Can’t Handle Challenging Child

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

I teach a class of 8-10 mostly 5 year olds in a kindergarten enrichment program through a private childcare learning center. This child is constantly displaying defiant behavior that will sometimes escalate into disruptive outbursts that I can’t control. It all seems to stem from a desire to have my constant attention and my inability to give it to her. She has two dads who do not acknowledge her behavior as being unusual and seek no help for it. It is my belief that if they took her to a professional she would be diagnosed with some kind of disorder but because she isn’t I get no outside help with her through my employer.

Today she had an outburst that included throwing a pair of scissors (thankfully not at anyone), scratching me when I wouldn’t let her continue to try and take off my boots, hitting and punching other children near her, stealing permanent markers to write on herself with, and laughing and yelling nonstop through the whole thing, just to name the worst of it. She has also in the past yanked my hair so hard it pulled my whole body back and made my eyes water. Lastly, she is constantly trying to go into bathrooms when other children are using them and opening the door when she is using it with no pants or shirt on and yelling for others to look at her.

I have tried everything I can think of to regulate her behavior including redirection, engagement in individual activities, positive and negative reinforcement (especially with my affection and attention because that is what she most wants), and a sticker reward chart, but nothing seems to work. I do not get any advice or guidance from my employer and would love feedback on how to regulate her behavior while in my classroom.

A: Thank you for writing. You are right to be concerned. This is not usual or normal behavior for a 5-year-old. I’m stunned that your concerns are falling on deaf ears. This little girl is sending out a message loud and clear that something is terribly wrong.

As you know, when kids don’t have words for what troubles them, they act out their feelings. She sounds like a very hurt and discouraged child who doesn’t believe that she will be noticed unless she resorts to extremes. This is beyond star charts. She needs an evaluation by a qualified child counselor.

I understand completely why her parents don’t want to face the problem. No parent wants to think something is wrong with their child. But failure to act now will only mean that things will get worse. Early intervention matters.

You are not paid to get hurt. The other children in your room deserve to be safe. This little girl deserves to be heard and to be helped. I hope you will continue to insist that she gets the professional attention she needs.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 3 Jan 2014

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2013). Can’t Handle Challenging Child. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2014/01/03/cant-handle-challenging-child/