Dear Polly: I'm having a difficult time with a 5-year-old in my class. Noah can be friendly and cooperative, but much of the time he provokes other children. He seldom finishes anything and defiantly says, "I won't do it!" Noah is the only child in my kindergarten class who consistently disobeys, especially during transition times. To make matters worse, his preschool teacher tells me she rarely had trouble with him-though she admits he presented many challenges.

Some children require a much greater amount of thoughtful intervention than most to prevent out-of-control behavior and a much firmer response to early signs of defiance, as Noah is doing. Make sure your first response to Noah's antics is firm and clear, then focus on prevention.

Prevention and Intervention

Here are some things you can do to prevent defiant behavior before it occurs:

  • When organizing a group activity, seat Noah next to (or on the lap of) a teacher or volunteer. If he disrupts the group, remind him once by trying to involve him. If he does it again, have him politely removed to a place outside the room (under adult supervision) where he can't see and hear the group and where he will discover that there's nothing to do.
  • Ensure that this child has little opportunity to go against the flow during cleanup, bathrooming, and other transitions. Another adult can have him out of the room at these times, helping him do a chore or an errand. After a few weeks of this, when Noah's habit of defiant, disruptive behavior at transition times has perhaps waned, an adult can informally escort him from learning center to learning center and immediately engage him in the next thing (start reading a story as the rest of the children gather for story time, or hand him things to pass out as everyone gathers for snack time).
  • Be imaginative in thinking of ways to meet Noah's apparent need to stand out and to take risks. Encourage and applaud his "brave" physical acts on climbing and other play equipment. Ask him to hold the hand of a shy child as the class walks to the playground, lunchroom, or pick-up area. Compliment him on his courage and on his ability to take care of others. Invite Noah to present first at sharing time and to be in the first group to try a new board game. Comment on the fact that some children find this hard to do but that he is good at trying new (hard) things. Because of his impulsiveness, plan short activities with a high likelihood for success so that he will be rewarded before his attentiveness disintegrates.

Parents as Partners

Very seldom does a child display behavior at school that the parent has never seen at home. It is also rare that a parent will admit this to a teacher who comes across as judgmental. Explain that you're having this problem at school, and ask his parents if Noah ever does this at home. If so, ask the parents what they do when Noah is defiant. Suggest that maybe he's so used to them doing whatever it is they do, that he's tuning them out. Say, "You might want to try something that works for many parents." Make a casual request, rather than issuing an order. If you want parents to help solve a school problem, working together is always more effective than criticizing.

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