aggression

In Addition to Thoughts and Prayers: Actions to Address School Shootings

Empty School Hallway

The statistics on school shootings in the United States are overwhelming. There have been 17 shootings on school grounds in 2018 alone; 8 of these being intentional and during school hours . In Florida, this week’s school shooting left 17 dead and 5 in intensive care.

I am not a safety expert, I’m a school and developmental psychologist and work in schools most days. I am also a mom and want my kids to be safe. I also respect the Second Amendment and enjoy an occasional outing to the gun range. If it helps any, I consider myself an Independent and have voted for policies and politicians from both parties.

I’ve been thinking about the answers to school shootings off and on since grad school, since Columbine. It’s exhausting that as a country we continue to argue about the causes of the problem and have yet to move toward solutions in a meaningful way.

Anyone who argues one side, “it’s all a gun problem,” or “it’s all about mental health,” or worse, “there are no laws that could have helped,” is closing down the discussion and the possibility of finding reasoned decisions and solutions. It is a hugely complex and grave issue that deserves solutions from every angle.

Here is a starter list of several solutions. By no means is this meant to be an exhaustive list. My hope is we are at the beginning of real change on this issue and recognize there will be so many additional avenues towards a reduction of the violence.

Hint: If you are offended by the idea that part of the answer is gun regulation, you can skip the first section. It’s an important section as I think it’s at least half of the answer but there are several other sections for you including ideas on mental health, threat assessment and target hardening.

Gun Regulation

Common Sense Gun Regulation is at least considering rigorous universal background checks, blocking purchases for people deemed mentally ill (those guilty of domestic violence, and those on the no-fly list, but that’s a different article), higher age requirements, limits on the number of bullets in a clip and a ban on automatic and semi-automatic (particularly the AR 15) weapons. If not a ban on semi-automatics, much more rigorous checks and training.

Specific to school shootings, Dr. Matt Kuhn, a school district administrator in Colorado, suggests that students expelled from high school for violent behaviors also be added to the no-buy list through 21 years old. This would also give a beneficial layer of communication between the high schools and law enforcement agencies.

We might look to other countries. In the mid 1990s, Australia’s response to mass shootings included requiring a license for every gun owner, a registration for every gun, a ban on automatic weapons, and limits on clips. They also set up a gun buy back and destroyed more than a million guns. The USNLM-NIH reports that states with high rates of gun ownership have equally high rates of gun related homicides. Fewer guns, fewer homicides. Or we could follow Switzerland’s approach with required permits, background and mental illness checks, a limit of three weapons per person. They credit their low rates of gun violence to a culture of responsibility in ownership, gun safety and well enforced laws.

These other countries have similar issues with mental illness, teenagers who play violent video games and permissive parenting yet they don’t have the number of mass shootings. The one thing that differentiates us from them is the number of guns and the loose regulations for purchase and ownership. This is a uniquely American problem and the research, the numbers, point to gun control as the main answer. Please though, read on, there are several other answers that will save lives.

To this whole section, I would add holding gun owning parents responsible if their children injure or kill others with their guns.

All this said, clear debate and solid decision making relies on good data. Since a 1996 Congressional budget amendment, the US Center for Disease Control which studies other causes of death including drowning and  car accidents have been unable to effectively study gun violence. There is hope in that Trump’s newly appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services stated clear support for gun violence research moving forward. Fully funding this area of research would enable us to achieve better policies.

If you need direction to how to have a voice in this debate, you might consider joining a group in your area:

Mental Illness/Mental Health

While fewer than 5% of gun related homicides are committed by people diagnosed with a mental illness, the USNLM-NIH reports up to 60% of US mass shooters (not limited to schools) displayed symptoms including “acute paranoia, delusions and depression” before their crime. They continue that mental health concerns are likely higher for mass shooters than those who commit other gun violence.

Recognizing and treating mental illness in our young people takes parents who are in tune, open to evaluations and able to afford care. It is often time consumming and costly to accurately diagnose and treat conditions. It is also paying attention over the years of childhood to changes in symptoms requiring changes in treatment plans.

Often it is the school bringing a student’s mental health concerns to their parents’ attention. Most public schools have guidance counselors, school psychologists and social workers. While their caseloads are heavy and their focus is supporting education, they, and teachers, are in a unique position to observe students’ mental health and related behaviors.

For this to all work, we need fully funded schools with effective student services and support programs. We need a robust health care system with insurance for all that covers an integrated approach to mental health. We also need parents who will pick up the information and effectively address it over time. This may include individual and group counseling, medication, cognitive behavioral therapy or social skills groups. Not too much to ask, right? Kidding aside, the only way for mental health services to be available for all is if we make their funding a priority.

More manageable places to start would be a month on related mental health issues and a week on threat assessment (below) built in to every 9th and 10th graders health class and similar yearly staff training. Providing related articles and workshops for parents would add consistency between settings. A yearly mental health screening for each student (a few self-report forms to fill out) each year in high school. An additional social worker per high school to coordinate related services with parents and the community. I see the school social worker as a central player in this discussion.

