A 4-year-old in my class has sudden angry outbursts. This usually happens when she gets frustrated during activity times. I can't anticipate just when it will happen, or what will instigate it, but suddenly she'll push back her chair, cross her arms, and shout at the top of her lungs. How can I help her?

To understand what frustrates her so, it's important to consider:

  • cognitive factors * emotional factors
  • relationships in her family
  • relationships between the child, the teacher, and her classmates

Considering Cognitive Factors

The cognitive factors include her motor, sensory, and spatial-processing capacities. Even if this child appears to be confident in her motor skills, you'll want to see if motor planning or sequencing (the ability to string together many actions in a row) is especially hard for her. Many projects require children to carry out multiple steps in sequence. So, first, you'll want to consider whether she has trouble doing multi-step projects and, if so, whether this is more evident with gross- or fine-motor tasks.

Also consider whether she has trouble listening to instructions or keeping them in mind. Does she have trouble sequencing ideas, so that if you give her a set of three or four steps, she can't repeat back your instructions? Often we mistakenly assume a child who is bright and has good language skills can do this easily.

Tuning in to Sensations

Next, look at her reactivity to sensation. Quite a few children are over-reactive to things such as touch, sound, and certain movements. They may overreact to their own emotions, as well. This can be, at least in part, physiologically based. The frustration tolerance for such a child will be lower, so we have to give her more practice in handling frustration.

Seeing the Big Picture

The child's visual-spatial thinking is another important factor to consider. In other words, her big-picture thinking. Hopefully, when you give her something to do, she gets a sense of the whole project. If she has any trouble with big-picture thinking, she may get frustrated easily.

In addition, some children have difficulty sequencing ideas. This might be part of a larger language problem. Her frustration might be due to a difficulty in understanding what you explain to her. If so, she will need more practice in this area.

Evaluating Environmental Issues

Now, let's assume that the child is fine in all those areas. Then you ought to consider some environmental factors. These include the child's relationships within her family and in the classroom. How has she learned to deal with or not deal with frustration? In what ways have her parents helped her? In what ways have previous teachers helped her? These are very important questions, and we look for a number of patterns. Some children, because of their extreme emotional reactions, elicit a lot of protectiveness. So their parents and teachers all move in very quickly, as soon as these children show any sign of frustration. The children, therefore, will have very little experience with tolerating frustration, even for a few seconds. Then, too, if a parent or teacher is overanxious, the child's lack of experience with frustration may not be because of the child's temperament, but because the adult can't stand to see her cry, fears that something bad will happen, and reacts quickly.

What the teacher can do is observe how the parents interact with the child. She should note the degree to which they encourage the child toward greater mastery and tolerance of frustration. The teacher may then decide to share her observations with a mental health professional associated with the school or in the community. These experts can help the parents explore all of this and look at patterns in the child's earlier life.

Focusing on Interactions

Of course, it is never so simple that just one thing-family dynamics, teacher-child dynamics, hypersensitivity, or motor planning-explains it all. Often you will see various combinations of contributing factors. The rule of thumb is that the more challenges a child faces in the physical areas, the better the teacher-child interactions need to be. For a child who is sensory over-reactive, who frustrates easily, you need an even more finely tuned ability to move in and provide support. But not by doing the task for her. Giving the child a little bit of direction or support-with gestures and encouragement-and the freedom to achieve a sense of mastery is what is needed.