Dear Polly: There's a 5-yearold in my group who talks back all the time. If I say "Kelly, please put the blocks away,"she'll respond with something like, "I'm too busy, you put them away." I've tried to be patient with this, but now that it's the end of the school year and I haven't been able to resolve this problem, I'm feeling terribly frustrated Can you help?


The idea of "talking back" can include a wide array of responses. When my neighbor says this about her 3-yearold son, she means that he plants his feet firmly, leans forward aggressively, bounces his whole body in a cocky kind of way, and says, "No!" When my friend's 4-year-old daughter "talks back," it means that the child responds to many of her requests with laughter and bathroom jokes, rather than immediately doing what she was asked to do (or not do).

Knowing that it's healthy for young children to sometimes assert their independence and confidence, and knowing that it's important for them to develop a sense of humor (which goes through the bathroom-joke stage before it matures), we can give these little ones some leeway. But yours is a school setting, which requires certain kinds of limitations and expectations in terms of behavior.

Do you mean that Kelly makes sarcastic comments? If so, someone in her life must be modeling that behavior. Young children don't understand sarcasm, but as we all know, children will do what someone they admire does, whether or not they understand it. If the form this child's talking back is taking is sarcasm, you need to speak with her mom and, together, try to determine who is talking this way to Kelly and explain to that person why this isn't appropriate.

You know me, when an adult has concerns about a child's behavior, I always think it's a good idea to take the child aside and have a respectful conversation about the problem. Is Kelly sassy? You could explain, "Kelly, I know you think it's funny to say, `gaga googoo' over and over when I start singing our clean-up song, but it isn't helpful to us when you do that. What do you think would be helpful to me, and to your friends, at clean-up time?" Compliment Kelly on any sensible suggestions she makes. If she refuses to think about this, mention a few helpful clean-up time things she could do. It's always best if we can get the child to consider her own alternatives.

Does she make personal remarks? "Kelly, we are not talking about my (teeth, hair, clothing). We're talking about (whatever the subject at hand may be). If you'd like to talk about my (teeth, hair, clothing) we can do it later." Get right back to the subject you want to focus on. Later, take her aside and say, "A little while ago, you wanted to talk about teeth. Here, look at mine. What did you want to know?" Then ask to look at her teeth. Say a few educational things about teeth: "Brushing teeth every day gets the bad germs off that make teeth get holes in them. Do you know what makes teeth strong? Milk, yogurt, and cheese are all very good for teeth." (It's a great idea to convert a behavior problem into a learning opportunity in as many ways as you can!). Ask the child if there's anything else she wants to say or to know about teeth. If so, listen politely to her remarks or answer her questions.

Of course, the subject of teeth wasn't Kelly's point at all. She was being personal to get attention, probably from the group. She was looking for a laugh. By taking her topic seriously and literally, you are giving her attention, and responding to her curiosity if, indeed, it was genuine. But by sticking to the matter at hand and telling her you'll discuss this with her later, you're discouraging her disruptive behavior.

When you say Kelly talks back, do you mean that she frequently argues with you? You could say, "We're not having a conversation about this, this is what we're going to do. You decide lots of things. It's my turn to decide."

Children need chances to make many, many choices every day. They also need to learn to do what reasonable, respectful adults request of them.

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