Dear Polly: Kyle, a 4-year-old in my class, always races around the room disturbing other children. He knocks down block structures (accidentally; he is not at all hostile) and I find I'm constantly pursuing him, trying to calm him down. I don't think there is anything really wrong with him, but I'm not sure what to do.

When I was director of an "open space" program for mixed-age children (3- to 5-year-olds), one teacher had a "Kyle." He was a delightful little guy who seldom stopped to get involved in any activity. (He just flashed by the learning centers!) The staff and I met, put our heads together, and came up with a four-pronged plan:

  1. We would rearrange the classroom to eliminate the large open space in the middle, which was such an invitation to run! We would create barriers and pathways to protect various spaces and to provide a modicum of privacy to small groups of children. It's stressful and unnatural to spend one day after another in Grand Central Station!

  2. We would make each learning center — those around the rim of the room, and those that were newly clumped in the middle — much more engaging, so they almost called out, "Come and try this!" The models we kept in mind were the upscale supermarket and the boutique store window. Designers have all sorts of ideas for making displays appealing so that we will buy more. As teachers, we want children to "buy" more learning experiences, so tempting them to come and investigate is appropriate.

  3. We would schedule staff so that someone was always "assigned" to greet the child and escort him amiably through the take-off-the-jacket-and-hang-it-in-your-cubby arrival activity, and then on into a learning center activity. An adult would help him get involved in an activity and return to get him interested in something else if he began to roam, run, or roughhouse. During all transitions, which are difficult for most children to navigate, a cheerful adult would accompany him and steer his energies into something constructive.

  4. We would put more energy and pizzazz into teaching. A learning center in which an adult is working energetically with children — encouraging questions, investigations, and conversations — always attracts children. With a little luck, our "Kyle" would be one of these children.

Our plan worked quite well. Here are some more ideas for settling Kyle into a learning mode.

Reworking Room Arrangement: If cubbies are near the entrance, there's nowhere to scamper off to upon arriving. Stopping to tug off coats and stow them away slows kids down. A table, or two together, displaying the enticing table games or puzzles of the day, located so it blocks the route into the room — you have to turn left or right or bump into it — will snare many a child in its web of educational delights. Kyle may not be able to resist.

Quality Learning Centers: Surely Kyle is interested in something! Woo him with learning possibilities! Learning centers can be superficial — a few things to handle and look at; or they can be substantive — an intriguing math game to play, a fascinating science experiment to do. There can be carefully lettered and mounted signs, beautiful child art or educational posters, tablecloths, book exhibits, and neat rows of blocks arranged by size and shape. We can change the activity as soon as the group's interest in it begins to wane. The more thoughtfully we prepare our learning centers, the more children will learn. Win Kyle with the reward of mastering something and feeling competent! Compliment him. Invite him to show another child how to do it.

Scheduling Staff: During the peak "arrival" period, ask all available adults (teacher, assistant, a lingering parent or two, whomever you can get) to meet and greet each child. They can help children who are sad about separating from family members who brought them, or shy about plunging into an activity. They can keep children company until each has been "hooked" into a learning-center activity. Often an art activity, the water table, or a story, all with a friendly adult companion, helps ease the transition. You might want to explore finding a volunteer at a local high school, college, or senior center to move with Kyle throughout his day and be his "special" person.

Teaching Effectively: Effective teaching means developing a positive relationship with each child and enjoying activities with the child that interest him. What is Kyle interested in? What does he do in his free time? Develop one of his interests with him. It may involve large muscles and lots of physical activity. Don't forget outdoor play, and take every opportunity to engage Kyle in large-muscle activities in the classroom.

If Kyle feels that you like him, he will want to please you, and if pleasing you means engaging in appropriate learning activities, he will. Children love reasonable challenges, practicing skills, and mastering things that motivate them. The secret is to make friends with him, observe him, and work with rather than against him.

Polly Greenberg, editor of the journal Young Children, is a child/parent/staff development specialist, mother, and gratefully involved grandmother.