Dear Stacey,

I have a child in my class who takes things that don't belong to her. One day two of the children couldn't find the toys they had brought to share at group time. After a long search, I found them in Melia's cubby. Then I began to notice that Melia sometimes puts classroom materials in her pockets, especially when her cot is near the shelves at naptime. I've started searching her clothes at the end of the day, and she's still taking things! What should I do?

Dear Angela,
The desire for forbidden objects like toys overwhelms many children, making the temptation to take them too much to resist. Melia probably just can't hold back the desire to have that toy.

      Most of the time, young children take things because they lack impulse control and haven't developed a strong sense of right and wrong. But you should also ask yourself if there is something missing from Melia's life. She may be trying to fill a void, such as a lack of attention at home or not enough friends in school.

      Whatever the reason for Melia's behavior, it does infringe on the rights of the other children. Therefore, your first goal should be to stop the behavior and help her to respect the property of others. Try these suggestions:

      Explain the rules and ask Melia to return things.  Make sure that she — along with the rest of the class — knows that "Don't take things that do not belong to you" is a school rule. Have Melia give back the toy or classroom material, but do not force her to apologize.

      Acknowledge her desires.  It's important to validate her feelings while also maintaining leadership and stopping the behavior. You can say, "I know you want that toy, but it's Cari's. You need to ask her if you can play with it." or "You really want that car, don't you? But it belongs here in school so everyone can use it."

      Teach Melia to control her impulses.   Help Melia learn to stop and think before she takes. Explain to her that she needs to ask herself, "Is this mine?" "Who does it belong to?" "Can I play with it?" If it belongs to another child, she should ask the owner if she can use the toy, and accept the response. Whenever she uses a toy or classroom material, Melia needs to return it when she's done.

      Anticipate and remove temptations.   To keep Melia from taking toys other children bring to share with the group, make a box where children can keep their own toys and place her cot away from the shelves at naptime.