The Teacher's Story

"Yeow!" Alexandra's cry shattered the calm of story time. She hobbled toward me, rubbing her right calf. "Sally pinched me!" she wailed.

"Well, she was too close and she kicked me!" 3 1/2-year-old Sally shouted back. "See, we're all squeezed in." Sally elbowed another child to prove her point. After a nod from me, our teacher aide, Mrs. Green, led Alexandra and Sally to the sink on the other side of the room. I knew she would put a cold compress on Alexandra's calf, and she'd also manage to calm both girls down. We got back to our story, but my thoughts kept returning to Sally. She has been irritable lately; still, she was right about being "squeezed in."

Our classroom had become quite full, with two new 3 1/2-year-olds since vacation and another newcomer arriving this week. I watched the children put on their sweaters and jackets. We had hardly begun to enjoy the sunny day when Timmy fell on the ground, crying. "Sally pushed me."

"He wouldn't hurry up and get on the slide," Sally explained with a scowl. I went over to make sure that Tim was okay. Sally's aggressive behavior was beginning to be a real concern. Later, during free play, things got even worse. Sally snatched Vida's crayons, and then pushed her way to the water table. It all happened so fast that she was splashing other children before I could invite her to another part of the room for a quiet chat. Could the arrival of a few new children in the classroom really explain these outbursts from an ordinarily sweet child?

The Parent's Story

I don't know what has gotten into Sally lately! She's been coming home from school in a very cranky mood. This afternoon, she kicked her cousin Madison really hard under the table. "They're my cookies!" she yelled, pulling the whole plate across the table so forcefully that the cookies went flying. I felt terrible about Madison being hurt, and I was awfully embarrassed as well.

It's so rare that my sister and her family come to visit. I love having them here, even though we're kind of cramped for space. My two nieces are sharing Sally's room, my sister and her husband are camped out in the living room, and our son's sharing his room with his cousin James, but he's not complaining. Only Sally has been acting up since our visitors arrived. When her father tried to reason with her last evening, she called him a "jerk face" and ran away crying.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

When there are new children claiming the attention of teachers and parents, it's not unusual for a young child to wonder where she fits in and whether she is still wanted. Both the teacher and parent sense that Sally is angry about having to share things with other children, but so far neither knows what's happening in the other's environment or why Sally needs extra reassurance right now. An important first step is for them to get together and talk about the situation. What Sally needs is their encouragement to express her angry feelings in more appropriate ways.

What the Teacher Can Do

Sally's outbursts have signaled the fact that she feels lost in the crowd. Her teacher, Ms. Nielsen, can avert some of the current trouble by giving the preschooler special time each day. Sally can express her anger safely through pretend play with Ms. Nielsen, and the teacher can make the rule clear about not hurting other children or their feelings. Naturally, Sally should not be punished or berated for her behavior, but encouraged to speak up about whatever is upsetting her. And, if possible, she should be given more space during group activities and free play.

What the Parent Can Do

Really, the visit of her relatives should have been discussed ahead of time with Sally so that she would have had a chance to get used to the idea of sharing her room with her two cousins. Now that they're here, it might help to ask her if there are any special toys that she wants to keep to herself, and her requests should be respected. If things get out of hand, as they did at the table, Sally might be asked to make amends. One way to do it would be to suggest that she bring a wet washcloth or ice pack for her cousin's bruised shin. What's more important to remember, though, is that the sudden crowding at home and in school means Sally needs more private time and time alone with one or both of her parents. It is not a good idea for them to try to squelch her feelings. Instead, she should be encouraged to talk to Mommy or Daddy whenever she's upset. Their love and understanding, as well as their very clear rules about not hurting other people, should reassure Sally about her special place in the family.

When to Wonder

  • If after a month or more, despite the parent-teacher collaboration suggested, the child continues to act out her angry feelings.
  • If angry feelings spread to other areas, such as toilet training, sleep, and appetite, and/or the child begins to cry easily and unusually often.

Helping Children Manage Anger

Making and explaining simple classroom rules prohibiting hurtful behavior seems easy enough. But enforcing these rules can be challenging if a child in the group is burdened with anger. Simply admonishing the child for lashing out may not be effective. Instead, it is often best to do some detective work in the hope of uncovering the origins of the anger.

  • Start by being a careful classroom observer. Make note of the circumstances under which the child becomes irritable. Perhaps if Sally's teacher had turned the classroom over to her assistant for a while, she would have been free to observe. She would have picked up Sally's inability to tolerate being physically crowded. The child's body language might have warned the teacher and helped to prevent the outbursts. The teacher may have seen Sally coming undone whenever she began to feel "lost in a crowd."
  • Use the insight you have gained through observing as a starting point for a relaxed conversation with the parent(s). I emphasize "RELAXED," for this should not be a session in which a parent feels blamed or senses any rejection of her child. Instead what should be communicated from teacher to parent is a friendly invitation to collaborate in the interest of the child. Express your affection and pleasure in having this child in your class. Ask the parent to help you uncover the reasons that the child is angry lately. Had Sally's teacher done these things, she would have discovered that "feeling crowded" in the two vital realms of her life was more than this 3-year-old could tolerate.
  • When the teacher and parent have become comfortable collaborators, they can intervene in the ways that have been recommended above. Be firm about the rules, but also uncompromising about respecting the child's needs — in this case, for both space and personal recognition from important adults. Individual play time with child and teacher, as well as child and parent, offers the best outlet for verbalizing feelings, rather than acting them out. Like any of us, a child who feels valued, respected, and understood has little reason to stay angry.


  • The Challenging Child by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., et al. (Perseus, 1996; $17.50)
  • How to Generate Values in Young Children by Sue Spayth Riley (NAEYC, 1998; $10)

Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant, and author.