Dr. Peter Langman, an expert on school shootings and author of School Shooters: Understanding High School, College and Adult Perpetrators and the website School Shooters.info, breaks school shooters in to three common categories. Psychotic students may have delusional disorders, and may be diagnosed with schizophrenia or similar level of mental illness. Psychopathic students may be narcissistic or have related personality disorders, they may be characterized by a lack of empathy, conscience or remorse. Traumatized students may have suffered abuse, bullying, family loss or come from a dysfunctional home. Of these categories, only psychotic students have a high likelihood of being formally diagnosed with a mental illness by high school. More likely students from all three categories would be on the radar of a school social worker.

Under the mental health umbrella is a student’s social skills and social connectedness. A word that comes up repeatedly when describing many school shooters is “loner.”  Peer status research methods are a quick, easy and inexpensive way to identify the students that other students would consider to be at-risk in this way.

Social support programs in schools, often offered by the guidance counselor or even those run by students such as We Dine Together, can reduce the number of students who feel isolated. Amy Zamboldi, a parent at Ridgewood High School in New Jersey, shared information about their Freshman FOCUS program. This program pairs each 9th grader with a trained and guidance counselor supervised 11th or 12th grader to promote academic and social success and an overall sense of community. Such programs can also help identify any student having difficulty with the transition. Researching and funding such programs is a proactive way to address related social concerns.

A very specific social skill related to reducing levels of aggression is empathy. While empathy remains an elusive skill to teach directly, we can definitely coach children on the component pieces of emotion language, understanding and perspective taking. If children are struggling in this area, parents may enroll them in social skills groups and actively coach them through related social exchange. Ideally, all of this starts long before high school.

Social connections and students’ mental health can also be improved through participation in extracurricular activities. In the last 25 years, Iceland has significantly reduced the rate of teenage delinquency, social stress and drug use through increased funding for all students to participate in organized sports, music, art, dance and other productive activities. Yes, they also added reasonable curfews and parenting support, but overall their approach is so simple and has been so effective. It is worth considering as a part of the answer here.

Threat Assessment

Threat assessment in this case is the process of identifying, evaluating and managing threats to student’s safety in our schools. The Safe School Initiative, which is a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Secret Service, is designed to guide schools and communities to improve their efforts and related outcomes.

These Departments state that identification and evaluation is much more about the facts of the case and behaviors of the student than any characteristics or traits. That often a student who poses a threat “did not threaten their targets directly,” but “did engage in pre-attack behaviors. This includes “leaking,” telling others or posting to social media, asking others for help or discussing details of the plan, or smaller threatening behaviors such as bringing ammunition to school. Other signals include a student who has difficulty coping with failures or loss, feelings of hopelessness, suicide attempts, feeling bullied or wronged by other students or the system, and access to, fascination with and prior use of weapons. With all of these behaviors, the push is for students, friends and siblings to follow a ‘See Something, Say Something’ approach.

As it is an increasingly common detail reported in a school shooter’s prior behavior, I would add copycat behavior and hero worship to this list. In many recent cases, these students have posted photos and video clips of themselves in similar poses to previous shooters. They describe admiring previous shooters as their inspiration or their God. They report studying earlier incidents to copy or out do previous events. ‘See Something, Say Something.’

They also suggest that schools should build a culture of respect for diversity and differences, support student’s social and emotional needs, bolster individual trusted relationships and paths for communication between students and school staff. In addition, they support the ongoing effort to reduce bullying in our schools. The School Safety Initiative goes on to outline a plan for evaluating threats and how to best manage an active situation.

Kathy Brown, CEM and Deputy Director at Union County Emergency Management Agency, suggests school systems should have a staff member trained to monitor students’ social media looking for trends in keyword, hashtag and geotlocation searches. She feels having a designated person within each system could go a long way towards identifying students in crisis.

Currently, only a handful of states require Threat Assessment Teams be in place in our K – 12 school systems and at public colleges. Requiring this practice and related funding from the federal level seems like a no-brainer, especially as this plan was developed by two federal departments.

Target Hardening

Target hardening is strengthening the security of a school in order to protect it in the case of an attack.

A good guy with a gun would be an incredibly well trained professional who is in the school solely for safety. My children’s high school has two assigned county police officers each day. I am happy to see them there. With as much as we pay in taxes, this step should be well within affordable.

The coordinated emergency planning school systems do with community law enforcement and other emergency services is also target hardening. This includes clear plans and paths for communication, staff training, lockdown drills, evacuation and family reunification plans.

Target hardening also includes safety products such as metal detectors, electronic door access with strict rules, bullet proof interior glass and interior door locks. Sadly, it also includes bullet proof backpacks and stocked first aid kits. Again, well within affordable.

