Question: I have a 5-year-old girl in my preschool classroom who has very defiant behavior.  It’s not usually big things but what she does is disruptive to the rest of the class.  Her behavior ranges from just talking over me during circle time, yelling “no” at me when I ask her to be quiet, to hitting and pushing me and other children.  Nothing I’ve tried has worked long term and the behavior seems to be getting worse.  I am very clear on classroom rules and what is and is not acceptable.  However, she doesn’t seem to have any currency.  I have known her since she was 3.  She has always been this way and appears to “rule the roost” with her parents.  I feel she is trying to control the classroom with her behavior.  Any suggestions?

Myrna Shure: Something going on at home may  trigger this kind of behavior, perhaps too little discipline (this child appears to “rule the roost” with her parents) or discipline that’s too harsh – creating a sense of loss of control, and anger.  Perhaps knowingly, or unknowingly, she may be looking for attention that is lacking at home.  Classroom rules may not meet her needs and give her another reason to rebel.

To help this child feel that her needs are being met, help her think about why the rules are in place, and the impact of her behavior on others.  Ask her why she thinks we have a particular rule.  You can guide her to think about this by asking, “If we didn’t have this rule, what might happen in this room?”  Then ask, “How might you feel if that happens?”  Asking her about her feelings will, in time, help her to believe that people really care.  She may not answer these questions immediately, but you’re planting a seed for building empathy. Once she is in tune with talking about her own feelings, you can ask her how the child she hits or pushes feels about that.  You can also ask, “How do you think I feel when you say ‘no’ or talk over circle time?” etc.  Once she is comfortable with talking about her own and others’ feelings, including yours, you can ask one simple question:  “Can you think of a different way to talk to me?”  “Can you think of a different way to tell (Chrystal) what you want?” “Can you think of a different way you can sit at circle time)?” etc.  

These kinds of questions will help this child take healthy control over what she does and says, feel better about herself, and lessen her need to take control of others.