No child wants to be aggressive and out of control. No one wants to feel that way. If you see behavior like that, for whatever reason, the person couldn’t see other choices in that moment! Our job as the adult is to give children the tools to handle their emotions in a way that feels better for everyone involved, and that takes time, and consistency, and more time. It can be hard work, but the payoff is huge. These children will often be the most empathetic to others later, once they feel seen and heard and have been given strategies. Additionally, you don’t usually have to worry about them getting pushed around in life by their peers! For the gentler children who encounter an aggressive child, they are learning resilience. There will always be another child (or adult) in their lives whose behavior is challenging (and as children get older their play is less supervised), so they will learn how to navigate that!

I don’t believe in “bullying” in the preschool years. That word carries a heavy weight with adults, and makes everyone very emotional, which in turn makes problem-solving difficult. All young children have unmet needs, limited communication skills, and immature ways of handling their big feelings. Even if a preschooler is unskillfully wielding physical or emotional power over others, it’s because they haven’t been shown a better way to feel competent or connected. It’s the job of the adults to intervene and call out uncaring behaviors when children are young, and to show them how to achieve the good feelings of being part of a group without hurting others.

Some “rough” behavior would be better characterized as an overly assertive mistake, especially if that child lacks experience with other children. A child grabs a toy, or pushes someone out of the way to get somewhere first, because young children are egocentric and goal-focused. If the episode is more of a momentary lapse in otherwise expected behavior and no one gets hurt, then that wouldn’t necessarily be called aggressive. The child doesn’t “see” the other children as people with their own wants and needs, they just zero in on the item or space that they want. Aggressive behavior is more purposeful (not they they meant to hurt someone, but there is probably an awareness that this behavior has paid off in the past) and repetitive, people are getting either injured or frightened (through physical actions or words), and/or materials are getting destroyed.

How can we support the young people in our care struggling with huge feelings and underdeveloped impulse control? Behavior is communication. This child might trying be say, “I don’t know what to do next!” or “That’s not fair!” or “I want that!” or “I feel left out!” or “You’re too close!” Or they may be hungry, tired or stressed, which narrows anyone’s ability to tolerate discomfort. But even if a child hurts another child, what adults usually call MISbehavior is not “bad” behavior, it’s MIStaken behavior, and we can influence what happens next. Beyond “use your words” (they don’t have any words that came to them in time!) or “we don’t hit” (well, s/he just did!) or even “How do you think that made so-and-so feel?” (they are more likely to be worried about getting in trouble, or upset about not getting what they wanted, and less concerned about the other child in the moment immediately following an incident), what can we do?

Time-out is not a solution. Kids don’t sit in time-out thinking about what they’ve done, they are there either sitting with anger all alone, or making a show of how unaffected they are by that adult-imposed “consequence”… it is much more meaningful to support them before anything happens, and to help them plan for the next time afterwards. Adults can take a time-out (“I feel upset and I’m going to leave the room and breathe for 2 minutes, then I’ll come back.”), toys can take a time-out (“It seems hard for this robot toy to play safely, he keeps knocking all the toys down after I asked for the toys to stay on the shelf. He can rest up here for a little while and try again later”), but children should not, especially in a school setting. They need Time-In (time with a grownup) until s/he can feel and make others feel safe.

Okay, so… we should…?

1. Observe, 2. Narrate, 3. Empathize, and 4. Replace.

The first thing to do is to really observe, very closely. When and where are these incidents happening, and with/to whom? What are the triggers? How do other children react to this child, and does s/he seem to notice? This child needs you to be with them, to get in the way of completing behaviors that could hurt someone or damage something (physically block them if you have to!). We call it “shadowing” in a group setting, when we partner up with a child to make plans and move about the space in an intentional way, helping them to get what they want without hurting. It won’t be forever, just until more prosocial habits are established.

Then we narrate the action so that they understand what’s happening. Talk about the environment, what other children are doing, wonder about other children’s ideas and motivations. If we can predict what might happen, we can make a suggestion before the child decides to take matters into his/her hands. “I see that so-and-so has a lot of play dough in front of her, and your favorite dinosaur too. I wonder what we can say to that child to get some play dough? And let’s ask where the dinosaurs are so you can have one too. Oh, I see your hand is reaching for the dinosaur in her hand and she is moving away–uh oh–if it’s in her hand she’s still using it. You can say, ‘Can I have that when you’re done?’ What shall we use while you wait?”

The empathizing part of the equation is important, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. When you empathize with the desire, or the anger, or the worry, they feel that you are on their side. It is a necessary step for them to see you as an ally. “You want that particular dinosaur, none of the others are good!! That is so upsetting, she didn’t know you were coming to this table and you would want to use it! You don’t want to wait, you want it right now… I wish you could have it right this minute! Why don’t we have another one of that exact dinosaur, I wish we had 2… or 10, it’s the best one!” To the adult, any dinosaur is the same, but to the child in that moment, this one is THEIRS and SOMEONE TOOK IT FROM THEM (even if they didn’t, really). Don’t argue with their perception of what the problem is!

Finally, it’s important to find the “yes” or replacement behavior. We give the child alternatives to get what they want. For example, if language is the issue (“potty” talk, or “scary” talk that sounds threatening to others), we tell them where they can say those words, or which words to say instead. “If you feel mad, you can say…” or “Your mad feelings are needing to come out, let’s go over here and do this (physical activity), then we’ll come back to this problem,” or “Those words don’t feel good to my ears, if you want to say them you can be over here,” or “That game is really big and loud, let’s move it away from the quiet game these other children are playing,” or “Let’s write down all those words about killing that monster on paper and you can carry it around in your pocket, because your friends have said they are all done talking about that.”

