Question:  I have a 4-year-old child in my classroom who is constantly snatching toys and hitting her friends, but she has moments when she is nice to them.  Can you tell me why she is hitting even though I’ve given her time out countless times?

Myrna Shure: 
This child may be hitting and snatching toys for a variety of possible reasons, including the possibility that she is overpowered at home, and has a need to regain that power by controlling other children.  When you give her a time-out, are you doing it as a punishment or as a genuine calming down period? Time out can be an effective strategy in certain circumstances, but in this situation, if it’s being used as a punishment and the child feels overpowered (the very feeling she is trying to escape), there may be a better strategy. Here’s how you can help this child.  

Help her build empathy toward the child whose toy she is snatching, or hitting. Then help her think of different ways to get what she wants, or if needed, to cope with the frustration if she can’t have what she wants.  Engage her in the decision-making process, with questions as follows:

  • What’s the problem?
  • How do you think ___ feels when you do that?What happened next?
  • How did you feel when that happened?
  • Can you think of something different to do so you both won’t feel that way, and that won’t happen?

With this kind of dialogue, this child will likely engage in more positive behaviors because she feels empowered, not overpowered.  And asking how she felt ensures that the child gets the message that you care how she feels. That question sets the stage for empathy, because children cannot be genuinely interested in how others feel if their own needs aren’t satisfied.  Once children feel empathy, they are less likely to want to hurt others, thus reducing the need to be told what to do, or sent to time out.