Dear Polly: A 3-year-old in my group, Ava Jane, constantly communicates with friends, but rarely speaks. She whispers secrets into certain peers' ears. This habit makes many of the other children in the group uncomfortable. They come to me and want me to help them get into the game that Ava Jane has instigated Why does she constantly shut others out? What can I do to get her to be sociable with a wider circle of children?

When trying to solve a "behavior problem," I think it's always best to start with why a child might be doing whatever it is that she's doing. The clue as to what to do usually lies in the answer to why she's doing it. We can start with your statement that Ava Jane's habit makes the other children feel uncomfortable and that they want to play with her. It seems that Ava Jane excludes all but a few friends. Why do you think she does this? Does she feel superior to those she excludes? Or is she insecure and unsure of how to get along with them? Is she especially eager to have a special friend and unskilled at managing this arrangement? Since there's no way to know the answer to these questions, some teachers go at the problem from all angles at once. Something is likely to work!

Reasons for Exclusionary Behaviors

Is Ava Jane feeling superior to her peers? In my experience, this is seldom so. But just in case, you might want to give each of the children who are trying to play with Ava Jane a turn being the featured child of the day. Invite this child to talk about herself-her favorite things to do, the people in her family, her favorite places to go, the date of her birthday, and so on. Using your informal interviewing techniques, try to bring out interesting aspects of this. At the same time, try to involve Ava Jane by commenting on similarities between the two children. Suggest possible connections: "What are your favorite things to do in our classroom? Play kitty cat? Ava Jane, I've seen you play kitty cat, maybe later you two could be kitty cats together!"

Is Ava Jane excluding others due to feelings of awkwardness? This was the situation with my own granddaughter, Emily, last year in kindergarten. There was a great deal of pulling others aside and whispering secrets. When the teacher investigated, she learned that some of the secrets were about planning mean things to do to someone-snatch his hat, not share candy with her-as a way to bond with others. The teacher did two things. First, she invited each whisperer, separately, to a "private meeting" in which she elicited discussion of "how do you think you might feel if ... ?" Then she helped Emily and the rest of this small, exclusive group plan activities in which they could include other children who wanted to play with them or who were their targets.

Purposeful Pairings

Frequently, children exclude peers who look different from themselves-due to race or a physical challenge, for instance. I find that pairing children who don't usually spend time together for projects-along with doing a good job of diversity education-helps children feel less awkward together. (P.S.: Now in first grade, Emily does very well socially. No more unfriendly whispering!)

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