Dear Polly, Patty, a 4-year-old in my class, monopolizes toys and ideas for the story line in dramatic play even though we've explained the importance of sharing until we're blue in the face. She tries to dominate group time, too. We usually have her sit next to an adult, who kind of coaches her about the appropriate amount of talking as we go along. What should I do about this situation?

Why do you think Patty monopolizes classroom play? Thinking about possible reasons for a child's unusual behavior sometimes gives us clues about her needs. Because you often explain the need for sharing, and Patty still tries to monopolize classroom materials, her drive to fulfill her needs is more powerful than her drive to do the right thing.

Identify Needs

When adults are aware of what a child feels she's lacking and generously respond to it for six weeks or more, the behavior usually subsides. Have you had a staff meeting to decipher Patty's reasons for dominating playtime? This meeting should include staff members as well as her parents.

Explore the Behavior

Play is one of children's major ways of expressing themselves. Patty seems to be saying, "I need more." It's unlikely that she needs more food, sleep, clothes, or even toys, although you can find out if any of these are needs in her case.

Patty may need more time to play. In today's climate of overprogramming, it could be that Patty gets little time for unstructured, free play. Maybe she needs more opportunities to demonstrate mastery of something the children she is playing with would value. Forty-five minute play periods give children a chance to become proficient players.

Esteem-Building Activities

Both dramatic play and vigorous outdoor play provide opportunities for children to develop positive self-esteem in an area of great importance to them-play. We gain self-confidence and feel proud when we do something we care about well.

Provide Opportunities for Self-Expression

Patty may also need more outlets for her feelings. Young children express their feelings through art materials like paint and play dough, through music and movement and play itself. It's possible that she's expressing feelings of being out-of-control in some major aspect of her life. Does she have domineering older siblings, or is there a new baby whose presence threatens her status in the family? Was she bounced around in the foster-care system? Are her parents breaking up?

What You Can Do

In your brainstorming meeting about Patty's problem, set achievable goals:

Give Patty chances to make decisions and to play a leadership role every day. Comment on how well she handles these responsibilities.

Do what works at group time. Have a "coach" sit near Patty at playtime to comment on her good ideas and invite her to take turns.

At the end of the play episode, congratulate Patty on the specific times she did not dominate.

Tell Patty she can do something she really likes because you're so proud of the way she's learning to cooperate with other children.

Applying problem-solving strategies to teaching problems, whether behavioral or instructional, can be enormously effective.