Difficult Child in Preschool

[Cynthia Aldinger answers an inquiry from an experienced preschool teacher concerning a five year old girl who bullies other children in the class of 10 three-to five-year-olds; the parents say she isn’t that way at home, so it must be the teacher’s problem.]

As a former Waldorf Kindergarten teacher for many years, I certainly could sympathize with your dilemma with the little girl in your class. It sounds like you have tried many of the right things with her and none of them have been working. When we are caring for early childhood age children, our work is so much more fruitful when we are working in partnership with the children’s parents. >From what you described it does not sound like the parents are pursuing partnership with you. Do you have any idea why that might be?

One reason might be exactly as you are suspecting – that they are not nurturing at home and, consequently, do not want to reveal themselves to you. What other reasons might you imagine? Is there illness in the home – physical or emotional illness? Do they feel like they are looked down upon by you or the other families in your pre-school and thus may be defensive? Are they overwhelmed by other commitments – ailing grandparents, other children with problems?

I don’t want to get stuck on examining the parents, but it might be worthwhile to consider some of these questions in order to support you in your continued ability to extend yourself to them with warmth. Sometimes when a difficult family feels real interest coming toward them, their attitude will turn around and they will become more interested in you and your work with their child. Then, in partnership, you can begin to tackle what needs to change at home and/or in the preschool to better support the child.

Unfortunately, the family profile you have described indicates that the family is not interested in introspection and instead places all the blame on you. One of the most difficult, but helpful, things you want to try to achieve is not to take their attacks personally. Otherwise, your own frustration or hurt feelings can diminish your ability to work full-heartedly with the child.

So, one suggestion is to find a way to hold this family in your heart with love and forgiveness. If you have a faith practice that includes prayer, then pray for them. This will often change a situation. If it does not change them, it may change your ability to cope with them. I have had this exact experience more than once.

But now let’s focus more on the child. Besides the things you have tried, all of which sounded good to me, here are a few other suggestions for you to consider:

1. See if you can perceive a pattern in her behavior. What happens just before she misbehaves? Does her body language tell you anything? The tone or volume of her voice? If so, can you involve her in something else before it escalates?

2. Note her food intake. I have had a few children whose behavior improved when I gave them small bits of food – dried fruit or a cracker, for example – intermittently, rather than waiting for snack time or lunch. The other children simply understood that that child needed that. This is not rewarding her bad behavior. It is simply looking for ways for her to become the best she can be.

3. In a similar vein, note how she is dressed. Is she warm enough? Sometimes just putting on a warm sweater can help to calm a child. Or holding her in your lap with a soft wrap around her.

4. Does she consistently arrive late? If she could come early, this could help a lot. Then she would not have the problem of having to enter into an already active room and feel that she has to bully her way in.

5. Now that she is five, you can try the “whisper in the ear” method to discipline. In other words, you can take her aside and quietly tell her what is needed – not in front of everyone.

6. When she hurts another child, try involving her in comforting that child. Can she administer some soothing cream, gently rub the hurt child’s hand, get the child a drink of water or perhaps draw the child a picture. Often when a young child hurts another child, the aggressive child is also feeling wounded. She does not feel good about her behavior. When she can be part of the healing, it can help her to grow into her integrity.

5. Do you have access to a basin in which you can keep warm water? Sometimes children like this can really benefit from water play, particularly warm water play. It soothes and calms – even just washing dishes or painting jars.

6. Which leads to another possibility: involve her in the domestic care of the pre-school. At five she could be given a special responsibility – setting the table, taking out the garbage, mopping the floor or something that makes her feel like she is really making a contribution. Do you ever need to send a note to the office secretary? Perhaps this child can be the messenger – or better yet, let her take a snack to the secretary every day. Putting her in a position of serving others can be very helpful.

7. Try humor. I had one child years ago that I always ended up nose to nose with in battle. His mother actually suggested humor and it turned everything around. For example, if the child is about to get into a physical conflict with another child, you can go over to him or her and make up a little rhyme that takes their attention somewhere else. One that I have taught many people goes like this: holding up your two pinkeys, you say:
“Winkey and blinkey were acting quite stinky” (as the two pinky fingers bump against each other) “one particular day. Said Winkey to Blinkey, ‘Let’s be nice pinkies’” (as you are saying this, each pinky softly slides down the other pinkey) “and off they went to play.” When you do something like this, the children forget what they were in conflict about and are amused by your antics. There are many others styles of humor, but you can explore that for yourself. Mostly you want to avoid sarcasm or teasing with young children.

8. Try picturing this little girl each evening before you sleep. Just hold her in your thoughts, picture her in a moment when she was really being her best self, and hold that image for a moment. That’s all. You don’t try to analyze anything. Just warmly hold that image. In doing this you lift the child up and, I believe, you invite the child’s angel to help you. Often when you do this over a period of time, you will receive inspiration for things to try with the child. I call these the whisperings of the angels.

I realize that this is a long answer, Karen. I hope some of it may be helpful. Unfortunately, there are those times when we have to let a child go, particularly if the family is making things worse instead of better. But I hope you can find your way with her, and wish you all the best.