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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Standing in the shoes of a preschool bully

I've had another request for help from a reader, and I'd like to share my thoughts with you all. It's a pretty common problem, and it's an important one to nip in the bud. Most of us who've worked in childcare have had to deal with a preschooler who is demonstrating unacceptably antisocial behaviour while in care- behaviour that we would identify as bullying in an older child.

It's terribly frustrating. It can make us very angry on behalf of the children who are being hurt or frightened. But I want to put you into the shoes of the preschooler who acts like a bully, because understanding is the only way you will fix this problem. Maybe that child can't empathise with his peers- but somehow, you will have to find a way to empathise with that child and to offer him love and compassion if you want to find a solution. You have to work with him, not against him.

My reader, who I'll call 'Polly', asks:

I work in a small child care centre and there is a particular child who I will call Henry (not his real name). Henry has just turned 4, is quite intelligent and mature in his ability to converse and is the youngest of 4 children, but we have a lot of problems with controlling his bullying.

Let's stop right there, because I see two important markers already which could set the stage for problem behaviours.

First, Henry has strong verbal and conversational skills at age 4, which may mean he is gifted. That can be a danger sign for social skill development, as gifted children are often asynchronous- a term which just means that their development is uneven. 

In this case, perhaps Henry's intellectual age is way beyond his social age. That asynchrony can cause outbursts of inappropriate behaviour, as small children struggle with strong emotions, complex thoughts and a deep feeling that they don't belong within their peer group. (You can read more about gifted preschoolers and their problems here.) 

Polly and her colleagues have the chance to make a difference here- not by 'controlling' Henry's undesirable behaviour through externally applied punishments, but by striving to understand what's making Henry act out, and then treating the cause rather than the symptoms.

Next, Henry is the youngest of four. It's almost certain that he's had bullying behaviour modelled to him somewhere, because children are such great mirrors of what's around them- and with youngest children, that bullying can often be from older siblings, particularly when those siblings come in numbers. At this age 'bullying' is not an intentional activity; it's a copied one. (You can read about another case of bullying between siblings here.)

But back to Polly's query:

He is tall and muscular for his age, and towers over the other children, and often purposefully intimidates the smaller children by standing over them, pulling angry faces, getting into their personal space and making loud noises. One little girl is so scared of him that she has burst into tears just seeing him at the other end of the play equipment, without him even doing anything. With the children who do not intimidate as easily he hits, kicks and pushes.

At four years of age this sets off my alarm bells again. Who taught Henry to do this? He has seen it somewhere. This is something for Polly to discuss with Henry's parents. Are his older siblings– or perhaps his cousins, or his neighbourhood playmates at home- unusually boisterous? Have they perhaps been overbearing with him at some stage, or teamed up against him? Does he fight with them, or is he a target for their teasing? (Heaven forbid, is this how Henry's father treats his mother? Stranger things have happened.)

Polly doesn't say whether she has spoken to Henry's parents about his behaviour, but I think this is something that must happen. She could explain to Henry's parents that these antisocial behaviours are learned, and that it's very important that any bullying that he's suffering or witnessing himself outside of care must be addressed and stopped. She could point out that if people around him shout at each other, he will think shouting is acceptable. If people hit or push or get overly physical in Henry's presence, he will copy that behaviour in other social contexts.

Yesterday this was happening a lot so I sat him down to talk, and asked him why. Eventually he told me that he didn't want anyone else to be there (at the centre).

Bonus points to Polly for using Henry's strong communication skills to include him as she starts addressing the problem. External 'solutions' never work. You can't just apply a punitive bandaid to emotional problems and hope they'll be fixed; the child must have a voice and some form of agency in the way forward. Polly has a head start because Henry is able to express himself clearly.

But this is a slightly odd revelation from Henry, isn't it? It bears further examination. Many possibilities present themselves which might explain him not wanting the other children to be there. Here are the ones that strike me at once.

1. If Henry doesn't want the other children to be there, perhaps he craves more individual attention. If he can't get it be being good, he'll settle for negative attention. Is he getting enough attention at home, or does he perhaps feel invisible compared to his older siblings? He's making himself VERY visible at care!

2. Perhaps he simply doesn't feel that he's part of this childcare community, and so resents the other children who do seem to fit in. That can happen with gifted children. They can feel completely isolated. That causes big feelings, and big feelings tend to explode.

