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Here's Expert Advice on How to Handle Pre-K Behavior Problems

By Amy Zimmer | July 26, 2016 7:23am
 A Brooklyn pre-K classroom.
A Brooklyn pre-K classroom.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

MANHATTAN — Concerned about schools and early learning centers resorting to suspensions against students as young as 4 years old, the Department of Education has ordered a ban on the practice — and has brought in independent coaches to help teachers address behavior problems before they get out of hand. 

There is a lot that parents and educators can do to help address problems at their root — before a child runs afoul of pre-K rules and risks losing critical learning time, according to experts from Ramapo for Children.

“You can’t have kids who are feeling emotionally unsafe successfully learn on a cognitive level," said Rebecca Hershberg, director of early childhood training for Ramapo, which expects to train 150 New York City pre-K service providers as well parents and caregivers over the next two years.

Hershberg shared a set of concrete steps you can take to help your child:


► Determine if the behavior problems stem from unmet needs or lagging skills

Kids enter pre-K with a range of needs and skill levels — and behavior problems often arise either because a child has an unmet need or a lagging skill, Hershberg said.

For example, if a child keeps interrupting during circle time, it could be because he isn't getting the attention he needs at home — or it could be because he's still processing a question that was asked a while ago.

Figuring out the root of the behavior makes it easier to understand how to address it, Hershberg said.

► Be "attuned" to your child 

When adults are tuned in to children — when they can sense where the kids are at and what they need — such "attuned" relationships can act as a buffer to toxic stress.

If a child, for instance, finds a “gross” tin can and brings it to you, shouting, “Look what I found,” the ideal response by an adult would not be, “Eeewww, gross,” Hershberg said.

Instead, Hershberg recommended, try to focus on the positive, by saying, “Look at you. You’re an explorer and so creative. It’s so shiny. But it might have germs on it, so we’ll have to leave it outside.”

► Help your child develop coping skills for difficult emotions

To help teach kids independence and help them to self-regulate, education experts advise helping your child identify and deal with strong feelings, like anger or jealousy.

Instead of saying, “Don’t grab toys from other children,” the DOE guidance advises, teachers should say, “We share toys with friends.”

If a child is playing with blocks and the block tower falls down, parents might be tempted to "run over and fix it,” but Hershberg recommended instead talking to your child about what happened and helping them to name the emotion they might be feeling.

“You can say, ‘That was really frustrating. Let’s take three deep breaths,’” she suggested. “It’s shown that those types of interactions and that type of skill building can help."


► Small steps can make a big difference

Teachers can do several simple, concrete things to make the classroom a calmer place, Hershberg said.

For instance, making eye contact with students and calling them by name when they arrive each morning helps set a positive tone, as does focusing on the children’s strengths.

It’s important to call out kids for doing the right thing in front of the whole class, experts said, while addressing problematic behavior privately.

“You can stand close to a student who is starting to get upset, and just moving close may help calm her down," Hershberg said.

Also, creating a space in the classroom — a “little retreat” — for kids who might need to calm down, helps.

► Schools need to set the climate for how to treat children appropriately

Although each school can have a slightly different disciplinary philosophy depending on the administration, it's clear from research that harsh discipline in the early years can have negative effects on participation in school later on and potentially increase risk of future brushes with the criminal justice system.

Hershberg said it's key to get all staff — especially support staff including teacher's aides and teachers who also serve students in older grades, like music, art and gym — on the same page when it comes to early childhood discipline.

What works for older children, she said, may not work for young children, who have a harder time sitting still.

"These settings can be overwhelming," explained Lisa Tazartes, Ramapo’s senior director of strategic partnerships. "Many of those behaviors are triggered when their [primary] teachers are not with them."