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Saturday, August 20, 2011

No danger money: dealing with violent preschoolers

Meet 'Talon', aged 5. He's had a truly horrendous childhood. It's involved all sorts of abusive parenting and inappropriate modelling. He's the sort of kid who would be instantly labelled as 'violent' or 'aggressive' (see Teacher Tom's splendid post about this) by those who haven't thought about it very hard.

Talon will strike out the moment he's frustrated, and he's big enough to hurt you, even if you're a teacher. And so most teachers (and many of the children) keep a certain amount of distance from him, especially when his fuse has been lit.  But of course teachers need to intervene before he flattens the child who just took 'his' bike- the one he had over there, for when he wanted to ride it again- or the one who has hold of the toy he wants right now. And many of them still try to keep their distance, though fortunately a few of them have discovered the same safe and effective method that I'm about to let you in on.

Because I'm a casual, most other staff members tend to assume that I haven't a clue about Talon. A few weeks ago he was beating up on another child (actually he was about to strangle them with a skipping rope, though I'm sure he had no idea that this would be the result of what he was doing), and when I rushed over to intervene, a few of these staff members saw me and tried to rush over themselves to warn me not to get too close. Talon had landed one blow on me before they got there, but I was expecting that and had braced myself; you don't get danger money for working in childcare, but sometimes you have to expect to get punched if you're doing your job properly.

You could almost hear their brakes squealing as they watched what happened next.

You see, I've made it my business to form a relationship with Talon, just as I have with every other 'troublesome' (read 'troubled') child in the centres I visit. Here are the three things you need to do to deal effectively with a child who's been given the 'violent, aggressive' label.

1. Form a positive relationship.

That takes time. I'd taken the time already with Talon, though these other staff weren't watching when I did it. I'd grabbed every opportunity that presented itself for positive interactions with him.

2. Get down at the child's eye level.

That's where you have to expect a blow or two and be prepared to catch their hand or just take the odd punch.  And you must NOT look scared or anxious. If you've already done Step 1, that will be quite easy, because forming a positive relationship with a child works both ways; he has many more positive thoughts about you, yes, but you'll find that you are also able to think much more positively about him. (Or, of course, her.) Your whole inner picture of that child changes when you spend the time looking for the good instead of the bad.

3. Drop your voice and talk quietly and with respect.

That takes practice too, because in reality, the last thing you're feeling when a child's about to seriously harm another child is calm and in control. But you have to radiate confidence, not alarm. This is sometimes an effort of will.  Make that effort!

Forget '1, 2, 3, magic'- this approach has the same effect as a tranquilising dart on most out-of-control kids who are used to being yelled at.  It certainly had that effect on Talon, though it took a moment (in which moment he landed a good punch. Ouch!).

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see jaws dropping as I put myself completely in range of Talon's uncontrolled violence. I could hear them calling to warn me, and shouting at Talon (who of course wasn't listening; children who've exploded with rage don't hear things that are yelled at them from across the playground). But getting down on his level was an intentional statement of trust in him, and an intentional statement of confidence that I was the one in control of this situation. It was vital to what happened next.

Talon got it at once. I wasn't scared of him. For heaven's sake, he's 5.  He stopped punching.

The moment I started talking quietly and respectfully to him, I could see the anger leach out of his body.  So could everyone else, which is how come they put the brakes on. There was a sudden silence as they re-thought their preconceptions about a casual teacher's grasp of the 'Talon situation'.

I continued talking to him about what he was doing, how it would end badly for him, and how I trusted him to make the right choice about what he did next. He responded in words now, not blows; still angry and unreasonable, of course, but talking instead of hitting. In the end he did let me take the rope away.

And the next time I walked into his room, he threw himself at me for a hug. Just one of those moments that makes up for the odd punch.

He's a dear little boy really. Damaged, yes, but not beyond redemption.

So I'm with Teacher Tom on this one.  Stop labelling, and start developing a relationship. Start getting down on the child's eye level more, right into that danger zone. Then practise using Janet Lansbury's calm CEO approach when you're really feeling stressed and anxious.

It works.


  1. excellent post. as a mother of child recently dx'd with SPD, this is so important to me. my child is not like talon, but he does have episodes where his environment overwhelms him. yelling at him does not help, it adds to his upset. we are keeping him out of preschool another year, not because he isn't ready, but because i don't have faith in the teachers to understand his needs. i wish more teachers and parents would think about how they deal with children and work toward more respectful relationships.
    p.s. i am a public school teacher, so i also know all too well how many of these children are failed.

