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The Passive Child

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

The passive preschool child lives daily in his own world. This child can be characterized as aimless and lethargic, at times moving from place to place. He is difficult to arouse or even stimulate to show interest or enjoyment. At times he shows a hint of play, but the activity is repetitive (simply moving toys about). The passive child's facial expressions are dull, with little indication of alertness. When invited to try new things, he seems afraid to tackle any new tasks and usually drifts disinterestedly toward small structured materials (puzzles) at tables. Rarely does he play with blocks or carpentry tools, or perform activities that require self-assertion, and he appears to view the world through a fog. Cognitively he detects no order, system, or clarity to objects or events in his life and is unable to remember or name objects and events (Krown, 1969; Swallow, 2000). (See also figure below.)

The passive child either has not grown out of or has retreated into Position 1, the Inside Self, living in a protective shell of helplessness (Dreikurs et al. 1989). He cannot make the world work for himself or be a productive agent. He appears perceptually detached from the actions about him, spending most of his time in his internal fantasy world of thought possibly experiencing feelings of fear.

Krown (1969) describes the behavior of the typical nonproductive child as follows:

Chaim fell off the swing and banged his head, which immediately became swollen. He didn't utter a cry, seemed unchanged, kept a bland expression on his face, and did not respond to the teacher's efforts to comfort him. (Krown, 1969, p. 32)

The passive child may be viewed as having retreated into a personality state where he is cut off cognitively and emotionally from his world and his own body (Body Self).

The young child during the early years of life begins to extend himself into his world through the various sense modalities of touch, smell, vision, or a combination of these. These tentacles into the outside world are used by the child to obtain information, which he assimilates into a meaningful relationship to understand his world. A child in a dangerous world, a child who is hit for touching or who is screamed at or shaken, lacks a basic sense of trust. The child believes that to touch is to expose himself to injury (this is called a punished modality) or to look directly at an adult is to be interpreted as intrusive—"Don't you look at me that way, young man." Many passive children (Inside Self) not only appear to be cut off from their own bodily senses (Body Self) but also appear as if they have been punished. At any unusual or strong sound, the passive child will cover his ears as if it is painful to hear. The child cannot sustain a look at the face of the adult, or his fingers and hands move nervously. He is not able to touch such dynamic materials as paints or water for water play. This may also be seen in the passive child's inability to eat at snack time. The teacher may ask whether such passive children have been punished through the various modalities (hearing, touch, etc.). Intervention will be needed to reestablish trust with the child so that he can look touch, and hear with confidence. The overall feeling that these helpless children provoke in the teachers who work with them is one of inadequacy: "I seem not to be able to help this child no matter what I do. He rejects it."

Classroom Behaviors of Passive Young Children

  • Lethargic
  • Flat expression; appear dull and lifeless
  • Rarely laugh and smile
  • Have little to no attention span, and drift off into an inner world of thought
  • Reject expressive materials such as paints or clay
  • Cannot be coplayers with others
  • Choose structured, predictable items such as simple puzzles and do them over and over, tending to hide behind the material
  • When cuddled, do not cuddle back (they feel limp like a wet noodle)
  • At times lose bowel and bladder control (unable to read their own inner body signal of need)
  • Refuse to eat or choose a narrow range of foods that they find acceptable
  • Wander about without direction
  • May perform self-abusive activities such as pulling out small amounts of their own hair or biting their own skin or fingers
  • Difficult to awaken after nap time
  • May cover ears at all sounds (as if sound can hurt)
  • May be found masturbating at various times during the day, especially during story time or on the cot at nap time
  • Go unnoticed by peers
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