Dear Polly: I have a 5-year-old in my group with a major hitting problem Ellie hits anyone who frustrates her. But one girl she often likes to play with is her particular target How can I help Elie with this problem?

Let's start with the child Ellie hits most. Enlist her as an ally, so you can give each other mutual support while uniting in a common purpose. To begin managing this problem, you need to strengthen your position so Ellie will heed your words about hitting. The "victim," the child Ellie most often hits, needs to stand strong against the abuse Ellie heaps upon her. You'll both benefit from this team effort, and Ellie will feel more pressure from your united stance.

Meet with the girl that Ellie's been hitting and tell her you've noticed that she and Ellie play together a lot. Ask what the two like to do together. Show interest in the specifics of the activities they share and let her know that you approve of the friendship. Then tell her that you've noticed that Ellie hits her a lot. Ask how being hit so often makes her feel and why she thinks her friend hits her and what she does about it. Enjoy a conversation during which you try to gain insight into this child's understanding of what's going on. When it fits into the two-way conversation, suggest that Ellie must like her because she often wants to play with her. State clearly that she doesn't have to let Ellie hurt her. Brainstorm together what the child could do.

Suggest that if Ellie hits the child, she can say, "I don't like you to hit me. I can't play with you now. Tell me when you're ready to play nicely and I'll play with you again.". Then suggest that she walk away and do something else.

Make time to monitor the activities of these two girls very closely. When you see trouble coming, help them work it out-use words, listen, negotiate, compromise, take turns. Telling them what to do or sending Ellie to the time out chair doesn't teach them how people solve problems. Ellie needs to learn to control her impulses, to see another person's perspective, and to empathize with others. You can help her do these things.

In addition to working with Effie and her friend, here are two important strategies to try:

  • Meet with Ellie's parents to discuss mutual goals for her learning and development this year. Find out what they think is important and include your academic goals, but emphasize that one of your goals for their daughter is that she learn to use constructive methods with peers rather than to hurt. Ask if hitting is a problem Ellie has at home or if it only happens in school. Keep notes on incidents and progress to share with the parents.
  • Use group time to bring the rest of the class into this. Gather children's experiences and thoughts about hitting and alternatives. Invite them to help anyone who hits to work things out in better ways. Mobilizing classmates to help you achieve your goals with a child is a powerful teaching tool.

As you try these strategies with Ellie, you'll be building important social skills that benefit the entire group. In addition, the problem-solving, planning, and creative-thinking skills children in your class develop as they work through these issues with Ellie will make them better prepared to meet future challenges.

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