Question: I teach Pre-K in Georgia and have 4 boys that drive me "crazy"! There are some diagnosed learning disabilities, but my main problem is that they tend to feed off each other and before you know it I have two classes - the 16 that are listening and performing and the 4 that are having a free for all. I've tried separation, (only works for a few minutes) time outs (only works if they are ALL in time out in separate areas), and talking to them about making good choices and not copying someone who is not, but nothing seems to work.  I feel badly for them because they are not progressing well with our curriculum and also for the rest of the class because the assistant teacher and I are so frustrated that I don't believe I'm giving them the proper attention.  Any suggestions to a very complex and difficult situation? Oh, 3 of the 4 are also second language learners, but all different languages!

Polly Greenberg: You worry because you may not be giving your four difficult little boys proper attention. Of course the definition of “proper attention” differs from child to child. You mention that the others “listen,” “perform,” and “progress with the curriculum.” It doesn’t seem that the attention these four guys need from you relates to sitting, listening, performing, and progressing with a set curriculum. So what do they need?No teacher wants a free for all and to be driven crazy, but I would guess that if you change your goals and program for this quartet, there will be less chaos and no crazy grown-ups.  

1. Whether because they’re immature for age four, live in crowded or cramped conditions, have been medically diagnosed as hyperactive (a grossly over-used term), or are simply high energy live wires—probably one or two of these explanations fits one of the children, and another fits another—they clearly need lots of space, actually and emotionally.

If it were my class, I’d ask the assistant to spend a generous hour every day with the boys outside, in the gym, or in the rainy day exercise room, whatever your school has, so they could enjoy running, rough and tumble play, climbing, leaping, and all the other gross muscle (and  noisy) activities young boys usually love. (This in addition to outdoor time the whole class has.) I  would emphasize that this is good for them, that it’s an important part of school for them. If  yours is an all day program, I would repeat this in the afternoon. After all, until recently, most children of this age were at home in large yards, on the farm, at the park, or on city streets moving freely (and shouting loudly).   

2. On and off during the day, I would ask my assistant to supervise activities the other children are engaged in and, in a secluded spot, I would spend ten minutes reading a simple, engrossing story to one of the bouncy boys at a time, repeating a few key words each time, as learning to like books and learning English are both important. The three not being read to could be paired with calm, mature children and the partners could be assigned to separate, interesting learning centers.

3. I would recruit a volunteer to work daily, in an out-of-the-way spot, on English as a second language with each of the children who don’t speak much English. Consult an ESL teacher about appropriate lessons for four-year-olds. You might need three volunteers. Surely someone speaks their languages!

Try these actions, which should help significantly. Then we can talk about other things you may want to try.

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