Dear Polly: All the children in my class think Michael is selfish. Some shun him. Others try, again and again, to play with him. But usually, in short order, someone comes running to report that Michael is refusing to let Sarah use the spoon at the sand table or to let Raphael finish his turn on the trike. I don't think it's a matter of learning to share. We talk about sharing all the time and Michael knows the rules. I'm beginning to feel very frustrated. What can I do?

First, let me say that I understand your feelings about Michael's behavior. Of course, in the situations you describe, your first responsibility is to try to work through each problem Michael is having with his classmates. Try to help them problem-solve and make sure they all feel your support and concern. And as you continue to work with Michael, keep in mind that our job is to help children develop and learn in a wholesome and happy way. Therefore, we need to believe that every child can progress from where he is at present with regard to skills, knowledge, and behavior, and to put all our resources into assessing the situation and assisting each individual. Certainly a child like Michael is a challenge!

Two basic principles can help you help this little boy become a more pleasant person.

1. What gets rewarded gets repeated.

  • Watch Michael closely as often as you can. When you can't, ask an aide or volunteer to keep a close eye on him. Every time you "catch" Michael behaving appropriately, compliment him on his unselfish actions.
  • Find and invent occasions at least several times each day when Michael can be invited to do some small thing he will probably want to do (feed the fish, phone his mom to tell her some news). Then comment that he's such a helpful person. We all want to be appreciated and endorsed.
  • Prevent Michael from saying and doing selfish things whenever you can. Watch for those menacing moods and before Michael acts them out by behaving selfishly, lead him off to another activity-chatting, yes, but not about his behavior.

2. What gets measured gets done. Keep a clipboard handy. Create three columns corresponding to the three ideas bulleted above: Caught him sharing and praised him; Invited him to do something positive and praised him; Prevented him from behaving selfishly and denied him attention for the undesirable behavior. Reaffirm your goal for Michael every morning with the adults in your room and, later in the day, review the details of what you all have succeeded in doing to move Michael toward this goal.

Two Is a Team

It's always important to include parents in the process. Tell Michael's parents that Michael is having this problem at school and ask if they ever noticed this kind of behavior at home. If so, ask what they do about it and listen carefully to their responses. If not, explain that because you all want Michael to be liked by other children, and because this behavior is not working well for Michael in terms of making friends, you are trying hard to help him learn more positive ways of relating to his classmates. Share your approach with Michael's parents and suggest that they try this approach at home. Two is a team-together you can move more swiftly toward meeting your goals for Michael.