VOTE

Vote for local, state and federal leaders who support common sense gun regulation, funding safety research at the CDC, a robust health insurance market, an integrated mental health system, and fully supported public schools and afternoon programs. Contact your politicians by phone, email, mail and through social media. Share your thoughts and ideas about all of these issues.

Media Guidelines

With the copycat influence, self reported body count goals and increased hero worship of previous shooters, Mother Jones magazine suggests six ways media outlets can help lessen future attacks. These are covered in their article How the Media Inspires Mass Shooters.

Additional Issues

Not to leave them out, violent video games and permissive or detached parenting are likely pieces to this puzzle. By all means, if these seem like main issues to you, start here. It is time to do something and lessening our children’s violent video content and improving the climate of parenting will make the country a better place too. You might work for age restrictions on violent content and first person shooter games. You might support community organizations that work with families and students considered at-risk. You might join a mentoring program like Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America. On a smaller scale, you might provide volunteer hours with your child’s school or scout troop.

Everything on this list seems common sense to me. The big actions to take are likely at the intersection of gun regulation and mental health. Rather than continuing to argue the causes, it is time to take action towards solutions.

Here is a blog post on How to Talk to Children About School Shootings by Age.

Here is a blog post for teachers on How to Answer Young Children’s Questions About Stressful Community Events 

 

 

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When a Two Year Old Hits

Asian Chinese little sisters struggle for blocks

This may be a two-year-old being aggressive with their older siblings, or a child in a two’s program hitting classmates. I tend to think there are three (long run, four) parts to the answer:

Coach being gentle

  1. You might read Hands are Not for Hitting by Aggasi, No Hitting by Katz, No More Hitting for Little Hamster by Ford and Baby Be Kind by Fletcher.
  2. You can teach “hands down,” by playing Simon Says and every third or fourth direction be “Simon says, ‘hands down,'” and encouraging them to put their hands by their sides. Or, play Freeze Dance with the direction “hands down” when the music stops.
  3. You can provide a visual cue by taking a picture of them with their hands down by their sides and show this to them when you remind them to, “keep your hands down.” This might be a reminder in general when they go to play, or your warning language if you see the behavior coming.
  4. You might practice a “gentle touch” or “nice touch” when you greet each other.
  5. Be sure to praise occasionally when they remember to be gentle, “you gave your friend a nice hug. That was gentle!”
  6. You might show and tell them about ways to give high fives, shake hands, give a gentle hug or hold hands, and praise when they do it gently.

Coach the triggers – The first step to being able to coach triggers is to identify them. It may be helpful to keep notes about the aggressive behaviors for a few days, be sure to note what sparked the behavior. This might be being told, “no,” having to share toys, getting the wrong color cup or rough house play that went too far. Coaching out of the moment might be role playing related scenarios, giving puppet shows, drawing a picture of the situation going well, providing a visual cue or reading related children’s storybooks. Here is a post about coaching wanted behaviors. The goal of coaching is to encourage wanted behaviors over time.

It may be helpful to listen to my free online workshop on coaching wanted behaviors.

Discipline in the moment

  1. A little attention to the victim first – Avoid looking at or talking first to the child who was just aggressive. Look and speak to the other saying something like, “I am so sorry. Are you okay?” or, “ouch, that hurts! Do you need a hug?”
  2. As a parent, I tend to think the next step should be a logical negative consequence. Logical negative consequences are an imposed, related outcome. If they hit over a toy, they lose the toy for some amount of time. If they push for a particular seat on the couch, they are off the couch for that day. If there was no context, just a drive by, you might have them separate. This may be playing in another room or sitting out for a turn.
  3. Once this is served, it is good to either go back with a sentence of emotion or better choices. Also, it would be helpful to make a mental note of the trigger, so you can coach later.

The fourth long run answer is coaching emotion language and empathy. I say long run because, two-year-olds aren’t expected to have much in the way of emotion language and tend to have a very limited sense of others. Since they are not well versed, it is good to include emotion language and impact on others in the moment. This would be, “I know you are frustrated. You wanted that toy.” and, “wow, your friend is sad. Grabbing his toy made him feel sad.” Out of the moment, helpful to coach these things as well.

With all of this, remember you are talking to a two-year-old. This means when you are coaching or disciplining you only get a few short sentences.

 

When Children Argue, Build Their Skills

Zwei Kinder streiten sich

So often when children argue, parents intervene and solve the issue. Two children are arguing over a toy, a parent enters and decides who gets the toy and what the other child should do while they wait. Or, two children are arguing over who goes first, a parent comes in and picks which one while giving empathy or direction to the other.

When parents intervene and fix, the children are missing out on a golden opportunity to learn the skills needed to solve such social conflicts. Rather than intervene and fix, it should be intervene and teach the needed skills.

When children are arguing, a good first steps is often empathy all around. If my girls are arguing over a ball I might start with, “I know you are both frustrated, I could hear you from down the hall. You both want that toy.” This also teaches children to start with empathy which is often helpful.

