Question: A four-year-old in my class has horrible tantrums. They start with her being directly defiant and going into these overly dramatic outbursts that last for about 30 minutes. She is extremely smart but feeds off of negative attention. I have been doing my best to give her only positive attention and reinforce only good choices. When she becomes directly defiant during circle time, I ignore her and continue engaging the rest of the students. Some days this works, other days it doesn’t. Do you have any advice about what I can do to encourage positive behavior?

Adele Brodkin: I will try to give you some suggestions about handling this situation in the classroom; but I think that the behavior warrants early childhood mental health intervention as well. As you point out, you have “called on all the usual suspects”, i.e. past rewards for such negative behavior, and you restrict rewards to positive behavior in your classroom. You point out that this is a very clever child who may be outsmarting her own best interests by defying your guidance. Positive rewards for acceptable behavior and lack of attention to disruptive behavior are apparently not enough perhaps because its origin is deeper than consequences of past behavior. I am suggesting that some combination of this child’s inborn temperament and her early interpersonal experiences have landed her where she is today. Getting her on the proper path toward social-emotional comfort for herself and those around her will probably require the intervention of a team of expert diagnosticians, including “experts in the mental health and development of young children” - specialists in psychology, psychiatry, pediatrics and neurology working in cooperation with the child’s family and school.  Your greatest challenge at this time is finding a non-threatening way to make this recommendation to her parents, with your administrator by your side. The federal government requires the public school system to pay for all such diagnostic consultations, in the interest of finding problems early in a child's life when intervention has a better outlook.

In answer to your question, I think you have done a yeoman’s job of encouraging positive behavior. That is something that you can’t over do. Continue to “catch her being good” and acknowledging her achievement in ways that will speak to her. If, for the time being, she can’t tolerate the shared attention in Circle Time, perhaps she could be working on another project with an assistant teacher or aide, if she feels this is “that kind of a day”. That would not be rewarding unacceptable behavior; rather it would be rewarding a self assessment that is honest. I suggest making the arrangements ahead of time, rather than as a consequence of disruptive behavior. You will be putting the child in charge of knowing herself and protecting others. The sense of resolve I get from your question makes me feel optimistic about the outcome.

For more advice by Adele, check out the Between Teacher and Parent column.