A few years ago I had a four-year-old in my room- let's call him Bailey- who had a pretty woeful family background. His mum and dad fought violently and constantly, splitting up and reuniting on an almost weekly basis.
Bailey could be the most affectionate and delightful child, but he could also be a holy terror. His parents had modelled a very clear example of how to deal with problems: shout, scream, and then hit. In his experience, violence was a first-resort coping mechanism which had few down-sides, because after a short while all would be forgiven.
Naturally, this caused a few problems in the preschool domain, because oddly enough the other children didn't react the same way to being hit. They tended to hit back, complain to the teacher (which resulted in truly annoying time-out, which Bailey didn't really understand- that wasn't what happened at home!!) or cry and hold grudges against him. Bailey would cheerfully say sorry- he saw that all the time at his house, and it had always worked- but of course he never changed his ways. Controlling his anger wasn't something that had ever been modelled to him.
By the time I left that job, I had made Bailey aware of the problem in his dispute resolution process and he was, with prompting, able to restrain himself from hitting the other children and deal with his anger in a more socially acceptable way. Here's the method I used.
1. NEVER single out a child when you start teaching behaviour management. Teach the whole group. The peer response will create significant momentum towards the right behaviour.
I always use group times (often called mat times or circle times) to teach social behaviours in the first instance.
2. Base your 'script' very loosely on something negative that has really happened within the group. The children concerned will probably recognise the scenario without ever feeling they're being attacked in public.
In Bailey's case, I had many scenarios to choose from! Snatching a toy... rejecting someone from a play group... bullying... hitting when angry... I would prepare a two-person script in my head which named no names, but was based on a very recent event.
3. Start by using puppets to role-play your real-life situation- when a child really has no idea of what the problem is, you need to be completely non-threatening by NOT using him or his peers to act out a situation. Make it an engaging entertainment, not a challenge to their coping mechanisms.
So for example, I might start with Tassie Devil snatching a toy from Anna Kangaroo and Anna hitting him.
Teacher: Stop, Anna! You can't hit Devil! Go and sit in time out till you're ready to say sorry!
Anna: But he snatched my dinosaur!
Teacher: It doesn't matter what he did, Anna. It's NOT okay to hit him. (exit Anna, sobbing) Devil, you know that snatching's not the right thing to do either. What do you need to do when you want something?
4. Make your script interactive- allow the children to contribute, make them think. So that's your cue in the script to let the kids in- Devil can't remember what to do when he wants a turn.
Teacher: Can anyone help Devil? What should he do instead of snatching?
You will get all sorts of responses- discuss them with the kids, then tell Devil clearly what to do (eg 'use your words to ask for a turn, then wait'). Then let the puppets take over again.
Teacher: Okay Devil, what are you going to do now?
Devil: Ummm... I s'pose I'd better say sorry. (yells to nobody in particular) SORRY ANNA! Now can I go play?
Teacher: No, don't shout, silly- you need to go over to her, say her name so you know she's listening, and look at her eyes when you say sorry. And then could you please tell Anna to come here? I need to talk to her.
Devil (disappears, but you can hear him say the following): Anna? Sorry I snatched. Next time I'll use my words and ask for a turn. And Aunt Annie said she wants to talk to you now.
5. Identify the feeling, then teach an effective coping method to the puppets.
Teacher: Anna, you were angry when you hit Devil, weren't you?
Anna: YES! He snatched!
Teacher: But you hit him, so YOU were the one who ended up in heaps of trouble. We'd better work out a better way of showing you're angry so you don't get into trouble. Can I help you with that?
Anna: Umm... okay....
Teacher: Alright- when something bad happens that makes you angry, I want you to STOP (use hand sign) and FOLD YOUR ARMS. (Anna crosses her paws) Very good! If your arms are folded you CAN'T hit anyone, so you won't get into trouble.
Anna: But I'm still ANGRY!
Teacher: Yes, I know, but it's okay- we haven't finished yet. Now, BREATHE in really fast like this- and out slowly like this. (demonstrate). One..... two.... three. Okay? Let's try it together- help her, everyone!
Everyone: (3 deep breaths- in fast, out slowly)
Teacher: Great work! Now... how do you feel inside? Are you still angry?
Anna: Mmm... yes, a bit... do I need to do another three breaths?
Teacher: A little bit angry is okay, but you just need to calm down enough to talk instead of hitting. Can you talk now?
Teacher: Good. Next, you need to use your words and tell Devil that you're angry because he snatched. Keep your arms folded, because that LOOKS angry!
Anna: Devil? (Devil reappears) I'm really angry because you snatched my dinosaur. Give it back, please!
Devil: Sorry Anna... here it is.
Anna: Thanks. Oh, and I'm sorry I hit you.
Devil: That's okay. Can we be friends again now?
6. Teach a song or chant to reinforce the lesson. I used the song 'If You're Happy and you Know It', but the 'angry verse' was changed to:
If you're angry and you know it, fold your arms (x2),
If you're angry and you know it, then be careful how you show it!
If you're angry and you know it, fold your arms.
7. Revisit the lesson at every opportunity. I re-ran different angry scenarios with the same method every day for a week (partly to make sure that every child in the room had heard the method), until the children were actually running it for me and telling Devil and Anna what to do to stay friends. We also sang the 'angry' verse each day.
By the end of the week, when Bailey lost his temper all I had to do was say 'BAILEY! Stop and BREATHE!' and he would immediately fold his arms and do it.