Question: A three year old in my preschool class “marches to a different drummer.” He is a prolific role player, with roles as diverse as an orchestra conductor, a basketball referee, or an artist who makes windmills or flags. He arrives at preschool with his “role” firmly in mind.  We teachers are not able to redirect his attention to group activities. He insists on being called by his current role’s title.   We have indulged him on that, but he becomes very uncooperative, crying, upset, pleading, if our planned task is not related in some way to the role he is playing. He does not play cooperatively with other children. We want to allow his creativity and different interests, but when we do not play along, he is very uncooperative. We’ve tried all our “bells and whistles” — choices, rewards, but he is incredibly focused on his own agenda.

At a special Saturday session, he decided he would only play basketball, rather than make a Mothers’ Day gift with his Dad. Should we just give him lots of solo free play and wait for maturity and self control to bring compliance?  How can we help this family?

Adele Brodkin: I know his determination is exasperating, but what an interesting child! (Easy for me to say: I am not trying to manage his classroom!) As you recognize, he is wonderfully imaginative and creative. That really does bode well for him, but adults in his world may need to adjust their plans for a time, allowing this little guy to take the play-time lead.  There are ways that you may be able to add a dose of flexibility to his mind set. Why not try to invite and incorporate some other children or even the class at large into his fantasy world and see where it goes? I suspect you can do some negotiating with him. For example, “It sounds like fun. We will all be the orchestra members for you to conduct. Tell us what instruments we should each pretend to play. And then later, someone else will have a turn to pick a game.”  Here is the tricky part — persuading this determined little guy that now it is time for someone else (teacher or child) to have a turn selecting an activity. I am reminded of children who have announced imaginary companions who must “participate” in every family and school activity. Those children too have an imagination that “rules,” so a little gentle bargaining is often necessary along with compromise on all sides. In the case of the imaginary companion, it is virtually always for a self-limited time — days, weeks, or months, but not forever. I am hoping the situation will be similar with your boy who is currently enthralled with his own imagination. If not, or if weeks or months is just too long in your classroom, a gentle intervention, starting with a parent-conference and any opportunity for you to get some insight into why he feels he must be “in control” might help you to cajole him into classroom cooperation.

A child like this, with a very strong sense of his own pretend identity, is going to have a hard time putting that aside for something called “Mothers’ Day” — which really means nothing to him at his age.   The average three year old will comply because the teacher is the boss, but that doesn’t make “Mothers’ Day” truly meaningful at such a young age. Try to be patient and guide him gently without allowing a power struggle.  I think the benefits might be worth it.

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