The Problem-Solving Parent: Go Away! You Can't Play!
By Eleanor Reynolds, M.A

Tanya is a new girl in the preschool. A speech impediment makes it hard to understand her. Angela, the oldest girl in the class, took an immediate disliking to Tanya and has been using Tanya’s speech as a weapon.

Tanya approaches Angela and her friends.

Tanya: Me tan pay hout?

Angela (loudly to her friends): What’s she saying? I can’t understand her. (to Tanya) Go away. You can’t play house with us.

Teacher: It’s up to Tanya to decide where she wants to play. In our preschool, everyone makes their own decision about that. You can choose to play something else just like Tanya can choose to play here.

Angela gives the teacher a weak smile and lets Tanya play, but the next time, Angela excludes Tanya again.

Several other kids have begun to follow Angela’s lead and also make snide remarks about Tanya. They don’t understand that they are being mean or why; they are just imitating Angela. Tanya does play with a few kids who accept her and don’t care how she talks. She seems to like coming to preschool and never complains to anyone.

Any teacher would feel uncomfortable with this situation, but what can a teacher do? A lecture would pass right over the kids’ heads. Reprimanding Angela might just make her more hostile toward Tanya. Calling attention to the problem could make things worse. A conference with either child’s parents does not yet seem necessary. This situation calls for a delicate hand.

Excluding is aggression without violence. If carried to extremes it could become bullying. Kids exclude other kids for the most trivial and irrational reasons. In order to solve this problem, we adults have to set limits, but also take time to observe both the aggressor and the victim and try to understand the need behind their behavior. The aggressor may need to feel more powerful without looking like a "bad" kid. The victim may need acceptance by the group and thinks that being passive is the best way to obtain it.

What’s the Limit?
In the Problem Solving approach, there are four basic guidelines for setting limits. Briefly, their purpose is to:

Assure the safety of every child and adult.

Prohibit destruction of materials and equipment.

Make every child responsible for his actions.

Treat all people equally and respectfully.

Whenever kids are exceeding a limit, you must decide when to intervene and what strategy to use. In the example, the teacher used a limit-strategy called "giving information." Along with the information that "everyone decides where they want to play," the teacher used the limit-setting strategy called "giving choices." She did this be reminding them of a choice they, too, could make: "to play somewhere else."

Young children are not emotionally equipped to deal with exclusion. Almost any other conflict between kids calls for negotiation, but when a group excludes one child, it is not because they want her toy, but because they want to cause harm. It is an unequal and disrespectful way to treat another child. You must put a stop to this behavior, but as a good role model, you must demonstrate equal treatment and respect to all of the kids.

Exclusion is one of the cruel realities of society. In the end, the only long-lasting strategy is to encourage assertiveness in any child who becomes a victim. Teach him strong, assertive phrases such as:

Stop, I don’t like that. It’s my decision where I play.

I’m choosing to play here. I’m not willing to go away.

I don’t have to do what you tell me.

The child who is excluding will eventually get the message and back off. At the same time, help the child who is being excluded to develop better social skills so that she’ll form other relationships and see herself as an equal and a friend. One day, you may see your little "victim" blossom and actually attract lots of playmates.

Meanwhile, if excluding escalates to bullying, it is necessary to meet with the parents of the bully. It’s likely that you will find a family problem behind the bullying and you may be able to help the child and his family triumph over a crisis.

Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at