3. Perhaps the other children's normal play irritates him beyond bearing. He may have a sensory sensitivity- excessive noise may 'set him off'.

4. Maybe he is a child who simply likes to play alone. Children like this, who are suddenly plunged into a crowded room full of other kids all day at childcare, sometimes react quite extremely.

5. Maybe he doesn't understand how to enter play and get the other children's attention in a positive way; he's trying to join play by hitting and shouting. Well, that's getting him into trouble and not working anyway- so he wants the problem (the presence of the other children) to just go away.

6. Maybe he simply finds his peers too babyish and boring; that's a common feeling amongst gifted children. Often they love being with the adults, but resent being categorised with less intellectually developed children. Imagine if you were forced to be with teenagers all day and told to fit into their social group and talk only about what interested them. How would you go? Would you perhaps behave badly out of frustration?

So I don't really have enough information here, and maybe neither does Polly. She could bring this subject up again with Henry, and ask him why he doesn't want the other children to be there. He'll remember the conversation- you bet he will. And I bet he'll be delighted to know that she was listening, and has been thinking about him.

If he has trouble explaining why, Polly could suggest some of these possibilities to him in simpler language. 

Are the other kids too silly or too babyish? 

Are they too noisy? 

Does Henry not like the things they say, or the games they play? 

Would he rather have the teachers playing with him and talking to him, instead of having to share the teachers with the other kids? 

Would he rather play on his own? 

Does he want to play with the others and they won't let him? 

And so on.

Depending on his response, she will have more information to help her to work out a solution. She must of course continue to explain that she can NOT let him hit and scare the other children, but she can request his help in achieving this. Does he have any ideas about what Polly could do to make him feel better, so he doesn't need to do those things?

Also depending on his response, Henry might benefit from some targeted social skills lessons (which can be done with the whole group). Just teaching children who aren't 'relating' to look at another child's eyes, smile at them and say 'hello (name)' can make a big difference when children enter play. I use puppets to teach this skill- most children can learn and perform the ritual with a puppet, as it is so non-threatening- and I then move on to asking all the children to greet the teacher like that, before asking them to do it with a peer. From there, I add 'Can I please play with you?' to the script when they try to enter play. A few weeks of role playing like this at mat time, and the majority of the children will pick up stronger social skills.

I explained that the other children’s Mummy's and Daddy's had left them here so that they could go to work or get some jobs done at home and that we (the staff) had to take care of all of the children and that's why it makes me sad when he hits or kicks them. This seemed to get through to him a little better than other approaches have (asking him to apologise, explaining that he is scaring or hurting someone and making them sad, sitting on a chair for a few minutes etc.) and he stopped for a while, but the intimidation act is ongoing and when it comes to strategies for this I am at a loss.

The fact that a little bit of explanation and reasoning worked, if only in the short term, suggests to me yet again that Henry is perhaps brighter than Polly might have realised. Most 4-yr-olds simply don't respond particularly well to sophisticated explanations like this.

As for the 'other approaches' that have been tried- punishment is not something that fixes the problem when a child has big feelings that he needs to express. 

He won't apologise, or will resent having to do so, because he's not sorry

He can't empathise with the other children's pain, because he's still too young in social terms to have developed fellow-feeling, and he doesn't like the other children anyway; they're not his friends. 

Time out just removes him from this community even more, and breeds more resentment in his heart.

I would definitely stop using all these strategies, and continue to converse with him. I'll explain a specific strategy to deal with the violence later on.

Other children that act out in our centre often do so out of boredom, and once they are interested in something the behaviour stops, but with Henry it is an ongoing, almost constant behaviour,...

What are Henry's interests? He must have some! Polly can ask him; she can ask her colleagues; she can ask his parents.

And then she could try providing a much more advanced level of activity, based on that interest, than one might think is appropriate for a 4-year-old. Boredom is relative; if he's gifted, ALL the activities in a 4-yr-old classroom may bore him to tears. Polly's right- engaging Henry in a positive activity is vital to solving the problem. Right now, he's telling her that nothing in the room interests him as much as pressing the other children's buttons.

...and yet when he is wants to be he can be the sweetest little boy, helping the babies and explaining things to other children etc. and I always praise this behaviour but it seems to happen less and less. I am just lost for what to do with him.

