Dear Polly:
I'm concerned about Charlie, a 4-year-old in my class. The other children never seem to want to include him in their play. I don't see any patterns in his behavior that would seem to warrant this kind of treatment. What can I do?

It's important to set limits on how "mean" children can be to each other. Each child is entitled to feel emotionally safe with us. Yet, a child who isn't functioning well socially needs feedback from peers. Testing the limits of what other children will tolerate contributes enormously to shaping a child's behavior.

Teachers have to achieve a balance between not stepping in soon enough, thus allowing a child to be teased too much or to be totally rejected, and swooping in too soon to settle everything every time.

Children must have plenty of opportunities to solve their own social problems, or they won't learn to negotiate and collaborate as well as they might.

Here are some things you can do:

• When teasing is clearly mean, intervene and stop it. Protect any child who is being taunted to the point of distress, whether by a group of children or by one individual. Say to the teaser(s): "I don't want you to talk to Charlie like that, and I won't let anyone talk to you like that either."

• Teach Charlie to see that getting upset rewards the teasers because it makes them feel powerful.

• If a group of children is busy and Charlie approaches wanting to play, teach the players to say, "We're busy now, but we'll play with you later." Then assist them in inviting Charlie to play something with them later.

What's Different About Charlie?

• Is Charlie unfriendly? Friendly children attract others and inspire friendly interactions. Unfriendly children are avoided by their classmates. The more they are shunned, the fewer opportunities they have to hone their social skills. If this is the case: Have a private chat with Charlie. Suggest that you look at children's faces together, listen to what they say, and observe their nonverbal behavior (how they stand, their gestures, and so on). Discuss how you can tell if a child feels friendly. Tell Charlie that if he feels friendly and wants to join someone in play, he can look and sound friendly too. Role-play and practice this with him.

• Is Charlie difficult to play with? Is his speech hard to understand? Is he too shy and withdrawn to be interesting to other children? Can he share and take turns? Is he a good follower, if not a leader? Can he fit in? If "no" is the answer to any of these questions, help Charlie practice the skills he's lacking.

Does Charlie look different from his classmates? Some children can't get past appearances. Young children usually prefer the familiar. They feel uncomfortable with the unknown. If this is the case: There are many resources these days for teaching tolerance. Locate them in your school, professional, or local library or on the Internet.

Tell Charlie that if he wants to play with someone, he should come and get you, and you'll help him. Suggest that the two of you stand on the perimeter of the play and watch for a few minutes. Point out that this helps you know what's going on and allows you to bring a good idea to the others. You may need to help Charlie say appropriate things and help the other children work him into their "play plot."

Dear Reader:
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