In many early childhood classrooms, there is a child whose behavior is disruptive. He or she might disturb others' play, ruin someone's project, grab toys, hit, interrupt a group activity, act bossy, jeopardize others with their rowdy behavior during outdoor play, and even name-call and tease classmates. In short -- disregard program rules. There are differences in the frequency and severity of such behavior, but it almost always seems to represent a cry for attention. Most of these children feel friendless. But of course, behaving in this way typically evokes social rejection. The key to changing things often turns out to be interrupting the cycle by "catching a disruptive child behaving appropriately" and heaping on positive attention/rewards for even rare praiseworthy behavior.

Here are questions to consider before planning an approach to helping the child:

How long has this behavior been going  on? Is it chronic -- no different today than it had been days, weeks, months ago, even last year?  If it represents a sudden change and is out of character for a particular child, the outlook may be quite good, especially if there is working trust between teacher and parent. What is going on at home?  Through discrete inquiries, see what you can find out about possible family life changes -- the birth of a new baby, a separation or divorce, family illness or death, a job loss, or other significant distraction for parents, especially if the disruptive behavior is relatively new.

What else can you learn from a respectful conference with the child's parents?

Whether it is new or chronic, each child's disruptive behavior calls for a uniquely designed intervention. Here are some things you can do:

  • Consider what you know about his special interests, likes, and dislikes. In other words, tune into the child to find a "hook" for helping him to feel successful in school.
  • Include collaborations with the family whenever possible.
  • Catch the child being cooperative, kind, considerate, etc., and reward her in ways she will definitely enjoy. Encourage parents to do the same.
  • Set clear boundaries and a few simple rules. Also, offer the child as many choices as you can, particularly when it comes to activities.
  • Do everything possible to avoid negative discipline since it provides attention, implicitly "encouraging" even more disruptive behavior.
  • Talk with the child. Together, make a plan to help him get better at taking turns or helping others. Then celebrate each achievement of the goals.
  • Consider the possibility that expectations at home may be different from those at school. Children can learn that there are some things they might do at home that aren't done at school, or vice versa.

Finally, remember to tell him how glad you are to have her in your classroom.