If it’s a very out-of-bounds behavior such as direct physical aggression, before you offer alternatives you can state the boundary, “I can’t let you… (pinch, bite, etc.) because that hurts.” One lovely teacher I know says, “I care about you too much to let you…” But I am inclined to use that word “let” sparingly, because even though I am there to physically stop them in that moment, I want them to feel that they are in charge of themselves as soon and as frequently as possible.

What are some other things you can do for children whose domineering behavior is making others uncomfortable?

  • Tell the other children what’s happening, and the adult can be both a model and a “translator” for the child who might lash out without words. Let’s say this child has a tendency to break what others are working on instead of joining play, because they don’t know how to do that seamlessly. Let everyone know what you’d like to see happen. “So-and-so (the child you’re helping) loves to dig, and I don’t see any shovels. I am here to make sure everyone has what they need, and also to make sure your hole gets protected. May we join you? Are there more shovels available or can we bring more sand with a truck?” Sometimes if the adult jumps into the activity briefly, it can help the other children to accept a child with more unpredictable behavior.
  • When possible, provide toy figures to use instead of children “being” the physical embodiment of aggressive characters in play. Small dinosaurs and pirates are much less threatening than a child your own size roaring in your face, and toys make the blurry line between fantasy and reality a bit more clear. Bring the action down to floor level, especially when the children are very young. Remember, everyone has aggressive feelings, adults just have more practice controlling them. There is nothing wrong with playing aggressive themes; play is how children make sense of what they don’t understand yet. There’s a difference between a THOUGHT and WORDS, and between WORDS and an ACTION. We can’t stop our thoughts, we can only make choices about what we do. An angry feeling or violent idea doesn’t make you bad! But behavior affects other people, and maybe that could use fine-tuning.
  • If a behavior is persistent, sometimes a visual will help, and going over expectations before a child gets into the situation (for example, a “Plan for the Playground” if that’s where issues tend to happen). Sand keeps getting thrown? Before they enter the sandbox, they see a picture of sand being moved low to the ground, and a reminder that children who want to stay in the sand area move the sand carefully. Block structures belonging to other children are getting knocked down? Make a little picture book (a “social story”) about all the fun things that one can do in the block area, including breaking one’s own building. Children are getting pushed off the swing? Outline the steps to getting a turn. Don’t assume they know a better way, there’s a reason the behavior persists!
  • Create lots of opportunities for REAL WORK and POWER PLAY. Do children have plenty of occasions where they are getting to make authentic choices? That means, is the adult truly accepting of whatever the child chooses (as opposed to one choice being a bribe or a threat… you can get in the car or no iPad when we get home is not much of a choice). Do they get to contribute to taking care of the environment through the having of jobs? Are they allowed to play big, boisterous games, imitate powerful people (like firefighters), knock things down (like boxes or cushions), jump from high places, be rough and tumble, throw far, attempt daring feats, move heavy things, and laugh uproariously? Using our large muscles dissolves tension, and physical games with others are a great bonding opportunity.
  • Teach about feelings. Feelings are always okay, it’s what we do with our feelings that we all have to work on, even adults (who sometimes yell when they’re mad, right?). Emotional literacy is incredibly important, and you can’t give children what they need to ride the waves of life’s emotions like disappointment, embarrassment, terror, rage, jealousy, grief, frustration, anxiety and joy if they only understand happy, sad, scared and mad. Some children may not even recognize those basics in themselves or others yet. Make sure you are using lots of descriptive feelings words about your own moods and sentiments, not just theirs. Have toys or puppets “act out” tricky problems at another time, so that children can see solutions in the “pause” between having a big feeling and acting on it. Revisit the idea that feelings come and go. They may feel so big and strong and all-consuming at the time, but they will pass. Feelings are the clouds, you are the sky.
  • There may be a point at which the child should stop that activity and move somewhere else. There have been plenty of books and articles written about natural and logical consequences so I won’t go into it too much here, but no matter how positive you try to be, sometimes the child isn’t ready to be in that area with those materials. The adult should have an idea in mind ahead of time of what the “line” is (the point at which you’ll have to step in) before the child bumps up against it repeatedly, making everyone involved more and more anxious. For example, if you have been clear about the expectations, and the child still hurts or scares or breaks, the sooner you calmly enforce the limit, the better. “Oh, I notice that your bucket flung water at the other children, and now they are looking over at you worriedly. We have been talking about this, and remember we agreed, when the water flies, it’s time to play in a different area. You can put your bucket down or hand it to me, and I can help you find a new activity.” Giving too many chances is not a good idea, it gives the negative energy momentum. Even if the child protests the limit, in the end it will be a relief, children do not want to feel more powerful than the adults!
  • Recognize progress. A child’s yelling is better than hitting, an angry tone is better than screaming. When they accept a loss, when they walk away from a conflict, when they start to hit someone but stop themselves before they make contact, when they follow someone else’s idea, when you see that child think about breaking something but then choose to be gentle instead, notice! “You know, I remember when… and now look what you can do! You are really growing up/caring about your friends/learning how to be careful.” Examples of maturing self-control should be celebrated, in all children!
  • Prioritize connection. Are you having enough positive interactions with this child throughout the day so that getting negative attention isn’t so much of a draw? Children are more inclined to listen to people that they have a close relationship with but for some, any attention is better than no attention at all. Are the other children seeing strengths or humor or something positive in this child so that s/he can make friends? When there has been a hurting behavior, make sure s/he does the repair of a helping behavior. The adult’s job is to help children see each other in the best possible light. Children struggling with aggressive impulses also need to see themselves in the best possible light. Because whatever you shine the light on, grows!