Now, there's another clue. When Henry is helping Polly, or 'teaching' other children- i.e., taking a more adult role in the room- he feels better about himself, behaves better and so is suddenly perceived as a sweet child. That's another sign of giftedness; the child aligns himself with the teachers, not with the children. It's this part of Polly's enquiry that makes me feel that Henry is not suffering from some sort of diagnosable condition, despite his lack of emotional connection with the other children. He can be kind to the other children when he takes the role of an older person. THAT is how he best fits in.

Polly needs to pick that positive up and run with it. How can Henry help within the room? Can he help to choose what toys will go out today? Can he help to plan some activities? Polly could ask him what he thinks the other children would like to do today, and go along with some of his ideas. (He might surprise her.) She could treat him a little bit more like an older child and give him some leadership roles. She could ask him to help hand out resources, or plates and cutlery at meal time. She could offer him challenges and responsibilities, like making a certain play area look inviting to the other children or choosing a theme for the week based on his interests.

Now, to some strategies for when he's imploding. What about those many times when Henry loses control and starts to hit, kick, push or frighten other children?There is a peaceful and productive way to deal with this without alienating Henry or putting other children at risk, but it's not an instant fix. It needs consistency and total calmness. Polly must teach this strategy to ALL the staff in her room.

There is to be NO yelling, NO time out, NO forced apologies; focus simply on stopping the unacceptable behaviour, not on shaming or punishing the child. That hasn't worked. (The definition of insanity is to go on doing the same thing and expecting a different result!)

The moment Henry starts to hit, kick or frighten others, remove him physically from the situation (firmly but kindly, of course!) to a quiet spot and take both his hands in yours.

Get down on his level, still holding his hands. Make eye contact.

Say to him firmly but quietly, “Henry, I won't let you hit (or kick/shout/push). When you touch (or speak to) other people, use gentle hands (or a quiet voice).”

Then demonstrate what you want physically, by calmly unclenching his fist and stroking his hand gently over your arm or by drawing his attention to how you are speaking- in a quiet, calm voice.

If he is still struggling, hold him firmly so he can't run back and terrorise the other children and say calmly “I can see that you're having trouble with some really big feelings. I am going to hold you and be here for you until you feel better. I won't let you hurt/scare the other children.”

Another alternative is to offer him another way to get rid of the big feelings. “I won't let you hit other people. You can hit/kick this cushion/this punching bag if you need to hit/kick.” Or, “If you need to shout we will go outside for a moment.”

Polly and her colleagues have to stop changing strategies; they all have to show him the boundary clearly and calmly, and enforce it quickly and efficiently every time. The aim of the game is to stop him hurting and scaring others, not to moralise. Meltdown time is no time for discussion of why he's doing it or how it makes the teachers' jobs harder. He's doing it because he feels bad inside, and he doesn't know how else to relieve that feeling. The adults need to be on his side, be there for him and help him regain control.

By following this strategy, the staff will help Henry to feel safe and teach him the rules of this community without violence or shame. By talking with him in non-meltdown moments about what to do to make him feel better, and so addressing his special needs- and every preschool 'bully' has a special need of some sort- we can give Henry the message that he is important, worthwhile and understood, which will help him feel he's part of this little community.

At four, a 'bully' needs both compassion and firm boundaries. The teachers might get hit or kicked a few times. They must try not to react. Remember who's the grown-up here! Take deep breaths, stay calm and remember that Henry really needs you.

Henry and every other preschool 'bully' need adult help to make sense of their worlds. Polly and her colleagues have an opportunity to be a life-changing force in Henry's development, but they won't be able to do that unless they start looking much more closely at what Henry's behaviour is telling them about how he feels while he's in their classroom. As usual with any discipline problem, the answer starts with relationship and understanding, and ends with loving but clear boundaries.


  1. Aunt Annie,

    You give me hope and perspective. I know another little boy who is eldest of two boys and has some similar issues, resulting in visits to "specialists" to identify any diagnosable issues. I believe that he is gifted and combined with a history of always being given a lot of attention, he has quickly learned how to achieve that result from pre-school staff. He also, when asked about his day at pre-school, consistently tells a fantastical story about only him and teachers being at school on that particular day (what a wonderful day that would be for him).
    All that Taken into account, have previously written, or do you have advice on how to gently imbue upon him the understanding that he cannot always have an adult "playmate" to shadow him through the the day (in preparation for Kindergarten where this is just not possible) as pre-school have even suggested a carer. Thank you for your great suggestions and experience toward the little people.