Teach them to listen to each other’s words. This might be, “Did you hear your brother? He said, ‘stop.’ What does that mean to you?” or, “I heard her screaming. She clearly doesn’t like that.” You are reinforcing the other’s words to each child. Often, by the time children are arguing, they aren’t listening well.

If needed, teach them to speak up for themselves.  Many children are all over this one, they speak up for themselves quite well. If your child is on the quiet side, you might have to coax some words out of them or give them some words to say, so they can at least hold their own. You might follow this up with reinforcing their new words to the other. It can be helpful to teach your child to use an assertive voice in conflicts.

Once they feel understood or heard, the next step is to help them focus on solutions. You might ask them each to give an idea, or you might suggest a few ideas and discuss. You might teach them to weigh their options and negotiate together. The goal is to give them ways to find solutions and work through the issue together, rather than giving them the solution. This may take time and effort; it may take more empathy. It may also include taking a break and coming back to problem solving once children are calm.

If the problem solving process continues to be difficult, you might step back and coach them to be more flexible thinkers. These ideas for teaching flexible thinking are best done out of the moment, when all are calm.

  • Brainstorm options – Out of the moment of conflict, teach them how to brainstorm. This can be saying, “we don’t have time for bath tonight. Let’s think of three ways to you can get clean before school tomorrow.” Answers might include taking a quick shower, using a washcloth at the sink or taking a bath in the morning. On a game night you might say, “everyone wants to play different games. Let’s think of three ways we can settle this.” Answers might include one game each night for three nights, starting early or playing Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide. When brainstorming, it is fine to include funny or crazy answers.
  • Plan A/Plan B – You might model Plan A/Plan B language several times before you ask them to problem solve this way. You might say, “we were supposed to run three errands today, but we only got to two, and we are running out of time. That was our Plan A, and we need a Plan B.”
  • Big problem/Little problem – It can be helpful to have children decide what are big problems, and what are little problems. In our house big problems may take a few days to solve, or several people. A few days later, someone might be upset. Little problems might only take one or two people, and a little while to solve. No one is upset about it a day later. Point out big problems and little problems in life. Then have children try to categorize their own problems.
  • Play games that require flexible thinking and discuss – This includes Labyrinth (by Ravensburger), Gobblet, Connect Four and Rush Hour Jr.. In all of these games, players have a plan and then it gets knocked out, and they have to make another plan. This may happen several times in each game. While you play, at least occasionally point out having to make a new plan or come up with new solutions.

When children are able to work through arguments, be sure to give them descriptive praise for their efforts, negotiation, flexibility or cooperation. Here is a post about descriptive praise.

How Charting Behaviors Helps: Tantrums and Aggression

Angry little boy glaring and fighting with his brother

Charting behaviors like tantrums or aggression is often done by teachers in the classroom, so they can quickly gain a better understanding of what is happening. It is something parents can easily do at home. Charting means keeping detailed and consistent notes about the behavior. If a child were tantruming often in my classroom or at home, I’d start a notebook and for every tantrum I’d jot down:

  • Where it was
  • When it was
  • Who else was around or involved
  • What seemed to set it off (trigger)
  • Any signs child was about to tantrum (cues)
  • How long it lasted
  • What they did during
  • How they calmed down
  • What happened after

Once you’ve taken notes for several tantrums, you can look across the notes for patterns. If it’s always the same time of day, maybe move snack earlier or rearrange that time of the day. If it’s the same place or happening when interacting with the same children, look at how you can change the space or separate the children. Coach the triggers directly. If turn taking triggered your child’s tantrums, make a plan to coach turn taking later in the day by reading a story about taking turns, role play taking turns or give a puppet show about taking turns. The idea is to teach them how to better manage when the trigger happens. Use the cues to better intervene before future tantrums. For some children, a cue would be their voice going up a notch or getting really whiney before the tantrum starts. If you know the cue and know the tantrum is about to start, you can intervene just before with empathy, positive intent or choices to calm and distract away from the tantrum.

Here’s a helpful post about using triggers and cues to lessen tantrums.

By charting the behavior and reviewing your notes, you are in a much better place to address the tantrums.

Likewise, if a child were being aggressive often in my classroom or at home, I’d start a notebook and for every aggressive behavior I’d jot down:

  • Where it was
  • When it was
  • Who else was around or involved
  • What seemed to set it off (trigger)
  • Any signs the child was about to be aggressive (cues)
  • What actually happened
  • What happened after
  • Any discipline given

Again, this information is meant to show patterns and give you a better chance to intervene and in the long run curb the aggression. If it’s a particular time, place or person, make changes accordingly. Triggers are what sets off the behavior, and cues are signs it’s about to happen. Children who are aggressive often tend to have fairly consistent triggers and cues. You can coach the triggers, and intervene on the cues.

