Of all of the negative behaviors that a child could have, aggression seems to be the one that upsets adults the most. When a child is aggressive—either at home or in the classroom—parents and teachers have to stay nearby, predicting the next event that is going to set the child off, in order to prevent the child from hurting others in his vicinity.
When aggressive and violent behaviors occur in the classroom, teachers are typically quick to use a behavioral modification approach that might include punishment to discourage the aggressive behavior, and rewards to incentivize the child to use more appropriate, non-aggressive behaviors. Research indicates that using approaches likes these for negative behaviors can be very effective.
But for aggressive behavior, punishing the child for aggressive behaviors or rewarding the child for positive behaviors can be very counterproductive—and even harmful and confusing to the child—if the reason behind the aggressive behavior isn’t targeted first.
If a child lives in a neighborhood where gang violence is prevalent, he may have learned to protect himself and his possessions through aggressive behaviors and no amount of punishment by the teacher is going to stop him from responding in this way.
If a child lives in a home where domestic violence occurs daily and she has made it her duty to protect her little sister from the danger that she has witnessed her mom endure on a daily basis, then no amount of stickers will encourage her to decrease aggressive behavior when she or her sister is threatened.
If a child is using aggressive behaviors and none of your discipline techniques seem to be working—like time out, incentive charts, or providing natural consequences, perhaps it is time to take a look at some other ways to encourage non-aggressive behavior that are not punitive or incentivizing, but instead supportive and informational.
#1 Role Model/Create an Aggression-Free Environment
Many times—although not all the time—children who are demonstrating aggressive behavior in the classroom have witnessed aggressive and violent acts at home or in their neighborhood. This doesn’t have to be severe, like domestic violence (although it can be); instead, it can be excessive exposure to older children who like to wrestle, violent TV shows and movies, or witnessing other events that suggest that using aggression and violence is the right way to act.
A child who watches his dad play sports and get into fist fights on a regular basis is likely to use his fists to handle disagreements at preschool.
A child who has witnessed domestic violence at her home may use violence to protect herself and her toys when she is startled at school.
And a child who watches his older brother play video games that involve physical violence in order to “win” is likely to incorporate similar themes into his play with other children.
When regular role-modeling of aggressive themes takes place at home or at another location where the child frequents, using consequences like time outs and incentive charts may not be effective because the aggression—and the influence of aggression—can have a much more consistent role in the life of the child than the consequences will have. And in cases of gang violence, domestic violence and other threats to the safety of the child, using aggression has become a way of protection, the method by which the child is able to ensure his safety.
To role-model and set up an environment that promotes non-aggressive ways of interacting, look around at all of the images and information that the child could experience on a daily basis and make changes to anything that could be influencing aggressive acts.
If you tend to be someone who fights for what he believes in, try fighting with respectful words instead of fists in order to set a better example for the child. If your family watches the evening news, try recording the news and watching it once the child has gone to bed, instead of exposing the child to images of crime and violence. If you have a gaming system in the house, check the ratings closely and even play the games before letting the child play them (or watch someone else play them) to ensure that they do not include aggressive and violent themes.
While some children can handle watching violent movies and playing violent video games without incorporating those themes into their lives, others cannot and they need adults to protect them from these aggressive themes, because they won’t have the willpower to do it themselves.
Aggressive behaviors are common in the toddlerhood years. Children at this age are very selfish and use aggression like biting, hitting and scratching to let others know when their needs have been infringed upon. Children at this age have no concept of empathy, so their aggressive acts are age-appropriate behaviors.
By the preschool years, children are starting to develop the capacity for empathy. Whether through guidance from an adult, or simply by their own skills, they may start to recognize that their actions cause others to get hurt, cry or become upset in some other way. Some kids learn this quickly and want to avoid actions like this because they don’t like making others feel hurt. Other kids may have a more difficult time in recognizing how their actions affect others (and actually care about it!)
Some kids may struggle with developing empathy simply because of skill deficits. Perhaps they aren’t as attuned to the feelings of others and they need specific instructions and reminders from adults to help connect their actions with the reactions of others. These kids are excellent candidates for social skills training.
Social skills training can include concepts such as:
-Being a good friend
-Using kind words
-Using nice touches
Social skills training can take place individually (i.e. a one-on-one conversation with the child) or in a group setting (i.e. a structured group lesson that addresses these topics).
If you are interested in more ways to provide social skills training for one child, check out some of my other blogs like Prepping Kids for Events, How to Teach Kids to Listen, and Teaching Kids to Listen Safely. You can use some of the techniques that I discuss in those blogs and incorporate some of these social skills themes.
If you would like to learn more about social skills training for a group of children, check out the services that I have available for child care and educational programs.
Social skills training like this will be helpful to all kids who struggle with aggression, and will even be helpful to kids who are already showing positive behaviors. But for the kids who witness and experience violence on a daily basis, especially those kids who witness their parents using violence regularly, social skills training is likely not going to be enough. In fact, social skills training might even be confusing for them because it conflicts with the role model and/or example that they have been watching for so long.
If you have concerns that a child is demonstrating aggressive behaviors and you personally do not have the ability to make any—or any more—changes to make the child’s environment non-aggressive, then getting the child involved in counseling may be the next logical step.