    1. Thanks, Leaded. I'm glad you've taken a positive away from this.

      Loneliness is a terribly hard thing for a small child to have to experience. Loneliness within a crowd, combined with the disapproval of the adults the child longs to connect with, is even harder. Can you feel that in your heart? Once you understand how this child feels, you can address those feelings with him. There is absolutely no point in trying to explain how events will unfold for him in the future (ie, he can't always have an adult companion at school) without addressing the big feelings this child is experiencing underneath the bad behaviour.

      Once you have identified that a child is feeling isolated, you can check out the feelings with him. Try to use storytelling if you can, from your own experience, and ask about his feelings rather than telling him.

      "You seem to like being with me better than being with the other kids. Can we talk about that?"

      "Sometimes when I'm with lots of people, but nobody there is my friend, I can feel very alone. Is that how you feel when you're at preschool?"

      "Is that why you always want to be with the adults- are we better friends than the kids?"

      If you can start that dialogue, it leaves you an opening to reassure him: even when you're doing things with the other children, you're still there for him emotionally. Again, it's terribly important to have appropriate activities that engage him and that he is motivated to do on his own.

      To simply explain that you can't always be with him, without dealing with the feelings of abandonment that would accompany such a statement, would likely precipitate an explosion of some kind. Gifted children who feel isolated really do need the lifeline that adults provide. The answer lies in acknowledging their feelings, then working on their ability to play and explore alone- not in forcing them to integrate with peers who are years younger than them in intellectual age.

  2. Well in my personal experience, I could forsee my child being a dominant and demanding child because of her speaking skills and tried warning the carers about it. I asked them to give her clear and consistent messages about sharing toys, being considerate of others about 6 months ago. I was labelled as being pushy mum and strict parenting. So now they have a huge problem, b'coz my little one is too bored to play with others and gets frustrated when she's asked to socialize or share with other kids. (b'coz this contradicts the earlier messages she received from the carers. I think in Henry case this might be true. Catching the signs early could have avoided this problem all together.
    In My case I have just told them to be consistent with what they say and do in front of our little one and also to have a good adult like conversation explaining cause and effect for things. Rather than just expecting her to follow your orders. This seems to be working since last week. But its frustrating to have to advocate for my child at the centre after every 4-5 months.

    1. Hi Akshaya. Oh how I hate it when labels are applied to concerned parents and 'different' children.

      Perhaps you could point your daughter's carers to this post to read? But of course they have to be willing to listen. If they are not, you could take it on yourself to talk to your daughter about her feelings while she's in care and see if you can work out some strategies with her to help make her time there more pleasant- for her as well as for her carers. Gifted children are far too good at perceiving intellectually how to manipulate adults when they're unhappy with the status quo, so if you can break through the 'crust' of intellect and uncover the feelings that lie beneath, you are on a winner. Good luck!

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  4. This is a wonderful post, AA. Yet again you've demonstrated how quality education and care requires more than simple rote responses. It requires the educator to THINK, to feel, and to respond to the child as an individual.

    One thing that gets to me is how such young children are being labelled by educators and parents. Henry is not "a bully". Henry is a 4 year old with some challenging behaviours, but he is not "a bully".

    Bullying is something older children do, and they do it consciously (for a myriad of reasons, many completely understandable). But I sincerely do not believe that 4 year olds "bully", because they simply don't have the cognitive sophistication necessary to do so.

    They are children with issues and behaviours and they need our help because without help they may well become bullies. But right now they are not (in my view) "bullies". They are just little children who need the sort of sophisticated and nuanced assistance that you suggest in this wonderful post.


    1. That's an important point, Alec. If readers would like to know more about this, I dealt with it in one of my very early posts here:

      I totally agree with you.

  5. Hi Aunt Annie! After I replied to you on our regular post (lol) I had to tell you this- after reading your post (and fresh out of yesterday's tantrums during play group) I asked my son some of those questions you mention above. The one answer that stood out and spoke volumes was to the question," who do you like to play with in the group?" He promptly answered, "you"
    And that's when I realized the beauty of this post. It truly comes from a genuine heart, that really understands kids.
    Thank you!


    1. Thank you.

      What a great kid. Honest, you know. Love that. And sure of himself.

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