How does your child’s classroom behavior measure up? Every kid progresses at his or her own pace, yet certain patterns of behavior and, let’s face it, misbehavior are common at different stages of development. It’s worth knowing what is typical for your child’s age in case a behavioral problem should arise or just to set your mind at ease. After all, what you find charmingly endearing about his or her personality — whether it’s an uncanny ability to pepper others with questions nonstop or a sweet-natured shyness — may not translate. Keep tabs on your kid’s development with this guide to social skills in the classroom, adapted from Chip Wood’s Yardsticks.


Often chatty, gregarious, and bubbly, preschoolers have short attention spans and move quickly from one task to the next.

  • Kids at this age learn from example and need opportunities to practice new types of behavior.
  • When they do become rowdy or upset, preschoolers can easily be redirected. To improve communication skills, the teacher helps students with their verbal expression and may coach them with such phrases as “Use words,” “Tell him what you want,” or “Ask if she is done.” Role-playing scenarios help reinforce social skills.
  • Preschoolers love learning to work with other children but may have issues with knowing who’s in charge. Simple phrases like “It’s the rule” can work wonders for resolving disputes.
  • Nip roughhousing in the bud by showing out-of-control kids more appropriate playtime behavior.


Kindergartners appreciate rules and routines and are generally helpful and cooperative.

  • Kids at this age should be able to focus on quiet sitting activities for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Rules, jobs, and a sense of responsibility are very important to developing a kindergartner’s sense of justice.
  • Kindergartners often think out loud and announce their actions (“I am going to move my chair!”) before doing anything.
  • Dramatic play (for example, playing at housekeeping, shopping, or going to a restaurant) allows children to express their thoughts through action and is essential to language development.

First and second grade

While first-graders tend to be enthusiastic, competitive, and bossy, second-graders may show signs of being withdrawn, moody, or shy. This roller coaster of emotions is simply the natural reflection of children becoming more conscious of themselves in relation to the world.

  • Because first-graders can be fixated on winning, it’s useful to downplay competition in classroom games.
  • First-graders often use teasing, bossing, and tattling to figure out their relationships with authority. They can be extremely sensitive and respond strongly to both encouragement and criticism.
  • With their growing awareness of social norms, many second-graders become anxious about tests, schoolwork, and even recess.
  • Since many second-graders need structure, they may not respond well to sudden changes in schedules or plans.

Third, fourth, and fifth grade

Third-graders tend to prefer same-gender activities and may struggle with boundaries; fourth-graders can be impatient, aloof, and self-aware; and fifth-graders develop a more sophisticated sense of right and wrong.

  • Third-graders tend to enjoy class projects that foster a sense of unity and cohesion, and they show in interest in lessons on other cultures as well as issues of fairness and justice.
  • Fourth-graders like to negotiate in the classroom, and though they have a tendency to give up, they respond to second chances. Worries about schoolwork are best dealt with by the teacher with patience, and giving clear directions and setting expectations are important.
  • Some fourth-graders, sensing that they are growing out of being “little kids,” attempt to hang on to kid status through sheer tenacity. They perfect the whiny voice — used to get what they want at all costs.
  • Fifth-graders appreciate being noticed and rewarded for their efforts. They may enjoy helping other students, especially younger ones. The cooperative nature of 10-year-olds lends itself well to group activities and learning about conflict resolution.
  • Hot tempers may flare, leading to tears and outbursts, but 10-year-olds’ heightened sense of justice and logic usually makes resolving conflicts relatively quick.

Middle school

Once out of elementary school, children become preoccupied with gaining their peers’ approval and gradually reveal their adult personalities.

  • Middle-schoolers may have a desire to test limits and rules (“Why do we have to learn this stuff?”) and therefore can come across as resistant or rude. Saving face at this stage is important.
  • Highly sensitive to embarrassment or exposure, they may prefer working on projects alone or with one other partner rather than with a group.
  • Middle-schoolers can be touchy, and their feelings get hurt just as easily as they hurt others’.
  • Making money may become important for middle-schoolers, giving them a sense of autonomy and structure.
  • Tweens need the opportunity to develop their leadership skills — through helping younger children, contributing to planning in the classroom, and solving group problems.
  • Older students may begin behaving rebelliously in public — on school buses or in gym class or other settings where a lack of adult supervision combines with intense peer interactions. (Hormones usually play their part as well!)
  • Even nice middle-schoolers are sometimes mean to each other.