A few years ago, I got a phone call from a preschool. They had a two-year-old girl who was biting people often. My first questions included, “who is she biting? Where is she biting? And, when is she biting?” and, “did you notice any triggers or cues?” The answers were all, “good question.” So they took notes for a week. When we spoke again they said, “We can see it coming. She only bites people if they approach her, and she is holding stuff.” It’s a don’t touch my stuff bite. Knowing that, the teachers can focus on teaching her to say “stop,” or “mine,” when others approach. They can have her sit down, or just stay within arms reach when they see her holding stuff. They also noticed consistent cues. They said, “she gets this wild look in her eye, her mouth flies open, and then she lunges.” Scary as that is, the wild look gives them a few second to remind her to say “mine,” or hold her or say “freeze,” or say “run,” to the other child.

Here is a helpful post about discipline for aggression.

How Discipline Works Backwards for Aggression

Two kids, boy brothers, fighting in garden, summertime rainy day

The steps of positive discipline provide parents with a framework for moving through any discipline exchange. For most all behaviors, the idea is to work forward through the steps and consider which are needed or are the best fit. I tend to get through most discipline exchanges with empathy and choices or positive intent and choices, but that may not be what fits best for you. It is good to stay flexible.

It is also helpful to note that there are several ways to stay in front of this discipline including: considering logistics for ways to solve behaviors, checking your routines and schedules to avoid struggles, and giving clear and consistent warnings to help children prepare themselves. There are also proactive discipline techniques such as giving positive directions and descriptive praise to encourage wanted behaviors and lessen the need for the steps of discipline. That said, sometimes the behaviors still happen.

Here are the steps with definitions of each. For each step, I am providing an example for this scenario: Your child wants to walk at the grocery store but keeps pulling things off the shelf onto the floor.

  • I message – I messages are a way to express your negative emotion and blame the behavior or the situation rather than blaming the child. This is either passive blame, “I am frustrated, this is a mess,” or, “I am worried, something might break,” or global blame, “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The point is to diffuse the blame rather than blame the child directly which leads to defensiveness and arguing.
  • Empathy – This is acknowledging the child’s emotions in the situation, and understanding their upset before you move towards discipline. In the grocery store example, this might be, “I know you are bored. It is so boring to shop,” or, “I see you are excited, you love being here. There is so much to see.”
  • Positive Intent – Positive intent is recognizing the good reason behind the negative behavior. This may be, “I know you want to help,” or, “I know you are having fun.”
  • I messages, empathy and positive intent are all foundation steps in the framework. You don’t tend to see a lot of behavior change from these steps, but they help to keep communication open and encourage the child to be a listener to what comes next. The next steps, including choices and consequences, are viewed as the active steps of the framework which lead more towards changes in behavior.
  • Choices, Challenges or Contribution – These are ways to encourage the good behavior while avoiding consequence language. These techniques are more open and flexible than consequences. Choices would be, “do you want to hold my hand or help push the cart,” or, “leaving everything else on the shelf, do you want to choose the cereal or the cookies next?” Challenges would be making up a game or making it fun, “can you duck walk on the center tiles all the way to the other end of the aisle,” or, “can you count how many characters you see on the cereal boxes?” Either way, they aren’t focused on pulling things off the shelves. Contribution is giving the child a job to get them through the behavior this might be making the child the ‘list checker’ or the ‘cart organizer,’ rather than just walking.
  • Natural Consequences – Natural consequences are what just might happen if the child chooses or continues the behavior. “If you keep pulling things off the shelf, something might break,” or, “you might get hurt.”
  • Logical Positive or Logical Negative Consequences – Positive logical consequences are the good related outcomes; such as, “if you can leave things on the shelf, you can pick the cereal,” or, “you can use the scanner,” or, “you can walk the whole time.” Negative logical consequences are the bad related outcome; such as, “if you are pulling things off the shelf, you will have to ride in the cart,” or, “you will have to hold my hand.”

As a parent, when one child hurts another, I tend to work through the steps backwards and start with a logical negative consequence. This is mostly because I want it to register differently to my child. I want them to realize, “oh, when I hurt someone this all works differently.” The only way for it to register this way is to work forward for all other behaviors and avoid starting with negative consequences unless there is aggression.

  • Attention to victim first – As hard as it is, avoid initially looking at or speaking to the child who was just aggressive. Turn your initial attention to the victim child saying something like, “I am so sorry. Are you okay?” This avoids giving that initial attention to the aggressive behavior and accidentally reinforcing it. I am not saying comfort, snuggle and go overboard, just avoid initial attention to the aggressive behavior.
  • Logical Negative Consequence – Again, as best you can, it’s good to give a consequence related to the scenario. If they were pushing over a toy, the other child gets the toy. If they were hitting over a spot on the couch, the other child gets the couch. It can also be fine to end the activity or leave the situation, just be sure to tie it to the behavior as best you can.
  • Empathy or Positive Intent then Choices – The consequence is where many parents end the exchange. I think it’s best to go back through empathy or positive intent and better choices for the exchange. It is going to be good to redirect the child to better behaviors following a consequence for aggression.

