Dear Polly, I can't put my finger on why Annie is so unpleasant. I feel guilty saying she is, but everyone thinks so. She's very loud. She talks on top of whoever is talking, even me, and not always about the subject at hand. She intrudes on conversations and other children's play. She never hits or is mean to anyone, but she doesn't feel like part of the group. She doesn't participate, just does her own thing. I'm at a loss. What can I do?

I'd say it certainly is a social problem, and, though we can't change any child from who she is to our ideal, we can help her recognize behaviors she can change to make herself happier. We can help her do this through:

  • firm, consistent, but gentle limit setting;
  • frequent private chats about the behavior and the alternatives at the moment situations arise;
  • a variety of opportunities for her to express herself and to make decisions about what and with whom she will play.

Emphasizing Social Development

In an era when many teachers are under pressure to focus on academics, it's wonderful that you are taking time to focus on a traditional basic of early childhood education-assisting each child in achieving social well-being. Academics are important, but social success is at least equally so. Children urgently need to learn to get along within their families, their schools, and their peer groups.

Managing Levels of Aggression

Annie sounds very aggressive. At the extreme end of aggression we have bullying [see the April issue of Early Childhood Today], but hostile aggression can take many lesser forms. You pointed out two of them:

  • regularly intruding on everyone's personal space (your lesson, a child's conversation, the play of a group of children). This can be just as aggressive and provocative as intruding into people's physical space by poking a foot into someone at group time is, or rolling onto the edge of another child's rest mat and refusing to move off.
  • regularly shunning the group and choosing not to contribute to its well-being. If you're sure that this little girl knows how to participate in group activities, this is passive-aggressive behavior.

I say regularly because children who are eager to participate in discussions often interrupt. They blurt out their ideas or answers. Also, some children have naturally loud voices. And some children (and adults) prefer to do their own thing rather than to work in groups or as a team player. I would not consider these things to be hostile or aggressive.

Addressing the Problem

If the problem were academic, you would devote extra time to reteaching or remediating. Knowing that young children learn more effectively when all the significant adults in their lives consciously and conscientiously pull in the same direction, you would plan with the parents so they could help, too. With both child and parents, you would be encouraging and supportive. We can do these things with social needs, too. Thank you for realizing that this problem is worth investigating!