Teaching a Child to Wait

Many parents and professionals who work with small beings ask me questions over email. This particular teacher gave me permission to anonymize and publish the exchange. It's so incredibly valuable to learn from challenges that other parents are facing. You are not alone in your behavior challenges!

Read below and don't forget to leave a question in the comments or email it to me privately!


Hi Dr. Marcie,

I have a kiddo in one of my Kindergarten classes who is majorly attention-seeking and tantrums when he doesn't get the first turn on everything. He cries, refuses to sit down, grabs things, or interrupts me when I'm working with another child by tapping me on the shoulder and saying things like "I'm hungry" or "I'm tired" over and over and over and over.

Today, I managed to successfully ignore the tantrum. But I was wondering how direct I can be with a five-year-old when I'm trying to show him a replacement behavior for getting a attention. Will he understand me if I say "If you want Ms. Smith’s attention, instead of screaming or rolling on the carpet or hitting Johnny, you should ________" or is he too young for that to be effective?

I ask partially because I'm remembering your post about not asking "Why?" where you described that even big beings often don't know their own motivations for decisions they make. So if he doesn't know why he's doing these obnoxious things, how can he make the decision to do something else? And if I can't communicate the alternative behavior directly, how do I start getting him to try a positive way to get attention?


A Teacher


Hi Brilliant and Inquisitive Teacher,

Thanks for your email - it's a great question!

There are two parts to your question: 

1 - How to get him to stop doing the disruptive behavior

2 - How to get his needs met with appropriate behavior 

Both are super important but without satisfying the underlying needs, the disruptive behavior will never end. It may change form, but it will not go away.

His behavior will change if his needs are met, even if he does not cognitively understand what is happening.  The behavioral experience of getting your attention or not getting your attention will be more powerful than any language you could use. (Tweet)

First, teach him how to get your attention appropriately. Hand over hand have him tap your shoulder.  If you can't talk to him right then, maybe hold his hand until you can. Give him some type of attention while he is waiting. This is going to be a little tricky since you have an entire class of children but it will help him feel seen/heard and learn to wait simultaneously. Be really clear with your words with him. If you say "wait a minute" than you really need to go to him in a minute/60 seconds. If you say not now, you really need to mean not at this time. When you mean what you say, it will help build the trust in the relationship!

This first step will help get his needs met, which will reduce the challenging behavior you are experiencing in class. Once the behavior is reduced or gone, then you can start teaching him to wait and that he can't have your attention all the time. You do this slowly. Start with holding his hand while he waits, then just having him stand next to you, then showing him to stay in his seat.

Small steps lead to big behavioral change! It's very hard to teach both these pieces at the same time, as the disruptive behavior will make it impossible to teach him to wait.

The behavioral experience of getting attention or not will be what his system needs to learn what works and what does not in your classroom.  Remember these behaviors may work in other environments and with other beings, so it will take time for him to learn what will work with you!


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