Q: Six-year-old Sara thinks she's a teenager. She wears her older sister's clothing, talks about dating, and behaves altogether like an adolescent. What can I do?

A: In a way, she is acting like a 5- or 6-year-old, in the sense that she is living out “let’s pretend.” Playing make-believe actually begins even earlier. Toddlers put on Daddy’s hat and strut about “being Daddy.” Fours and fives are skilled at complex pretend games. Sometimes they expend more energy assigning roles and arguing about who is what than playing the game. Make-believe is serious business, though. By first grade, your student may have mastered playing out wishes as if they were true. When I was in first grade, I was envious of the fourth graders who were “Patrols.” They each wore the same armband with the letter N (for Nassau School) in orange and black. I figured if I could make myself a matching armband, I would achieve the envied position without having to wait three years (an eternity). Thank goodness I proudly showed the badge to my parents. They were amused and gentle but firm about my using the badge only at home when playing pretend. What may concern you about your little teeny bopper is there seems to be no one in her life who gently interprets reality for her. I suggest that you and her parents work together on that, remembering “gently” is the key word. She should not be mortified about her role playing. Rather, I suggest that you and her folks introduce her to some age-appropriate games, inviting classmates to join. She certainly can play at being older—but should also be proud of who she is, a first grader who can keep up with her older sibs while still having fun with her own age group.

Q: Kyle is fiercely competitive, always trying to outdo other second graders. How can I encourage healthier behavior without dampening his spirit? 

A: I wonder what would happen if, for a week or two, there were no winners or losers in your class, no grades on papers—perhaps, even more to the point, no negative criticism. I am not suggesting that you ignore the quality of students’ work. You may keep a private book with grades of each one’s performance. Some schools issue no grades, just a descriptive paragraph about each student’s work at the end of each marking period. Somewhere in those statements are the words “excellent,” “good,” “fair,” “poor,” and “unacceptable.” (Grade equivalents are kept in a locked drawer.) You can consult complete records for private conversations with parents—without mentioning anything that encourages comparisons. In class, consider each assignment and project based on your expectations for a particular child, measuring each student’s performance against the best of his own work, no one else’s.

When meeting with Kyle’s parents, greet them with unqualified praise of their son’s motivation to succeed. Ask in a matter-of-fact way if he loves to win and hates to lose at home. Is he competing with siblings? Do the parents point to comparisons among their children? You can gently suggest that they measure each one against his or her own talents and learning style. At the end of this brief period of diminished opportunities to compete, consider whether continuing the new approach might be helpful to the student whose behavior worries you, as well as to your other second graders