Helping a young children deal with fear of men teachers

by George Yamamoto

I have always loved playing with young children, especially infants and toddlers. However, when I was younger I never envisioned myself as a teacher. Many years ago, my good friends unexpectedly had colicky twins and they really needed help. That changed my life. That experience unintentionally lead me into teaching. Now it is one of my biggest passions. It is a huge part of my family life. My daughter and wife love my kids and know them almost as well as I do. I constantly appreciate how much my work enhances my personal life and my personal life enhances my work. Life is truly a circle, and every day I thank God for that.

However, when I first started working in center based care it was very challenging  being a male teacher. In the beginning it wasn’t easy breaching some of those traditionally gender based walls. Thankfully, in Hawaii because of the influence of our local culture, I didn’t have too many problems breaking down the barriers concerning a man taking care of babies. However, I didn’t do it on my own. I was lucky, everyone I worked with helped me.

When I first started working in 0-3 over 15 years ago, I had no choice but to guess at what I thought was developmentally appropriate infant/toddler care. Most of the time I really had no idea what I was doing. I watched everyone I worked with and constantly asked questions. I loved daycare. However, eventually I was offered an opportunity to be a part of a unique pilot program for infants and toddlers. I enjoyed being a parent educator but I always missed daycare. After 10 years the company I worked for decided to close our program. I have always been very lucky concerning my work with infants/toddlers. When the parenting program I helped to create closed, I again got lucky. Right when I needed it, I secured a lead teaching position in the school that “opened the door” for me in ECE.

After being a Parent Educator for more than ten years I knew my transition back into daycare was going to be challenging. It was. It felt like starting all over again. Even though I expected it, the adjustments were very difficult. Even though I expected it being much older and out of practice was physically draining in a way that is hard to describe. It was also very stressful constantly being re-directed when I made the typical mistakes that come along with starting any new teaching position. I knew these transitional issues would be difficult for me. However, I do not think I was quite prepared for the other challenges of being a male teacher within the small group system implemented by my new school.

I now work in classroom with another lead teacher. We both have our own group of five young children (their ages ranging from 18 months to 3 years old). In the small-group environment I work in there are several sections of our daily schedule where I am isolated with my group without the support of another lead teacher or an aide. I immediately noticed and appreciated some of the positive aspects of this unique system. However, I also realized that if any of the children in my group were uncomfortable with a male teacher that I may have some issues that I have not experienced in the past.

At the beginning of the school year, I observed a girl in my group displaying some of the classic signs of male stranger anxiety. In my new small-group schedule, my old methods for working through these fearful issues did not to work. There were times where this girl did not have the option of going to someone else when she was initially uncomfortable with me. This was a key factor of my old strategies for helping children through their fear of men. Not having someone else to assist me during these difficult daily transitions made a big difference. Consequently, this experience obviously was very stressful her. I completely understood. This was a new, emotionally challenging situation for both of us.

I was very proactive with her parents because I knew she needed time to get used to me. They even confirmed my suspicions and admitted she had similar issues with males in the last school she attended. I had lot of experience with this issue and subsequently developed a general curriculum addressing fear of males. I was confident I could help her overcome her anxieties involving working with a male teacher. I also was aware that I needed to be very patient and take my time with her. I did everything I could (and then some), but that did not seem change her parent’s option about what they thought was best for their daughter.

I totally understood, but I was sure that with time their young child would be fine with me. I constantly communicated this expectation to her parents while trying to explain their child’s understandable reactions to me as a new male teacher. They did not necessarily blame me, but they still desperately wanted her to be shifted to another class. About the same time that she was truly becoming comfortable with me they decided to move her to another school. I was devastated. I knew it was not my fault but I could not help but take it personally.

I also had two other children that seemed to be having similar negative reactions to me during their transition into my group. I was a little concerned that this might happen every year. During this rough transition back into daycare I was venting to my mentor Leilani Au while we had lunch. I knew I might be over reacting, that is why I was venting. She did not give me any advice. She knew better than to be too direct when I thought I was doing my best. Instead she told me a story about one of the teachers she had supervised in the past. Lani mentioned that this teacher seemed to have the same issues with her group every year. This frustrated teacher once complained “Why do I always get the kids that don’t like to be hugged?” I’m sure Lani could have said more. However, I think she knew it wasn’t necessary.

