DEAR POLLY, Frannie is increasingly unkind to other 4-year-olds in my class. She seldom misses an opportunity to tease and taunt them, or do something upsetting such as knock apart someone's block structure or purposely exclude others from outdoor activities. What can I do about it?

This child may feel that someone at home is not being kind to her. Does she have one or more older siblings? If so, it might be that she's excluded from some of their play and activities because she's too young to fit in. Even if the older sibling(s) are nice to her much of the time, Frannie is undoubtedly unable to do everything they can do. Draw recognizable things? Write? Read? Stay up later? Need no nap? Even if nary a mean word is said-which would be a rare sibling situation!-the advanced skills and privileges of an older sibling are likely to make a child feel shut out. A common response to these feelings is to provoke the "superior" older child with little acts calculated to infuriate-scribble on his picture, make a repetitious annoying noise, perhaps tattle or taunting him with gestures or name calling.

Conflicts with Siblings

It may be the case that she has a younger sibling. In this situation, Frannie may feel in danger of being deposed or replaced in her parents' affections. Feeling threatened, she may fight back, cleverly picking and choosing among the few "weapons" at her disposal-stabbing with insults, mocking, rubbing sensitivities raw by doing irritating little things, demolishing a happy experience her younger brother or sister is enjoying (especially if it's with a parent), interrupting with incessant demands, "getting hurt," and wailing unendingly.

Issues with Parents

Yet again, it may be that Frannie experiences one of her parents as being mean to her. Sometimes a child feels that one or both parents are too busy for her, or prefer to spend time with his or her partner or other children in the family. The child feels helpless to solve this problem, feels frustrated, and may get revenge through hostile behaviors.

Home/School Communication

But why are you focusing on what is going on at home, you may ask? I doubt that anything going on at school is the cause of Frannie's anger. Young children often carry feelings they can't put into words from home to school, where they act them out. Some children don't dare do this at home. The stakes (parents' love) may seem too high. I think you need to have a conversation with Frannie's parents to make a plan centering on:

  • always being kind to Frannie
  • conferring with her privately about her feelings and her behaviors in the classroom (no lecturing!)
  • complimenting her kind behaviors
  • ensuring that other children at home and school are kind to her as well.

Once these conversations have taken place and you steadily continue to follow your plan with Frannie, her unkind behaviors should ease.

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