Aggressive behavior in young children is normal but not acceptable, says Parents.com's Ask Your Mom advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D. Here, she explains how to work with the daycare teachers to find what works to help this phase end soon.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
July 22, 2020
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Yeji Kim

Dear Fight Club,

I think one of every parent's nightmares is getting that call from your child's school that he has hurt another child. Whether it's biting (totally normal in young kids, but it feels so primal and wrong) or any variety of kicking, hitting, or throwing objects, it's unsettling to us calm and civilized parents who hope we are not raising a barbarian.

Some children are more likely to express themselves with physical aggression than others, and it does not mean there's something wrong with them or they are "bad" kids. They are kids acting like kids, with temperament and brain wiring that makes them more physical.

Although physical aggression in young children is completely normal, it does not mean it's acceptable. They need to learn positive behaviors to override negative impulses, and in young children that can take time, a lot of repetition, and a team of adults on the same page.

Use Clear Communication

With young children, the key messaging ingredients are being clear, simple, and consistent. When my kindergarten son had some trouble listening in class, his teacher used the phrase, "let's work on first-time listening!" and we echoed the same at home. Work with the daycare teachers to know how they are addressing his hitting behaviors so you can use consistent messaging at home. You also know your son best, so if you think their approach is not the right fit for how he tends to respond to redirection, you can give them feedback. Together, you might be able to come up with a more effective message. Keep communicating about how well this messaging appears to be working so you can tweak as needed.

Set a Behavior Plan

Hitting other children should result in natural consequences, such as other children not wanting to play. But this does not always sink in to the highly impulsive young child brain that has not yet developed capacity for insight or a good grasp of cause and effect. Although we often link the idea of discipline with negatives like punishment, positive reinforcement can be a very effective discipline tool with children of all ages.

The anchors of positive reinforcement—praise and rewards—need to be used at school where the problem behavior is happening. Whatever you do at home has zero connection with what occurred during the hours at school; the time lag is way too long for a child of daycare age. The teachers are hopefully pros at this since they are professional young child caregivers! But it's good for you to be aware of what they are and are not doing in response to the hitting behaviors.

It is much harder to "catch" a child not engaging in a problem behavior than to notice the problem behavior. But it goes a long way to explicitly praise a child who is struggling with hitting when he demonstrates positive social behaviors like sharing a toy, offering comfort to another child, or noticing someone needs help and helping them. Children are gluttons for attention, good or bad, so there are times that simply shifting attention from negative behaviors to positive ones redirects their focus, and they forget about undesirable ways they used to get attention.

I know there's a fair amount of debate among parenting gurus about using rewards, but I'm a believer, based on professional and personal experiences. Rewards work as temporary external motivators to change a behavior. When done right, the need for the reward fades over time as the desired behavior becomes internalized, which is where the "temporary" comes in.

You have to pick the right-sized reward too—no huge, expensive prize for a brief behavior! I often recommend identifying experiences rather than material rewards. When my own son struggled to stay quiet during nap time at preschool, they offered him the reward of helping prepare the tables for afternoon snack. This opportunity to be a "helper" enticed him to stay in his cot during the first part of nap.

If your son has a prime time of hitting, like circle time or outside playtime, the teachers could offer him the reward of being a helper if he can sit or play for this period of time without hitting. Again, this shifts the focus to positive behaviors and attention.

Seek Out an Underlying Problem

When the above strategies of clear and consistent messaging combined with shifting attention to the positive are just not effective, look deeper. Aggression is a form of communication, especially for children who are still undergoing early language development. Look for a pattern of the hitting behavior: Is it happening in similar situations, like when he wants a toy? Or when he loses a game? Or maybe other children are teasing him?

If the problem persists, or even worsens, it might be worth raising the issue with your pediatrician. A standard developmental questionnaire can reveal if your son has any areas of concern like lagging language development. You and the teachers could be doing everything just right, but you won't see as much change if what he really needs are early intervention speech services. Most likely, the hitting would be just one of other concerning signs, so think about and observe the whole range of your son's behaviors.

The Bottom Line

Even though hitting at daycare is a problem, it's also a behavior that fits right along the continuum of expected and normal. Fortunately, there are tools his teachers and you can use to help him stop, even if you have to do some experimenting with what works best for him. It's all part of putting together the eternal jigsaw puzzle of discovering how your child operates, and how to support him in leaving this phase behind. Maybe, just maybe, this process now will prepare you even more for whatever the next phase brings!

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns. 

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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