismissal, Abby let out a whoop of joy. “Momma, thank you for giving my blankie back. I love you!”

For Abby, life was not right unless her blankie was in her car.

Her sense of order told her that her mom’s love and the blanket had a connection.

Not a logical thought, but Abby was in a sensitive period of development for order. This sensitive period is strongest from birth to age four-and-a-half.

Children are trying to create order out of chaos as they make their way out into the world. Language, movement, family relationships, and the ability to discern sensory information, all connect in the child’s mind to create order and make sense of the world.

At this age, children learn by repetition by doing the same thing over and over, such as reading the same book, saying the same prayers, and singing the same songs. It is how they make order out of chaos.

Around age six, with the loss of baby teeth, a more adult learning style develops where learning requires repetition but with variety. Until that time, though, children thrive on this stability in their environment. Children gain comfort, as well as expertise, in knowing the wooden blocks are in the same place, that the kitchen pans are in the lower left hand cabinet, and that lunch is at noon everyday.

The child’s need for order may create seemingly outrageous demands.

On his fifth birthday, Paul started to stay all day for the kindergarten program.   After two days, he told his parents that he didn’t want to come to school anymore, because he didn’t like lunch.

“Paul”, I asked, “what don’t you like about lunch at school?”

His bottom lip almost touched the floor. “The food.”

“What kind of food would you like at school?”

He went on to name three fast food places. He was in the habit of eating lunch out several times a week with his dad or mom. Lunch at school just didn’t fit in with his established sense of order for lunch.

Paul learned to adjust, but not without a lot of complaining to his parents and teachers. We were able to work together, understanding that Paul’s sense of order had been disturbed. Mom and Dad took turns coming to lunch at school a couple of times a week, and Paul learned to enjoy “the food”, different company and a new routine.

If your child is being difficult and moody, step back and reflect on what recent changes have occurred, remembering the importance of order in the young child. Many times moodiness stems from a change in routine or environment. It might be as simple as having washed the “blankie”.

8 Responses to “Sensitive Periods: Understanding A Child’s Sense Of Order”

  1. stacymus

    Our near-three-year-old now comes to our room up to three times a night. We moved him to his own room at six months. He’s recently started his night walks, wanting to stay in our bed for two minutes; then when we walk him back to bed, he wants us to stay with him there for two minutes–or more.
    We’re all exhausted.

    Not sure what to do.

    • Stacy,

      One important thing that took me a while to learn in working with children is this: Ask.

      We need to ask our children why they are acting the way that they are.

      Even a three-year-old can tell us a lot about why they are getting out of bed in the middle of the night.

      Here’s a link to an article about the five why’s technique that can help you uncover the real reason behind the getting out of bed episodes.

      Over the years I’ve seen the root cause of a child getting up being a variety of things.

      The thermostat clicking on at a certain time.
      An air vent blowing on the child due to heat or air conditioning coming on.
      The street sweeper or snow plow driving by.
      A late night neighbor’s headlights coming in the windows.
      The child getting too hot because of heavy pajamas.
      The child being cold because of kicking off covers.

      That’s why it is important to try to gather as many clues as possible. It’s not easy to know.

      Also here is an article about having a night time plan.

      One more thing: One idea that worked for us during a sleep disruption period was to put a sleeping bag on the floor in our bedroom. If our daughters got up they could get in the sleeping bag and let us sleep. That meet their need to be close and ours to get some sleep.

      I hope this will help you and your family get some sleep and rest.

      Let me know how it goes.

  2. Great article Maren! It’s a good reminder! Sometimes I find myself worrying about and over thinking a problem instead of trying to find out the source, which my efficiency adult brain would never ever even consider!!! Thank you for working so hard to inform us! And love your presentation style!

  3. Martha

    Very interesting article as usual! I’m not sure if asking why to a 3-year old would give the same result that asking why to an 8-year old. In my experience as a preschool teacher and as mom, many times their reply is a simple “I don’t know” or “because!”. However, when asked questions starting with “what” or “how”, it is easier for very young children to explain the cause of their behavior, and for us adults to understand their why’s.


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