Q: Dear Polly, I've noticed that a boy in my kindergarten class, Jonah, is behaving really aggressively. He is sometimes physical with other children, hitting or throwing things, and often yells things at other children like "You can't play with me!" and "You are a noodle-head!" We emphasize getting along with others and we've talked about name-calling and how it makes people feel. What else can I do?
A: An instinctive reaction to fear is to take flight or to fight. A young child in a school setting, especially if it's relatively new to him, might well feel incompetent, overwhelmed, and unsupported. He can't flee, so he might "fight" -- hurl epithets ("You're stupid!" "Poopy head!"), spit, hit, bop, scratch, or engage in some other equally aggressive behavior. Of course, we can't have much of this, particularly the physically violent acts.
Usually the first step in alleviating "behavior problems" is to try to understand where a child is coming from. Why might she feel incompetent? Because her social skills are as new and wobbly as are the legs of a newborn colt or fawn. She's unsure of herself in tricky interpersonal situations such as wanting a toy someone else has, or wanting to continue using one someone is tugging at. Routinely yielding to another's wishes isn't a good way to live one's life. Nor is the opposite -- scaring other people into yielding to you.
Why might a child feel overwhelmed? Because few American children live in families with as many children as are in a typical preschool or kindergarten class. Many are only children because they're first borns and a sibling hasn't arrived yet, or because they always will be onlies. Others have siblings, but seldom are there more than three or four children. Fifteen? Twenty? No way! Three-, four-, and five-year-old children are learning that every child has wishes and wants, and reacts differently so it's hard to know where they stand or what will work socially. This, combined with being in a place that isn't home and adults who do things differently from family and expect different behaviors, can be overwhelming. Even children who separate easily from their families typically feel much more supported and "at home" when they are home, and conversely feel out on their own and less comfortable when in school.
Most children don't respond to social discomfort with aggression, but some do. Take time to help a child who defends herself with aggression from real or imagined social dangers learn alternative ways of handling her feelings. Patiently teach her to explain her issue, listen to the other child's point of view, and try taking turns. Offer opportunities to play privately. If you think it relevant, provide a snack or a rest. And always check with parents to see how these behaviors may be playing out at home.
Helping each child learn to gracefully manage the give and take of everyday life is one of parents' and teachers' most difficult and most important tasks.