Question: I am a first-year teacher in a Head Start classroom and I have a child in my classroom who is a foster child.  This child disobeys me, cusses at me, kicks me, hits me and scratches me. I am firm with him and tell him specifically what I need him to do, yet he looks at me, smiles, and continues with his bad behavior anyway. I repeat what I would like him to do, and he ignores me. When I have him sit in a chair by me because he is harming others, he refuses to sit there and often fights me. My T.A. is the only one who can get him to sit in the chair. I was wondering if what I am doing is appropriate and if there are any other methods that would be more effective.

Polly Greenberg: Maybe it will comfort you to be reminded that most new teachers have considerable trouble with classroom management, bringing out the best in each child, and relating effectively to children who exhibit difficult behaviors. Practice will make you better at any of these things with which you’re having trouble—as long as you’re practicing well-known methods that usually improve the situation, and that strengthen the child’s positive qualities.

Because your assistant does well with this child, the solution to your problem may lie in watching her work with this child. It might help to ask your assistant to work with him for an entire day while you observe attentively. Look for details. Take notes.

1. What does she do, say, what is her body language while she’s doing or saying it, and what is her tone of voice during transitions, group time, playtime, etc. that result in this difficult child’s cooperation?
2. To what degree and in what ways would you say your assistant knows this child, his interests, strengths, challenges, troublesome characteristics; what does she know in all these ways about the boy you’re having a problem with?  
3. In what ways does your T.A. connect with this child? How frequently? What does she say or do (put her arm around him, hold his hand, ask him to help her) that causes the boy to feel positive toward this adult, and toward what she wants him to do (or not do)?
The day after you’ve analyzed your tape, come to school equipped with a tape recorder and lots of blank audiotapes. Try to use all the helpful ideas you got from observing your assistant’s way of working with this child, and tape yourself working with your class all day long. Later, review the tapes. How did you and the child you find difficult do? Identify any rough spots. What were you doing and saying at those times? How does this compare with what your assistant did and said at similar moments? Listen carefully for tone—firm and friendly? Authoritarian and cold? Wishy washy? My guess is that if you keep up this strategy for six weeks, really observing, reviewing your notes and tapes almost daily, and regularly focusing on trying to implement your “findings”, you and this little guy will do much better together. You can assume that a child in foster care has big issues with abandonment, trust, and very likely severe neglect or abuse. Firm is good. Methods are good. But above all, you need to develop a sincere and reliable friendship with him. The ball is in your court.  

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.