Dear Polly, Chris is a warm, affectionate little boy, but he is always starting trouble. Among other things, he interrupts at circle time and pokes the child in front of him when we're lining up to go outside. What makes him do this, and what can I do about it?

"Starting trouble" is an interesting phrase. We don't all define it the same way! And how you help Chris - or any other child - depends on what he's doing.

Does Chris start trouble by being disruptive and bothering you or other children? It may be that Chris wants attention but has not yet learned appropriate ways to ask for it. Perhaps he's not used to being in a big group. Did this child join your class after being cared for at home or by a child care provider with just a few other children? A child in these situations may not realize that when he's ready to tell you about something, you can't always give him instant attention. He may not have practice making friends, so he irritates the children he'd like to play with by barging into their games. If this sounds like Chris, think hard about how you can give him individual attention. Set aside 10 minutes each morning to play or read just with Chris, or make a standing date for him to tell you about his day while he helps wipe off tables after lunch. Observe who shares Chris's interests and pair them off a few times to see if the friendship clicks.

Does Chris start trouble by failing to follow along with the class routine? If, for instance, this child asks for lunch all during story time or pretends to have two broken legs while you're trying to put on his coat, again it could be that he's not used to being one of many. If he's been cared for in a small group, he may be used to a schedule built around his needs. You can't make Chris the center of your class, but you can take this opportunity to reevaluate how your routine works for everyone. Are some kids often hungry well before lunch? Add an early snack time. Do some children seem to need more exercise and movement? Supervise an extra outdoor-play time for them while an aide reads to the others.

Does Chris bother others because he has poor impulse control? The ability to control impulses, like the ability to control going to the bathroom and the ability to talk, comes partly from training or exposure and partly from physical maturity. While there are many, many exceptions, it's often true that boys develop impulse control later than girls. Chris may just need another six months-and another 60 gentle reminders!

Does Chris start trouble by hurting others or by having severe tantrums? Children often act out their feelings. Chris may be troublesome because he feels troubled, disturbing because he feels disturbed. Could it be that he is adjusting from a move, from the birth of a sibling, or from the loss of someone he loves (perhaps his grandmother has died or his father has left on a military tour)? If the causes of Chris's behavior are outside the classroom, concentrate on helping him feel attended to in the classroom.

Whatever you think is causing Chris's troublemaking, and however you decide you can help, it's important to keep reminding him of your expectations for behavior. Understanding the causes of our children's behavior makes us better teachers, and so does sticking to reasonable but firm standards! Setting limits is essential.

This article originally appeared in the March, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.