After some deep thought I easily figured what Lani was subtly trying to tell me. Worrying about the possibility that some children might have issues with me because I am a male teacher may be have been influencing how they react to me. My fears may have created an unnecessary self-fulfilling prophecy. My approach both verbally and physically may have encouraged them to have concerns about me because I was worried they might not like me. I wasn’t sure but I consciously thought about this possibly every time I interacted with both girls. After a couple of weeks, the girl’s behavior towards me began to change. The less I worried, the more they both seemed to like me. It still took them both another month until they both fully bonded and accepted me at their primary. Their parents were very supportive and that made a huge difference. I got to know both families very well and generally figured out why their children seemed wary of me initially.

One of the girls did not have issues with me because I was a man. She just had a strong attachment to her parents and hoped if she screamed long enough her parents would come back. Initially, when she was upset she did prefer to be comforted by a female teacher. However, once she became comfortable with me she always preferred me regardless of her other options. The other girl in my group did seem to have some apprehensive feelings about males she did not know. I confirmed this through interactions with other males. Her family was amazingly supportive and that helped me to break down some of her preconceptions about unfamiliar males. I learned many new things about being a male teacher and dealing with the inherent fears that young children might experience.

Both children became extremely attached to me. They both moved to our preschool recently. However, their daily reactions to me did not change. Whenever I see them, they cling to the gate to our playground and scream my name loudly over and over. I get running (often painful) hugs as soon as I enter the gate and it always makes me a little emotional.

I have always believed the philosophical statement “The world is what you make of it”. I feel child care definitely relates to that statement as much as anything else does. I feel the children I work with “will always be as I think they are”. I believe if I have a strong negative opinion about any child I work with it may be an indication that I need to work on my attitude towards them. I feel my attitude influences my approach and that influences their reactions to me as a new teacher. If I envision a world of fear, irritation or avoidance that is probably what that child and I will experience when we are together.
 
Infants and toddlers typically have less interactions to male caregivers. If a child seems uncomfortable with me I usually recognize it quickly. I have never really gotten used to it, and I always hope it goes away quickly. However, now instead of trying to avoid this consistent issue I am trying to embrace it. It is not easy for me to have a child be uncomfortable with me. However, my days as an infant/toddler teacher are rarely easy. I feel if I child’s transition into my group is going to be difficult I would prefer that I make a lasting positive impression.

As result of my experiences re-entering daycare, I now believe that the children I work with will be more comfortable with me if I focus more on them instead worrying about the possible issues of me being a man. Even the children that were initially wary of me because I was a male teacher always ended up enjoying playing with me. I feel the reason I seem to get the same universal acceptance no matter where I am is that I truly enjoy being with young children. They can tell I am genuinely interested in what they are doing. I believe when I play with a child if I am worried that they will not like me, my facial expression, body language and the tone of my words will transmit my fears no matter what I say or do. Young children are often much better at reading us then we think they are. If I am worried or not enjoying myself when I play with them, they will know.

I still occasionally get some apprehensive responses from parents and children that meet me for the first time. I understand why they might be concerned because I am a male teacher. However, I am very confident in my abilities to bond with any infant, toddler. Or parent no matter how challenging their initial impressions of me are. I am still concerned when a child seems uncomfortable or weary of me. However, I now consider it a good opportunity for me to find an appropriate approach for that specific child and hopefully that has some positive influence on how they feel about the other males they will encounter in the future.

Over the years I have developed many different techniques/strategies for working though the typical issues when a child seems uncomfortable with me. The “peek-a-boo” game was always one of my most effective methods when dealing with a child that seemed to be afraid of me. If a child seems to display some anxiety towards me, I will usually attempt to hide behind a large object, structure or person and then try to cautiously peek at them.

