Question: I have a 3 year old boy, soon to be 4, who is extremely difficult. He does everything from spitting and hitting other children to not following simple directions. I have tried stickers with positive reinforcement to giving him all the kindness and love, and also having him sit out. Talking to his parents seems to be a waste of time. My director just tells me to keep working with him. I’m going out of my mind. HELP!

Myrna Shure: I can understand how frustrating it must be to try to curb behaviors that can hurt others, and feel that nothing helps. Unfortunately, rewards as stickers and positive reinforcement are external, as are negative techniques as sitting out, etc. These changes, however, don't change the way a child thinks about the impact of his hitting and spitting at others – and they do not help to develop empathy – a genuine desire to not want to hurt or upset others.

It is clear that this boy’s needs are not being met, and caring about himself is the first step toward empathy. How can you send the message, “I care about how you feel and I want you to care too?”  

When you have a few moments to spend alone with him, share a story about something that made you feel happy, and then ask him to share something like that with you. You might repeat this a couple of times. After he is comfortable with happy, add feeling words sad, and angry and repeat the exercise. By sharing your stories, he is more likely to open up and think more about his own and other’s feelings.

Next time the boy hits or spits, ask, “How do you think he/she felt when you did that?” “What did he do when you did that?” “How did that make you feel?” “What can you do so he won’t feel (mad) and you won’t feel (mad)?” If he comes up with an idea that has positive, not negative consequences, praise him by saying, “You’re a very good problem solver.” He will feel proud.

If this boy can come to care about his own and feelings, and good about himself, he will be more likely to behave in ways that will not hurt others, and that impact will last longer than external rewards or punishments because he will feel genuine empathy.  

This kind of behavior change may take time, but the child’s not hitting or spitting is well worth the effort.