If aggression is happening often, it can be helpful to also coach being gentle or other related skills out of the moment. Coaching might include reading stories like Hands Are Not for Hitting by Aggasi and No More Hitting for Little Hamster by Ford. This might be brainstorming ways to be gentle, practicing gentle touches and making lists about how to treat people. It’s good to also coach any known triggers. If you child is hitting over taking turns, coach how to take turns by role playing, giving puppet shows, drawing pictures of it going well and drawing comics that teach the point. There is a free audio workshop on coaching wanted behaviors available at parentingbydrrene.com.

To learn more about this and other discipline techniques you can join me for a workshop in Northern VA.

Listen to my audio workshops online.

Or read my workbook: 8 Weeks to Positive Discipline.

What to Do When a Child is Aggressive

Four-year-old Johnny and Eric are building together. Eric moves one of Johnny’s blocks when Johny had it in the perfect place, and Johnney gets mad. Johnny yells, “no!” and hits Eric.

This is a common scenario that plays out on playdates, between siblings and in preschools every day. As a parent or teacher, it can be hard to know the best ways to follow up in the moment and encourage better behaviors moving forward.

Part One: Discipline In the Moment
I tend to start with a little attention to the victim first. In this case, I would turn to Eric and say something along the lines of, “I am so sorry. Are you okay?” I am not saying gush and comfort in a big way. You don’t want to encourage the victim role. Just give momentary attention to check in, and be sure they are okay. The point is to avoid giving intial attention to the child being aggressive.

As a teacher entering into the discipline process, you might start with brief empathy to Johnny, “I know you are angry, you were building that,” or positive intent, “you really wanted the blocks the way you had them.” When it seems appropriate, and in this case it would, you can help the child find better words to express himself. Again briefly, you might say, “Johnny, next time you can say, ‘Eric, don’t move that,’ or you can ask me for help.” The next step is a logical consequence for the aggressive behavior. This might be having Johnny leave the block area for the morning for hitting his friend. A logical consequence is meant to curb the behavior moving forward.

As a parent, I tend to think the discipline process works in the reverse when there is a aggressive behavior. When a child hits their sibling or a friend on a playdate, I would start the discipline with that logical negative consequence. Once served, I’d work my way back through the empathy or positive intent, and back through a conversation about choices. The reason is, I want this to register differently to the child than discipline for other behaviors. If in response to other behaviors, you work in order from I messages and empathy to ending with consequence language, it may help to limit the aggressive behavior by starting with the consequence.

Here is a link to previous blog posts that goes into more detail about the Steps of Positive Discipline: https://parentingbydrrene.com/?s=steps.

In addition to the steps, it can also be helpful to include other-oriented consequences. This would be saying things like, “look how sad your friend is. He doesn’t like getting hit.” This is meant to help your child realize the impact their behavior has on other people.

Part Two: Coaching Out of the Moment
When you have to discipline a behavior often, part of the answer is in coaching the wanted behavior. This can be done a bit in the moment, but is more effective to coach when all is well. Coaching includes:

  • Reading Children’s Storybooks – This includes No More Hitting for Little Hamster by and Hands are Not for Hitting by Agassi.
  • Telling Your Own Stories – If you’re creative, make up your own stories about how to be gentle and why.
  • Asking Hypotheticals – This is asking your child “what if” questions related to the behavior of concern. In this case, that might be asking, “what if you and a friend were playing cars, and your friend took a car you were playing with, what would you do?” Follow that with a conversation about their answers and best ways to react.
  • Role Playing – When things go poorly, go back and role play the situation with your child striving for better outcomes.
  • Puppet Shows – This is a lot like role playing, but it may capture the child’s attention in a bigger way. Again, focus on positive behaviors and outcomes.
  • Drawing Pictures of It Going Well – If your child likes art, this may be another way to coach behaviors. Draw pictures of it going well or make cartoons of their scenarios.

Yes, all of this takes time and effort, and this tends to be more helpful than discipline alone.

A Friend’s Child is Aggressive

Dear Dr. Rene,

I am feeling stuck in a difficult situation. I have three children under five years old, and have been fortunate to be friends with our neighbor who has four children, three in the same age range. It was a great situation, we live so close and the kids enjoyed playing together. Unfortunately, one of her children has been diagnosed with special needs and has become increasingly aggressive towards my children in the last year. When the kids first became friends, he was only aggressive towards his own siblings, but now it is towards my kids, and it’s often. Recently, he pushes, scratches, headbutts, hits or kicks my oldest every time they play together. The behavior is impulsive and erratic, most times my child isn’t doing anything to provoke, and it can happen with an adult right beside them. One minute they are playing, the next he is pushing or scratching. The most frustrating thing is that my oldest (who has been the repeated victim) head butted his own younger sibling yesterday, something I never thought would happen. I don’t want my children hurt, and I don’t want them learning the behavior. I am also fearful this child is really going to hurt someone. My concern is such that I don’t want my children to play with this aggressive child. How do I handle things with the neighbor? What do I tell my son about the aggression, so he’s not confused by being hurt by a playmate and doesn’t learn the bad behavior? Also, I am fine with the other children in the family, they all play nicely. Can I invite just them? We’ve become good friends with the neighbors ourselves and go out together and celebrate occasions together. Is there a way to keep the other relationships and avoid play with the one who is having such difficulty and seems to be getting worse?

