Q: Dear Polly, Four-year-old Maya has never been in a classroom environment before. She's always demanding my attention, and if I'm busy with another child or in the middle of an activity, she'll yell and scream and insist that I stop to help her with whatever she needs. I've tried talking to her about her behavior and have even removed her from the group when she's acting this way, but nothing seems to work. How do I deal with this?

A: Most children have already started school by now. However,

  • children enter day care programs "whenever,"
  • some children begin preschool later than others in the class, for whatever reason,
  • and, anyway, it takes a while for many children to fully adjust to the new world of school.

It has probably never occurred to the child whose mother or others have been home with her during the day, and who have been quite responsive to her, that she can't expect teachers to stop what they're doing and pay full attention to her. 

Little children are just learning that each person — in addition to themselves — has needs and wishes, don't see it as "demanding" to express their wishes, even when the teacher is in the middle of reading a story; or to insist that they need this or that, even if someone else is using it; or to give a lengthy report, in their often rambling manner, about something interesting they've experienced, though other children need the teacher's attention.

We can help a child learn to require less teacher time by:

  1. Reminding him to look at his classmate and see that she was talking to the teacher first. "You need to look at her and listen to know when she's finished talking, then it will be your turn to talk."
  2. Asking another child to help the child who feels he needs assistance, a willing ear, or some other form of attention.

Probably, for just about every child in the group — even those who've  been in group care before — you are a new teacher, this is a new classroom, and, toughest of all for a child, this is a new group of equally immature and inexperienced children to work things out with. I don't consider this "demand" for attention — or, more accurately, this expectation of attention — a behavior problem. In fact, one of the centerpieces of the preschool and kindergarten curriculum is learning to be part of a group without forfeiting self. In my opinion, a significant proportion of a teacher's time should be devoted to helping each child develop socially, including learning not to need too much of a teacher's attention.