Dear Polly: Jennifer, a child in my class, bothers the other children almost every day. As soon as she comes into the classroom in the morning she starts darting from child to child, punching this one, knocking into the next one, and then name -  calling. Help!

Why do children pester and needle each other? One reason is that they think it's lots of fun. When a child provokes another, she gets a reaction. If she keeps it up, she usually gets a major reaction. The fun lies in the fact that one can exert power over another in such a visible and obvious way. One successful experience invites another.

A second reason that a child might keep on irritating another child is that she wants to play with her and isn't yet skilled enough socially to approach and engage her in a way that will elicit delight instead of anger. Usually a child pesters only a few, select children. Children typically bother those whom they care most about and/or feel most competitive with.

Finally, a child who's extremely concerned about her status in the family (she has a big brother who seems to her almost as amazingly capable as a Power Ranger, or her parents are extremely busy, so leisure time and casual attention for her are in short supply) is likely to carry this concern beyond the family. She may find it imperative to assert her superiority in every encounter with another child who she feels is a threat. Competitive insults and other forms of pestering will result.

What Can You Do?

To a child who is enraging or hurting the feelings of another child, I would emphasize the need to look at the target child and decide whether or not she likes what's going on. For example, say, "She's crying. What do you think is wrong? What does she want you to do? What should you do?" Then I would firmly state, "I can't let you make so-and-so feel so upset. If you want to play with her, do friendly things." Give an example that fits the situation.

To a child who is mean-teasing and needling a child who doesn't appear to mind (possibly because he's willing to put up with this unpleasantness as the price he must pay to be in the popular pesterer's good graces), I would say, "That sounds very mean to me. I see you want to play with so-and-so. I want you to say and play friendly things." In both cases, I would give examples of friendly comments the child could make, and I would reassure her that her status (as a capable kid, as a big kid, and so on) is secure.

Partnering With Parents

It's always important for parents and teachers to share information and collaborate on a solution when there's a problem. This is especially true when the root of the problem may lie in a difficult sibling situation, or if the child needs significantly more relaxed parental emotional and actual availability.

As you work to find solutions to this problem, it's important to remember that all young children need help with social skills, and all young children need to know that their abilities, possessions, and "selves" are valued.

Dear Reader: What troublesome issues are you dealing with in your program? Write to us at Early Childhood Today, 555 Broadway, New York, NY, 10012, and we'll do our best to provide you with helpful advice and "try it now" problemsolving strategies from our experts.