Question: I’m an assistant teacher in a kindergarten classroom. One of the students has a type-A personality – very stubborn when he cannot do things the way he wants them to be done. For example, when he messes up when writing or coloring, he gets so upset! The head teacher and I tell him to do the best he can, he doesn’t have to be perfect. But then he gets into a destructive mood and he starts breaking crayons and spitting at us. The next day, after he’s calmed down, he apologizes, but it happens again. What techniques can be used to stop and/or prevent this behavior? He is five years old and has already been sent to the principal’s office seven times the past few weeks.
Polly Greenberg: It doesn’t appear that sending this boy (I’ll call him Calvin) to the principal’s office is having much effect, so I wouldn’t recommend that as a continued course of action. You say that the child is stubborn. Every characteristic a person has can be a plus in some ways and a minus in other ways. Whether it’s a plus or a minus depends upon the degree and frequency of the behavior, the situation, and which qualities the child’s adults favor.
Stubbornness is a problem if it becomes obstinance. An obstinate person—or child—is unwilling to consider other ideas or behaviors, determined not to go along with other people’s needs and wishes, and consequently is often hard to deal with. A child who is stubborn may sometimes be oppositional to a degree that feels defiant to the adult. The upside of stubbornness is that, when applied to something we’re pleased to see the child do, it’s perseverance. Perseverance is central to hard work. It’s also called motivation. We all value that!
So think about how you can give this child opportunities to apply his perseverance (aka a stubborn unwillingness to quit) to important tasks in your classroom life (scrubbing tables, picking up each and every piece of Lego™, reading to a child who loves stories or who needs special, one-on-one attention—of course, reading for a five-year-old will probably be showing the pictures and telling the story). Always compliment Calvin on his hard work and keeping at it till it’s finished. You want him to see himself in a positive light. This builds that precious quality of self-esteem.
You’re wise to tell Calvin it’s OK to make mistakes when he messes up. Perfectionism is a problem in a person of any age. A perfectionist deeply believes that nothing but perfection is acceptable, and gets no satisfaction out of a job well done (just because it may not be perfect). Perhaps from time to time you can make an obvious mistake yourself, and say, “Ooops! I messed up! Well, that’s all right, I’ll (fix it this way, start over again). We all make mistakes sometimes.” You can also laughingly make jokes like, “I’m perfect! I never make mistakes! Do you believe that, Annie? No-ooo. Do you believe that, Andrew? No-ooo. Do you believe that, Calvin? No-ooo.”
Child development specialists have long known that the genes a child has inherited play as big a part in his personality and behavior as do his prior experiences, especially the dynamics in his family—you know, the nature/nurture discussion. The more neuroscientists learn about the brain, the more we understand about tendencies that are inherited. Occasionally, one of them is having difficulty shifting gears, a tendency to lock into what one is doing at the moment, finding it very hard to think differently. Calvin could be this kind of kid, but you can’t do anything about that even if it’s the case, which it may not be anyway, so work with what you can influence—his experiences with you and his parents. It would be a good idea to talk with his parents about this. Maybe someone in the family makes him feel that what he does isn’t good enough.
On the practical front, if I saw this boy working himself up to unacceptable behavior, I would say, “OK, now it’s time for (outside play, the sand or water table, coming with me and Natalie to get the snack.”) I wouldn’t wait until he breaks crayons and spits. Instead of letting his frustration escalate into bad behavior and then thinking punishment, think prevention—focus on helping him change the subject and move on.