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When is crying a positive sign?

Updated: Feb 19

In 1993, I was a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University, Peabody College. I went there to study orientation and mobility (O&M) under the esteemed Professor Everett Hill. Professor Hill was a pioneer in preschool O&M. Among his many achievements is the only measure of concepts standardized with children (aged six to ten) who were visually impaired called “The Hill Performance Test of Selected Positional Concepts.”

Back then, we were just beginning to study how to include O&M into early education programs for children with mobility visual impairment or blindness (MVI/B).

In my first year, I met a boy named Mike.

Matias is sitting in chair at a table wearing his cane. The belt cane hangs down, his legs are on the chair with his big toe is grasping the cane frame.
Matias sits happily at the breakfast table, wearing his belt cane.

Mike was three years old and blind. He was attending the on-campus Susan Gray School which has the distinction of being the first nationally recognized inclusive preschool where typically developing children learned alongside children with disabilities in an educational setting.

In my very first observation, I watched Mike transition from classroom to playground for recess. The classroom door opened onto the playground; from there he walked by himself. He trailed the outside brick wall to an alcove that had floor to ceiling glass windows. There he stood all recess; his chosen activity was to put his face on the glass with his hands up around his ears tapping the glass as he stuck his tongue out and licked it. He remained there, undisturbed, until the end of recess when he was collected and brought back to class.

Mike was quiet, passive and in his own world. I asked if I could volunteer to provide early education O&M supports for him. His teachers agreed. They told me that they had little experience with children who were blind. They also said, "he was a good little boy, as he rarely cried".

My goal was to teach him how to play like the other children. This being the mid-90s, I had no understanding that he needed to have tactile path information. I understood only that he lacked concepts and his current recess activities were not providing him with real-life activities that would result in useful concept development.

The first thing I attempted to teach him was to climb on the little structure that had a slide. As soon as I took him away from the glass wall, he began to cry. He wailed as I helped to guide his body to climb up the structure. Tears streamed down and the volume of crying was so loud that several teachers came over to check whether I should stop what I was doing. His crying was very upsetting to them.

Well, tears streaming and amid loud cries he slid down the slide. As we continued to work and repeat the activity, the volume of his protests got softer. The next day, he wailed again, but for a shorter amount time. He stopped crying mid-slide and began to engage in the sliding activity. The next day, he didn’t cry, and he competently climbed the structure and slid down with very little help.

Well, of course, that meant we needed a new activity. I wanted to show him how to ride the tricycle.

The new activity resulted in a return to great volume of tears and crying. He was again so loud the teachers once again came over to see if we should stop or go back to sliding. Once again, after several days of the new activity his protests stopped, and he began to peddle the trike on his own.

What happened? Well, I changed the activity again, this time, he cried, but he wasn’t as loud or as insistent that we stop. He was getting used to learning new things.

We began to have a recess without tears replaced by doing many activities, some sliding, some riding, see sawing and sand play. In class, on his own, he began to push a chair ahead of himself so he could walk with fewer collisions. He was even becoming more a part of the group activities.

For Mike, crying had been his only way to control his world, when he cried people left him alone. Therefore, for Mike, crying was a positive sign because it signaled that he was being asked to learn something new. Once he learned the new thing, he stopped crying and had a new skill that gave him pleasure and a feeling of worth.

If I had stopped introducing him to new play activities because of a few toddler tears, he might have been allowed to lick glass all school year long.

For children with MVI/B who are quiet, passive and in their own world, crying can be a positive sign. To make sure that crying is a control behavior and not due to actual harm you can; a) check that there is nothing hurting them, b) have confidence that as an adult you are not hurting them; and c) have confidence that toddlers/preschoolers want to learn new things, and they don’t know that crying is preventing them from the fun of learning.

So, have courage, plug your ears, and introduce toddlers and preschoolers with MVI/B to new activities. You can help them learn new things by distracting them from their tears of protests. You can teach them to communicate in new ways- such as with laughter and words.

Matias is crying, he is standing wearing his belt cane, one arm grasps his mother, the other is pushing down on the cane frame.
Matias protests against his new belt cane.

If I was working with Mike today, I would provide him with a wearable belt cane. Belt canes just didn't exist in 1993. In fact, until 2017, there has never been an effective mobility tool to allow 3-year-old boys like Mike to roam free from harm.

The pictures in this story are of Matias. He was two years old when he got his first belt cane. His videos are on our website. They document the volume of the tears he created when his parents first put the wearable belt cane on him. The videos also show that he stopped crying that day in December.

Now, Matias is three years old and wears his cane to preschool. One day Matias cried in preschool because his teachers forgot to put his belt cane on him, and he ran into the door frame and hurt his head. Now, that is a reason for tears.

They don't forget to put the belt on him anymore and Matias loves being a part of the group and learning new things at school every day.

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