If they still seem interested I will continue the peek-a-boo game. However, if they do not seem interested I will encourage them to seek comfort with someone that they were okay with (usually a parent, caregiver or another female teacher).

I will then wait until they look for or peek at me before I continue the game. Even children that seemed really uncomfortable with my presence always looked for me eventually. I feel my recognition of their feelings, and my willingness be patient until they seemed ready only fuel their curiosity about this “strange man”. If a child still seems interested after my peek-a-boo game I usually try to increase their interest in me with a variety of different methods depending on the situation. If not I usually back off, again encouraging them to seek comfort.

If a child seemed to like a certain animal or TV cartoon character I also try to integrate that into my interaction with them. For example, if a child likes bears, I might try to wear a hat that has small stuffed animal bear and incorporate that into my usual peek-a-boo game. If they continue to show interest, I often try to use auditory stimulation that I think might work well for that specific child. Sometimes I might slap my hand on the ground while hiding. If they like bells, shakers or drums I might try those as well. Children love loud attractive noises, especially when they don’t know where it’s coming from.

I feel if a child seems weary of me I need to be sensitive to that child’s reactions to my appearance, my approach and everything I say and do. However, I feel the most important aspect of dealing with any fear that a young child has is being patient and having no expectations. I have had a lot of experience with male stranger anxiety involving infants and toddlers. However, I try to approach every new situation without assuming I know why that individual child is scared of me. That is truly the most important aspect of my philosophy regarding children with possible issues with men. My methods always seem to work eventually because I try not to assume anything about their possible fears until I have spent enough time with them. Until I can do a proper assessment of their issues they always have full control of the situation. I feel my techniques work because initially I always allow the children I work with to control their exposure to me as well as the preceding play interactions that occur. For a child who is afraid of something, control is everything.

Infants and toddlers do not learn things like older children. It is difficult to teach them something when you have an agenda. I feel my job is to not to teach them something I want them to learn, but to help them to learn how to find a solution to a difficult or challenging situation in their own way. How do you deal with a caregiver if you are uncomfortable with them? I feel every child needs to learn how to deal with those kind of issues in their own way.

This year there is a boy who is obviously scared of me. Thank goodness he is not in my group, it might be too stressful for him. However, I feel this does not necessarily make it better for him (sometimes more exposure is better). He needs to get used to me eventually, I can’t keep avoiding him. I’ve talked with his mother and teacher (we are all working on a plan). I know I need to be an influential factor in this process even though it is stressful for both of us. I’m not sure how to help him because his negative reactions to me are a little different than anything I’ve experienced in the past. I now recognize that fear of males for young children is completely different for every child. If a child seems afraid of me, I need to focus on their specific reactions to me and not the experiences I have had in the past.

I recently learned that he loves the song “Wheels on the Bus”. I have been singing this song when he seems scared or uncomfortable with me and he is definitely responding a little. Even when he seems weary of me, he still looks to see what I am doing while I sing his favorite song. He is beginning to smile at me and I can tell he is becoming comfortable with me. I enjoy the challenge of helping a young child to become comfortable with me. I have no expectations. I am confident that he will like me because I truly look forward to playing with him. I just have to be patient and focus on his issues, not mine.

Update: The boy that was scared of me is finally comfortable with me. Honestly I think one day he just decided I was okay. My efforts and his observations of others positive reactions to me did help, but I am sure it had a lot more to do about him then me. I got a hug the other day and it was the best hug ever.

Born and raised on the Windward Side of Oahu, George Yamamoto graduated from the University of Hawaii with a Degree in Psychology.  After graduation he worked as a juvenile counselor for Hawaii Job Corps for ten years.  George finally discovered his “true calling” was working with infants and toddlers.  He went back to school at Honolulu Community College.  While taking classes there he volunteered at Keiki Hauoli under Lani Au.  His first job in ECE was as an afternoon aide at The Early School in Manoa.  He then worked for Early Head Start and then at Kamehameha Schools as a Parent Educator.  George is back where he started at the Early School as a lead teacher in their Young Children’s Program. Life is truly wonderful circle.