Sincerely,

Concerned Mom of Three

Dear Concerned,

There are so many questions here with lots of options. Your primary concern is and should be your own children, their safety and what they are learning from these incidents. Part of the message they are getting rests in the follow-up that happens when this child is aggressive. Are you or the other parent addressing the behavior? Some parents give up as it happens so often and chalk it up to how kids play. If this is the case, your child is learning that behavior gets a pass. If the mom is addressing well each time with consequences and coaching how to play nicely often, hopefully your child is also seeing this piece to understand it is an unwanted or unacceptable behavior. If you continue to play as things are, I think you’ll need to address with the mom how this should be handled each time. Ask that it be consistently addressed when the children are playing together. Be sure you are both comfortable with being able to follow through. Even with a consistent follow through, your children are learning from his behavior. That they see aggression in play makes it more available as a behavior to try themselves.

If you choose to continue the play, you might try to change the play that is available. Children tend to be more aggressive in unstructured open play. You might limit play to field trips, bowling or movies. When they are at the house, you might invite them over for painting on big paper then snack and goodbyes. The idea is to fill their time rather than just go play. We had a relative whose child was particularly aggressive when the girls were little. We talked about it and for a few years opted to just get together for outings rather than open play. Honestly, there were hurt feelings, but a few years later we were able to go back to regular play.

You might also have one parent “shadow” him. In our preschool shadowing would mean one teacher stays within arms reach. This is so they might see it coming and be able to intervene early or at least stop it quickly if it starts. The idea would be to allow play but be watching and close at all times.

You and mom might also look for triggers and cues for the aggression. While you say it seems to happen out of the blue, likely there are things that set him off and signs he gives before the aggression. Triggers might be another child having a toy he wants, being told no, very close physical play or having to wait. Triggers are the things that set him off, and, if you can learn what they are, you have a better chance to intervene. Cues are signs he’s about to be aggressive. Some children get tense shoulders, others get a wild look in their eyes or their voice goes up a notch. The idea is to look and listen for cues and intervene on the cue rather than the behavior that follows.

All this is a lot of effort and assumes you are going to continue the play. I think you are also perfectly reasonable to decide to end the play at least for now. If this is the case, you can offer to maintain the play with the other children in the family, but be prepared for the mom to decline. It may be too difficult for her to separate her children this way. You can also suggest keeping the parent relationship going, but again this may be declined.

Either way you go with the above, you will have to speak with the mom. When you do, this avoid blaming her or her children. Talk about your concerns for the safety of all, that your children have started being more aggressive with each other recently, and you are working to curb that. Or, you could just opt to let this whole relationship go quietly. This means to stop making the invites and politely decline when invitations are made.  Eventually, she may push you for an explanation and giving that is up to you.

I hope something in here is helpful.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Aggression from Other Children

Dear Dr. Rene,
Recently I asked my husband’s best friend’s three-and-a-half-year-old daughter to stop pushing our one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, her mother got upset. Her response was that the children have to learn to resolve the matter themselves. Is it okay to discipline your friend’s children if the parents don’t react to their kids aggressive behaviors towards your own child?
Sincerely,
Katya, Mother of One

Dear Katya,
You did the first thing I would suggest. If another child is aggressive towards your child, and the parent is present, I would ask them for their help. When you do this, be sure to avoid blame language. Stay away from saying things like, “your child is being bad,” or, “don’t you teach her any better?” If there is blame in your language, the other parent is less likely to listen or help. Instead blame yourself or the situation. Say something like, “I am at a bit of a loss here, could you help?” or, “I’m not sure how to best handle this, have you dealt with this before?” You will find some parents are readily helpful. Others, like your friend, aren’t so helpful.

If the other parent isn’t around or is not helpful, I think you are always within reason to speak for your own. This means to address the situation by speaking for your own child rather than disciplining the other. You might say, “ouch, that hurt her! I can’t let her get hurt.” or, “she wasn’t finished with her turn. She’d like that back.” Here, you are modeling the language you want your child to be using in the future. It would be good for her to say, “ouch, that hurt! Stop it.” or, “I wasn’t done with that. I’d like it back.” You are erring on the side of speaking for your own without disciplining the other.

