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Kindergarten Children Who Cause Concern

Robin Cook and Jean Wilson

Usually it is unacceptable behaviour that gives cause for concern. For up to 20 percent of children, learning spontaneously is interrupted by their own behaviour. These kindergarten teachers found a way of determining what strategies would help.

Journal issue: 

Kindergarten Children Who Cause Concern

Robin Cook and Jean Wilson
Melville Kindergarten, Hamilton

IN EVERY GROUP OF CHILDREN at kindergarten there are some who give cause for concern, usually because of their unacceptable behaviour. Denis Stott in Canada in 1981 suggested that perhaps 20 percent of young children cannot learn spontaneously because their behaviour gets in the way. In a recent study in Western Australia Joy Cullen found preschoolers fell into two groups: there were the ‘high-readiness’ children who possessed good learning strategies, and the ‘low-readiness’ children who did not. Those without good learning strategies were easily distracted, flitted from one play area to another, were unable to attend when in formal groups, and were unable to extend their play. Cullen concluded that to help the low-readiness children teachers and parents need to do two things. Firstly, they need to observe to determine which of the child’s strategies are ineffective. Secondly, they should intervene – do something – to help the child develop better strategies. Effective ways of dealing with problem behaviour must vary according to its cause. These ideas make a great deal of sense, but how do busy kindergarten teachers translate them into practice? Since at our kindergarten we had several children who gave us some concern, we set ourselves the challenge of trying to find a way.

What we did

We undertook a small piece of action-research, hoping to devise an approach we could use ourselves. The aim was to help children who cannot make the most of the opportunities available in the kindergarten to develop their intellectual, social and other skills. We hope others will find it useful too. Three children who were causing concern were selected for study. We shall call them Susanne, Richard and Michael. They attended morning kindergarten, a preschool programme operating five mornings a week. The children had already spent about 7 months at afternoon kindergarten for three afternoons a week and had moved on to the morning programme at approximately 4 years 3 months old. Following Joy Cullen’s advice, the children were each observed closely for an entire morning during which running records (field notes) were kept of their play or work, their interactions with other children and adults, and, where possible, their conversations. We did not have time to do this ourselves but fortunately had available a capable kindergarten parent who understood the programme and had an easy rapport with the children. We did attempt to record the language the children used with a tape recorder in a special jacket the child wore but this was less successful than the field notes of conversations recorded by our parent observer. Following the observations, intervention programmes were devised and put into practice (where necessary), and further observations made.

What we found

1. The case study children

(i) The story of Susanne

When she attended afternoon kindergarten, Susanne appeared to be a capable, interested child but when she joined the morning programme she began to flit from one area to another and paid little attention in formal groups. Her former high standard of art and craft work deteriorated, and she achieved very little. She displayed mature social skills, but we were concerned that her intellectual potential was not being developed. The initial observation showed something of which we had been unaware; Susanne appeared to be influenced to a large extent by the actions of Richard, our second case study child. He obstructed her interactions with other children and restricted her use of the facilities and materials. Our intervention was to redirect Richard (to reduce his influence) and at the same time we encouraged Susanne to develop a close friendship with another child of similar skill levels. Following this, our informal observations showed that Susanne was now fully involved in all aspects of the programme, used appropriate strategies, and was now using her abilities to the full.

(ii) The challenge of Richard

At kindergarten Richard obstructed other children’s. play, constantly approached adults, distracted children and adults from the task at hand, and knowingly used equipment and materials in unacceptable ways to attract attention. In behaving this way he also severely restricted his own opportunities to learn since he hardly took part in the programme at all. We began to realise the full extent of his unacceptable behaviour when we started observing Susanne. Our impression was confirmed by a further period of observation (see Chart 1). The first intervention strategy we tried was to encourage Richard to interact with children other than Susanne. Without Susanne to dominate, Richard’s obstructive play (and misbehaviour generally) decreased (see the second observation on Chart 1), although it must be added that his interactions with other children seemed quite limited. We made a further attempt to encourage him to interact with other children by involving him in small group work, and directly teaching him a number of social skills. It seemed to us that lack of self-esteem was also a contributing factor in his misbehaviour so we tried various strategies to improve this. These included giving Richard positive reinforcement, providing opportunities where he could feel important by taking a leading role, and introducing a home contact book to help his self-esteem within the family. Unfortunately this seemed to have little success. To increase his involvement in the programme we made a special effort to interest him in various areas, for example, music, and to encourage him to participate. Subsequent observations indicated a definite improvement but sustaining his interest remained a problem. Our last systematic observation (see Chart 1) revealed that Richard’s obstructive behaviour had decreased markedly, but sadly his level of attention-seeking behaviour was still unacceptably high. We had no opportunity to try further strategies as Richard left kindergarten to go to primary school.


