Dear Polly,
Here is a typical scenario in my room. I don't allow the fours to use the adult scissors, but Bobbie helped himself and started snipping something. When I reprimanded him, he said, scissors in hand, "I didn't take the scissors. I'm just bringing them back."
-Help Needed in Honesdale

Dear Help Needed,
Now and then teachers run into a child who consistently blames other people—children or adults—for his own misdemeanors. In my experience, the cause is usually one or two of these reasons:

  1. The child, like all young children, like all adults, yearns for approval. Because the child feels that the adult will not approve if he acknowledges that he did something wrong, he denies it. It's obvious to him that someone must have done it, so he names someone else as the culprit.
    • What you can do:
      • Avoid accusing. Instead, you might say, "I see you made a mistake. We all make mistakes sometimes. Next time please remember ..."
      • Avoid confronting the child and requiring him to respond. State the reality in a matter-of-fact tone and move on. If you try to discuss the subject, a child like Bobbie will argue with you; then you'll express disapproval of his behavior, increasing his wish to blame someone else! Simply put the truth into words and change the subject: "Bobbie, you need to remember not to touch the grown-ups' scissors, because they're too sharp. Are you going to cut some more with these child scissors, or would you like the markers now?"
      • Be generous with compliments, as well as cautious when it comes to criticism. The child who feels approved of and warmly appreciated is not likely to fear disapproval so much that he can't accept responsibility for his actions.
  2. The child is not accustomed to accepting responsibility for his behavior because adults close to him have made and are still making excuses for him. These can be expressed in a number of ways: "Oh, he's tired." "He's been sick." "His brother always makes him do that."
    • What you can do:
      • Be empathetic yet encourage personal responsibility. Here are some examples: "I guess you're very tired today, but you need to (do/not do whatever it is) anyway." "I think you're feeling a little bit sick today. It's hard to cooperate (with the rules) when you don't feel well, but you need to (do/not do whatever it is) even when you feel sick." "Yes, I see that Joanna is pestering you, but you hit her. Joanna didn't make you hit your own self hit. You're in charge of your arm: Don't let it hit anyone."
  3. The child rarely experiences negative consequences when his behavior is unacceptable because his parents endlessly negotiate with him. Have you ever seen a child sit, whining, while an adult scrambles to find a suitable solution ("Would you rather have this one? That one? Me sit here? Me sit there?"). Kind, cooperative parents and teachers try to be accommodating, but at some (sensible!) point, we set limits. And there are consequences (logical, if possible) for unacceptable behavior.
    • What you can do:
      • Be fair, but ensure that something less than desirable results from wrong actions. For instance, you could say, "Listen to my words. You can choose to keep on whining, or you can choose to go over there. But you can't choose to stay where you are and whine. It bothers my ears." Then you need to enforce what you say.
  4. The child has been so overcontrolled at home—and maybe at school too—that he doesn't feel In control of his own behavior. This child expects others to discipline him, so he isn't developing self-discipline. In order to learn to control his impulses, a child must be given a certain amount of freedom to govern himself.
    • What you can do:
      • Give children more control of themselves and their learning community. This includes enough chances to make meaningful choices, enough opportunities to discuss plans and problems that affect the group, enough invitations to participate in making significant decisions, and enough time and guidance to process instances of mistaken behavior and to help one another see the wisdom of controlling their own impulses.

When a child blames others for his own inappropriate behavior, as you say your Bobbie often does, I would think of each of the above four possible causes in relation to the individual child to determine which ones fit. I would then tailor my teaching style accordingly.