I do understand your friend’s idea that children need to learn to work it out on their own and you want to give them some space to develop social skills, BUT when they start hurting each other they are stating very clearly that they don’t yet have the social skills necessary to work this out. When it starts to go poorly, it is still up to parents and teachers to step in, teach the needed social skills and to guide the children through the problem solving process. For sure, this is the case at one and three years old and continues to be the case as children continue to struggle.
Sincerely,
Dr. Rene
www.parentingplaygroups.com
submit questions to blog@parentingplaygroups.com

>Aggressive 2 Year Old

>Dear Dr. Hackney,

I attended your Positive Discipline class. Every time Sean (22 months) goes to hit someone, I say, “Hands down: hitting hurts” while holding his hands down. He seems to find this funny and just laughs every time I do it. Once his hands are free; he hits again. I don’t feel like I am getting anywhere.

No matter how much I practice the “I” messages and empathy, he seems to overlook all that and go for the jugular. For example, he is transitioning to the two’s class at daycare. Today, he was very upset about this, and as soon as we got to the class room, he starting trying to hit a little girl that came over to play with him. I practiced the positive discipline technique described above to no avail. I am realizing that Sean is a very willful child, but I need to be able to rein in this aggressive behavior. Any other ideas would be appreciated.

Thanks,
Jennifer
Mother of one, 22 months

Dear Jennifer,

The I messages and empathy at this little age are to build emotion language and to calm the caregiver. They don’t tend to have a big impact on behavior until a bit later (3s) when children better understand their impact on others and reflect a bit on behavior. With that said, keep using the language because eventually you want him to use the language rather than the hitting, so he benefits from the continued modeling.

Right now, it is curbing such as “hands down” in a firm tone. If you can get in front of the behavior so to curb before it happens each time all the better; this means, expect it rather than be surprised. You could be coaching him as he approaches another to “be gentle.”

The idea is also to coach and practice the better behaviors out of the moment when no one is hurting. So, tonight when you tuck him in, you might say, “I am touching you in a gentle way. Be gentle,” while you touch his arm softly. Then say, “Can you touch mommy gentle?” (Hopefully) “Yes, that’s gentle! I like when you are gentle.” You are actively teaching a gentle touch. Do this every few days with similar language, and then start to incorporate that language as you coach in the moment; as he approaches a new friend, you might say, “Be gentle, gentle touches,” and, hopefully, you are ready to say, “Hands down,” and curb before it actually occurs. But you can’t really start that and expect it to be effective until he gets the basic concept.

You might also add a bit of a consequence, such as when the hitting does happen to immediately move away from the activity at hand. Your language of consequence may be lost on him at that moment, but the actual follow through if it happens consistently may help to lessen the behavior. This means, if he hits someone in the block center, he is moved out and away from that center, sending the message “if you hit you must move to a different activity.”

Sincerely,
Rene Hackney, PhD.
http://www.parentingplaygroups.com/

>Hitting at 22 months

>Dear Dr. Hackney,

I attended your Positive Discipline class. Every time Sean (22 months) goes to hit someone, I say, “Hands down: hitting hurts” while holding his hands down. He seems to find this funny and just laughs every time I do it. Once his hands are free; he hits again. I don’t feel like I am getting anywhere.

No matter how much I practice the “I” messages and empathy, he seems to overlook all that and go for the jugular. For example, he is transitioning to the two’s class at daycare. Today, he was very upset about this, and as soon as we got to the class room, he starting trying to hit a little girl that came over to play with him. I practiced the positive discipline technique described above to no avail. I am realizing that Sean is a very willful child, but I need to be able to rein in this aggressive behavior. Any other ideas would be appreciated.

Thanks,
Jennifer, mother of son age 22 months

Hi Jennifer,

The I messages and empathy at this little age are to build emotion language and to calm the caregiver. They don’t tend to have a big impact on behavior until a bit later (3s) when children better understand their impact on others and reflect a bit on behavior. With that said, keep using the language because eventually you want him to use the language rather than the hitting, so he benefits from the continued modeling.

Right now, it is curbing such as “hands down” in a firm tone. If you can get in front of the behavior so to curb before it happens each time all the better; this means, expect it rather than be surprised.

You could be coaching him as he approaches another to “be gentle.” The idea is to first coach and practice the better behaviors out of the moment when no one is hurting. So, tonight when you tuck him in, you might say, “I am touching you in a gentle way. Be gentle,” while you touch his arm softly. Then say, “Can you touch mommy gentle?” (Hopefully) “Yes, that’s gentle! I like when you are gentle.” You are actively teaching a gentle touch. Do this every few days with similar language, and then start to incorporate that language as you coach in the moment; as he approaches a new friend, you might say, “Be gentle, gentle touches,” and, hopefully, you are ready to say, “Hands down,” and curb before it actually occurs. But you can’t really start that and expect it to be effective until he gets the basic concept.

You might also add a bit of a consequence, such as when the hitting does happen to immediately move away from the activity at hand. Your language of consequence may be lost on him at that moment, but the actual follow through if it happens consistently may help to lessen the behavior. This means, if he hits someone in the block center, he is moved out and away from that center, sending the message “if you hit you must move to a different activity.”

Sincerely,
Rene Hackney, PhD.
Parenting Playgroups, Inc.

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