Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Aggressive Preschooler


Apparently for the past "few weeks" my almost 3-year-old (birthday 3/19) has been pushing and shoving his classmates in his preschool. Today the teacher told me that he poked a little girl in the face and made her cry then refused to look at her when the teacher asked him to tell her he was sorry. I don't know why she didn't tell me this when it first started happening, so I'm not sure exactly when it started. The teacher says there is generally no interaction between my son and the victim prior to the pushing/shoving/hitting. He's just spontaneously doing it.

I have never seen any behavior like this out of him and I'm with him all day long (except for the two mornings he goes to school). He has been a passive child since birth, no signs of aggressive tendencies at all. Before he started school this year and even up until Thanksgiving, he wouldn't even hold his own place in line at the playground. He just let kids push him out of the way and go in front of him. I wanted him to become more assertive, but I sure don't want him to become a bully.

Sam is an only child and we are not going to have any other children. What can I do to nip this behavior in the bud and is this a normal phase even for a well-behaved child?

It would take a whole book to explain what might be happening and how to deal with it. I will do my best in a relatively short answer, but please know that to get the whole picture you might want to get a copy of "Positive Discipline for Preschoolers."

I don't know for sure why he has become aggressive. Is he watching cartoons or other programs that depict violence? Is he watching other kids do this at preschool? It could be that he is simply at that age-appropriate, developmental stage where he gets frustrated and doesn't know how to "use his words", so he instinctively pokes, hits, or shoves. This does not mean he is becoming a bully. I question that there is no interaction between your son and the other child (whom I refuse to call a victim). The other child may simply have something your son wants. He could be discouraged about something only he knows in his private logic. There is so much that is unknown.

However, the one thing I do know is that punishment in any form will not help. A sure way to engage in victim/bully training is to rescue the child who is being hurt and to punish the child who is doing the hurting. It doesn't make sense to hurt a child while saying (overtly or covertly), "I'll teach you not to hurt others. Adults who do this are teaching, by example, the very thing they say they are trying to extinguish. They are also inviting the child who has been hurt to adopt a victim mentality by deciding, "I know how to get special attention. I'll just innocently provoke someone to hurt me and then I'll be rescued and treated specially.

I'm not advocating anarchy or permissiveness. Adults need to interfere. They just need to do it in ways that teach social skills – eventually. I say eventually, because two and three-year-olds have limited ability to learn social skills, but that doesn't mean we should teach these skills (mostly through example) for the time they are developmentally ready to incorporate the information. (See the information in the subject on "Apologize, Children Who Won't" below.)
At this age children need lots of supervision, distraction, redirection. In the scenario you describe it might look like this: The teacher might pull your son aside and give him a hug. (I know this sounds like rewarding the behavior, but it is not. I won't go into all the information on a misbehaving child being a discouraged child (except when the behavior is age-appropriate), I will just tell you that this is modeling appropriate touching. After your son feels comforted, the teacher could say, The little girl is feeling bad. Lets go give her a hug so she will feel better too. (It doesn't work to get him to make amends before he feels encouraged himself.) Then the teacher could say, "This is how we touch people. Hitting and poking hurt, but hugs or a hand shake feel good." She could then say, "If she has something you want, you can use your words and say, ‘I want that toy.' She may not be ready to give it to her, but you have used your words." Will he understand all this? No. But he doesn't understand punishment or having to apologize either. The former provides a model of positive action. The latter provides a model of negative action.

Regarding the apology, following is an excerpt from our book "Positive Discipline for Childcare Providers" that will be published this fall.

Apologize, Children Who Won't

Child Development Concept

During a lecture at NAEYC in 2000, Bev Bos said, "Telling a child to say ‘I'm sorry' makes as much sense as demanding that a child say ‘I'm Italian'-- even when she isn't.Caregivers who have studied child development know that the intellectual capabilities of young children have not developed to the point where they can think like adults (see Piaget Demonstrations below), yet many adults act as though they should. Forcing a young child to "Say you are sorry" is an excellent example. Suggestions:

1. While upset, children do not have access to rational thinking. Don't expect a child to do or say anything until she has had time to calm down.
2. Allow time for cooling off. This may mean comforting the child for awhile, validating her feelings, removing her from an upsetting situation (while comforting and/or validating feelings), or simply allowing her to spend some time in a Positive Time-Out area until she feels better. Help the child express her own feelings before helping her consider someone else's feelings. Point to the feelings faces chart and let her choose a picture that expresses her feelings if she can't verbalize them without help.
3. Use what and how questions to help the child explore what happened, how she feels about it, and what ideas she has to solve the problem. Part of this process might be to ask, "How do you think the other person feels?" Again, it may be helpful to look at the feelings faces.
4. After the child has calmed down, feels validated for her feelings, and possibly has identified the other person's feelings, she might be guided to apologize – only if it is her idea. This sometimes happens by asking, "What would make you feel better? Would it help you if the other person gave you a hug, or said she was sorry?" Once the child has identified what might make her feel better, you could ask, "Would you be willing to help the other person feel better? What could you do, and when would you like to do it?" Helping a child decide to so something for someone else (and it may not be an apology) is much different that demanding that they do. The point is to help the child think things through in a friendly environment (which invites sincere concern) instead of demanding an apology (which often invites rebellion or just plain confusion).
5. If the child still doesn't feel like doing anything for the other person, express your faith that she will soon learn to care about and help others.
Tips for working with parents:
Parents often demand that their children apologize because they are embarrassed by their behavior. Help parents understand that you are more interested in long-term, sincere results than in short term-insincerity. You also have an opportunity to educate them on intellectual development so they can understand that children don't think like adults. The following demonstration may help.

Piaget Demonstrations

Jean Piaget was one of the pioneers in understanding the cognitive development of children. He devised these demonstrations to help adults understand how children's thinking differs from their own.

• Take two balls of clay that are the same size. Ask a three-year-old if they are the same. Make adjustments by taking clay from one ball and adding it to the other until the child agrees that they are the same size. Then, right in front of her, smash one ball of clay. Then ask her if they are still the same. She will say no and will tell you which one she thinks is bigger. A five-year-old will tell you they are the same and can tell you why.
• Find four glasses: two glasses that are of the same size, one glass that is taller and thinner, and one glass that is shorter and fatter. Fill the two glasses that are the same size with water until a three-year-old agrees they are the same. Then, right in front of her, pour the water from one of these glasses into the short, fat glass, and the other one into the tall, thin glass. Then ask her if they still hold the same amount of water. Again, she will say no and will tell you which glass she thinks contains the most water. A five-year-old will tell you they contain the same amount and can tell you why.

Both of these examples demonstrate thinking abilities identified by Piaget. When we understand that perceiving, interpreting, and comprehending an event are so markedly different for young children, our expectations as adults alter. The meaning children attach to their experiences does not match the meaning adults attach to the same experiences.

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