Dear Polly: Peter, a four-year-old in my group, is always using offensive language. This happens when we're indoors, outdoors — even on field trips! It's off-putting not only to teachers and adults who visit the classroom, but to the other children as well. I've talked with Peter repeatedly about this and it stops for a short time, but then continues sometimes to a degree worse than when he started school What can I do about this?

Fours are known for their tendency toward grandiosity. Using inappropriate language may make Peter feel strong and powerful. I wonder where he is hearing this language. Ask Peter's parents to speak to anyone who may be using this kind of language in Peter's presence. Suggest they ask this person to tell Peter that there are some words we don't say because they are upsetting to others.

Sometimes the source of this kind of language is television. Young children aren't always necessarily focused on television programs, but they hear and see and absorb all sorts of things, including behaviors and values that probably clash with yours. If you think this might be the case, talk with Peter's parents about setting TV rules. Recommend appropriate programs and videos.

In addition to working with Peter's parents, it's important to work as a team with staff members to control his use of offensive language. If Peter uses such language in their presence, suggest that they say, "You can't talk that way here. You can play with these children again another day when you think you can use all the regular words you usually do." Whenever a team of people take the same position in attempting to change a child's behavior. things go better.

Here are some specific strategies to try in the classroom:

  • Take Peter aside. Explain that words are wonderful because they are a way of letting people know about our wants and needs and that using words can also be fun because they sound good ("Purple puddle" or "Silly Sam set sail"). Engage him in thinking of words that sound good.
  • Tell Peter that there are some words we don't say because they hurt people's feelings. Say some of the "bad words" that Peter has been saying and let him know, as if you are confiding an important secret, that these particular words make people feel uncomfortable.
  • After talking with Peter about the appropriate use of words, say "I know I can trust you not to upset people with these words anymore because you're such a good, thoughtful child. Here are some fun words you can tell everybody: better than butter, happy hippopotamus and sorry salamander." Smilingly send this little boy off to entertain his friends.
  • Find time everyday to compliment Peter for unrelated things. Notice him when he isn't using "bad words."
  • If you hear Peter using inappropriate language after you've had several talks with him, stoop down, smile encouragingly, and whisper in his ear "Ooops! You forgot! I know you're trying to remember not to say these words because you and I made a plan." Ask other staff members to follow suit.

By using the strategies above, you're showing Peter that you appreciate his interest in words and that you, too, enjoy them. You're strengthening the bond between the two of you. You are affirming Peter, yet setting limits. These are the two ingredients of positive discipline, which is the most effective type of discipline.