Question:  How do you stop copy cat behavior?  When one student misbehaves and gets consequences, other students, thinking it’s ok to be put in time out or sent outside the classroom, start imitating the behavior they have seen.  What can you do?

Myrna Shure:  Sometimes children imitate misbehavior of others just to see how far they can go, testing the limits, even if what they do gets them into trouble.  For some, copying misbehavior may be their way of getting attention, and to them, negative attention is better than what they may perceive as not enough attention.  If it’s one particular child the group is imitating, it is possible that they believe the “ring leader” will like them and want to be their friend if they do what she does – regardless of the consequences.  It is even possible that a group dynamic is at play here, where one child imitating another “catches on” with other members of the group.

You can try a game I created called “The SAME-or-DIFFERENT Game.”  First, perform a motion such as patting your head.  Then pat your head again.  Ask, “Did I do the SAME thing or something DIFFERENT?”  “Let’s all do the SAME thing.”  Now say, “Let’s all do something DIFFERENT.”  You can show some examples such as stamping your foot.  Next time a child imitates misbehavior, you can remind him of this game and ask, “Can you think of something DIFFERENT to do now?”  Most children simply smile and that’s all that needs to be said.

If the problem is deeper, such as thinking that’s how she’ll make friends, you can ask, “Can you think of a DIFFERENT way to show (name child) that you want to be her friend?’  

You can also introduce feelings, by asking, “Can you think of something DIFFERENT to do that will make (name a child) feel happy?  These kinds of techniques will help children who have a need to copy others, at least copy positive pro-social behaviors.  In time, they will come to see the benefits and perform those behaviors on their own.