(iii) The unusual case of Michael

Michael came to kindergarten with a reputation for aggressive behaviour. During the time he attended afternoon sessions he sometimes made quite vicious attacks on other children for no obvious reason. We wondered whether his aggressiveness might stem from a lack of social skills. A full-scale observation was carried out shortly after Michael began morning kindergarten. To our surprise this revealed no instances of aggression or other inappropriate behaviour; we think that there are three possible explanations. Firstly, from being a ‘leader’ in the younger afternoon group, he became a ‘newcomer’ to the morning programme and may have adapted his behaviour to that of the others. Secondly, speech therapy helped his articulation, resulting in less frustration as he communicated with others. Thirdly, medication for a health problem was changed at the time he entered morning kindergarten, and his home and kindergarten behaviour seemed to improve as a result.

2. The approach we evolved

Our experience with observations and intervention programmes led us to map out the following flow diagram (Chart 2).


Final comments

It may seem obvious to suggest that children who are causing concern be observed closely for a period and that intervention strategies be implemented on the basis of these observations. However, we should like to make three comments about this.

1. To understand a child’s behaviour we found it was necessary to have the child observed throughout the session by an independent observer. The resulting record gave us a total picture of his or her interactions and involvement.

2. We doubt that we, as teachers, can be independent observers. The children expect us to be involved in the programme and our presence influences the type of play occurring. An independent observer is able to remain apart from the play.

3. Deciding on suitable intervention strategies is a challenge, as is having all teachers implement them consistently. Strategies chosen will be different for every situation and every child, and their effectiveness determined by trial and error. In complex cases professional help would be necessary.

We should also like to mention some complicating factors. Although Richard’s unacceptable behaviour decreased in frequency, we cannot say with certainty that this resulted from our intervention programme. We can only speculate how his behaviour would have been had we not intervened, or if we had intervened in other ways. Another factor is the short time that a child spends at kindergarten – a maximum of 15 hours a week in the morning programme. This may limit the effectiveness of an intervention schedule, unless the child’s family is also involved. We feel that there is considerable scope to explore ways in which parents may be helped to become part of the intervention process.

When children’s behaviour goes beyond the acceptable, for whatever reasons, it jeopardizes their learning opportunities and hence their development of important learning strategies. In this sense it puts at risk their future education and life-chances. It seems imperative that children with behavioural difficulties be identified promptly at the preschool level, and intervention strategies begun.


MRS JEAN WILSON and Mrs Robin Cook are Head Teacher and Teacher at Melville Kindergarten, 5 Trigg Place, Hamilton, New Zealand.

This research was undertaken as part of an M.Ed. programme at the University of Waikato, Private Bag, Hamilton, New Zealand, under Dr Fred Biddulph.

The figure of 20% of young children being unable to learn spontaneously because of their behaviour comes from the following study

Stott, D.H. (1981) Behaviour disturbance and failure to learn : a study of cause and effect, Educational Research, Vol. 23, No. 3.

Joy Cullen’s work on high-readiness and low-readiness children can be found written up in

Cullen, Joy (1988) Preschool children’s learning strategies, set: Research Information for Teachers, No. 2, 1988.

The ways of dealing with problem behaviour must vary according to the cause. This idea is clearly spelt out in

Katz, L.G. (1972) Condition with caution, Young Children, Vol. 27, No. 5.