Dear Polly, I have a child in my preschool class, Wanda, who makes fun of others. You can see the hurt feelings on the other children's faces. We are under so much pressure to teach academics, I'm not sure if I should take time to deal with this.

Sure you should! For more than 100 years, early childhood educators have been taught to work with the child as a whole. Our biggest job is to join parents in helping young children become good people.

Maintain a United Front

It's important to provide a child with steady guidance toward being a person capable of making and keeping friends. If you and Wanda's parent(s) are willing to invest time in working on developing kind behaviors at school and at home, I think you'll make progress with Wanda. Can you schedule a casual conference to talk about this?

Be Consistent

What does it mean to be consistent with a child? It means adults must:

  • make a policy together that you both (or all) think is reasonable and enforceable;
  • pick up on any violations of the policy every time they occur;
  • take a minute to see the situation through.

Set Boundaries

It's important to set boundaries when working with children who have difficulty respecting others. Here's an example: "In this classroom, we say and do things to make people feel good, not to make them feel sad." If a child intentionally makes another child sad, he needs to do something kind for the child he has wronged.

Try These Ideas

  • Every time you hear Wanda mock or tease someone who obviously isn't enjoying it, say to the victim, in front of Wanda, "Did you like it when Wanda said that?"
  • Children are most likely to make fun of other children who appear to be different in some way. If appropriate, ask the targeted child if he wants to talk about his difference. For example, a child whose handicapped arm Wanda has made fun of might say, "My arm is that way because I was born that way."
  • Ask the victim, "What can Wanda do to make you feel good again?" Ask Wanda, "What can you do to make Eduardo feel better?" If the offended or distressed child says he would like to play with Wanda's favorite toy or to eat her cookie, so be it. As Wanda gets the hang of this reparations routine, she may come up with her own creative ways to make things right again. Besides soothing the victim's painful feelings, the objective is to give the child who was unkind a way to make amends, show kindness, learn a new habit, and feel good about herself, too.

A "Kindness Curriculum"

Be a model of kindness in the classroom. If you realize you're speaking rudely or even unkindly to a child, apologize.

Just the other day, a Head Start teacher told me that she has only one rule in her classroom: Be thoughtful of other people. Everything else falls under it, and when you give it a moment's thought, this rule does say it all.