Kindergarten-StudentAs I travel across the United States and ask elementary educators what their biggest issue is, I increasingly get the answer “Kindergarteners are out of control.”

Why is this happening? John Bowlby’s research on attachment and bonding is very instructive:

  • He put 6-year olds in a room with a two-way mirror
  • The child’s primary caregiver entered the room with the child, then the caregiver left the room
  • Through the mirror, they watched the child’s reaction

Bowlby theorized that when a child is emotionally secure, he/she could feel safe and explore his/her environment without the caregiver’s presence. He argued that emotional well being is present when there is enough safety and belonging to explore.

  1. If the child stood at the door, briefly cried, and then explored the room, Bowlby indicated that they were emotionally secure
  2. If the child stood at the door, continuously cried, and would not examine the room, the child was anxious and insecure
  3. If the child cried, then sat down and waited, but did not explore the room, the child was avoidant and insecure
  4. The insecure and disorganized child tended to be more destructive

This chart is a simplification of his work (as well as the work of Main and Solomon):


In the research of the insecure and disorganized, the primary cause was young mothers who were insecure themselves.

What do you do about it?

The first thing that I recommend to educators is to hold the child’s hand – and if necessary both hands – when you are giving instructions.

When the child is out of control, I recommend that you give them 8 ounces of water to drink and a stuffed animal to hold. (When doing so, I recommend that the child be removed from the room, if possible.) Water metabolizes cortisol faster, and they calm down sooner. The stuffed animal gives them something to do and something to bond with.


Then, because they have never been taught appropriate behaviors, you have to teach those. There are three tools that can be used: 1) the metaphor story – to help determine what set off the behavior, 2) the storybook – to establish new behaviors, and 3) the teddy bear book – to begin a long term instructional pattern of teaching.

The metaphor story and the story book are explained in detail in the book, Working with StudentsTeaching Teddy is available as a free download. These activities are designed to use with 4-, 5- and 6-year olds. Each child has a stuffed animal of his/her own. They teach the stuffed animal what they learn, and they give the stuffed animals stickers for good behavior. This helps the child internalize the voice to direct his/her behavior. And the child touches something while they do that (bonding and touch are interwoven).

Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D. is the founder of aha! Process and an author, speaker, publisher, and career educator. Recognized internationally for A Framework for Understanding Poverty, her foundational book and workshop, Dr. Ruby Payne has helped students and adults of all economic backgrounds achieve academic, professional, and personal success.