  2. Great post! absolutely agree! I find this difficult to articulate to others though and often struggle with adults who want to simply blame the child rather than working on building a relationship and teaching another way of thinking.

  3. Auntie Annie, thank you for this beautiful post, it really touched me. I find it so reassuring and heart warming to know that you and others like you are having your influence in the lives of these very hurt little kids who would otherwise just get sucked in to the vicious cycle of hurt leading to hurt, punishment leading to punishment, those who need the most reassurance gaining the least. This kind of modelling is what brings about the big change, most valuable than all the books on the subject.

    I do some work with early childhood teachers, offering professional development, mostly in courses, but sometimes on the ground support and modelling with the children in a centre and I've had similar experiences as this. It's especially challenging as I'm only there for one day, so I have to build the trust quickly, but even still these little ones respond quickly, then can just seen, feel, sense, hear through my communication that I'm a safe person and they're so relieved to be helped rather than further hurt, to be accepted rather than further rejected and labelled.

    Thank you for doing what you do.

  4. Thank you all for your kind words.

    Please do feel free to pass the link to anyone you think might benefit from it- or to copy and print my 'three steps' to pin up on the wall, to help others to learn some skills around this- especially young teachers who need mentoring and may find these situations really difficult. They don't teach these things in standard ECT courses.

  5. I provide in-home daycare to a couple of girls in my neighborhood. I have 2 girls of my own. The girls are all under 4 years old. One girl I watch is from China and she is speech delayed. Being that I went through a speech delay with my older daughter, I am comfortable dealing with the challenges that arise with such a situation. The other girl I care for is extraordinarily stubborn. One might call her defiant. I have a hard time keeping perspective when dealing with the "defiant" child. What are some strategies I could use when she and I aren't seeing eye to eye?

  6. Your post reminded me of a boy I met years ago when I was a director in a center. He had some impulse-control issues and often was pulled from the classroom and brought to me. One day the teacher brought him screaming into my office, dropping him into a chair, and left without a word. I had no idea what was going on. I spoke his name and he said, "I'm not ready to talk about it." "Okay," I said and went back to my work. He sat for a while to get himself together. "I'm ready," he said. I sat next to him and we talked through what had happened. I knew then that we had made a strong positive connection. I think about him occasionally and wonder if he found positive connections as he grew.

    Thanks for a great post and some great tips.

  7. To 'anonymous, about that defiant child:

    First, you have to look for the good and actively create the good. Find what she loves to do and do it with her, extend that interest, LAUGH with her, read her stories.

    While you're doing that, make sure you're not sweating the small stuff; try not to set up situations where you back her into a corner. Always give her a choice of two options that are realistic and acceptable to you.

    Sometimes that choice will be 'do you want to do it by yourself, or do you want me to help you?' Sometimes the result will be that you pick up a screaming child to 'help' her have a nappy change, or whatever, but if you do this, do it completely calmly.

    If she's the sort who actually hits others or breaks things, you may need to say 'I won't let you do that', CALMLY, and hold her hands still or hold her on your lap until she understands that YOU are in control. This will actually make her feel better, though it won't seem like it at first!

    Persevere with the calm, reasonable, positive approach. Don't let her see that she's upsetting you, as that gives her an uncomfortable sense of power that really, she doesn't want. When you start to feel stressed and upset, give yourself a moment and THINK about how you can give her a choice of two options. BREATHE. Don't approach till you're calm.

    The biggest point with defiant kids is definitely to give them choices. I had a toddler exactly like the one you describe in my group yesterday- the answer to absolutely EVERYTHING was 'NO!' It was hard to keep my cool. But I just stuck with 'No, that's not a choice.' and 'Can you do it yourself or do you want me to help?', and we did get through the day without too many tears. Try it!

  8. :) Thank you, Angel- obviously you 'get it'!

  9. I do Family Day Care and I had a child labelled violent and expelled from two preschools for holding them at ransom with brooms against the wall. Mum was a single parent and needed care as she was working. She thought with my mild manner I would never cope. I was her last hope she said. At the interview he broke my outside garden step lighting by kicking it.
    At the end of the first week mum had wondered what I had done to her child. He was so much calmer and well behaved....a different child she said.
    He was a very intelligent active bright child loving child, who I took the time to love nurture and give choices to. He needed to be challenged cognitively and physically as well, and this boy now 12 still loves his Aunty Urith, and comes to visit after school by walking down himself to say hello. I was trying to think of what he could do and he said to me I just came to see you!!
    Th role as carer, teacher or parent is to connect with children. I hope I have done that with all children.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Urith, the children always tell us (through their actions if not their words) whether we're doing a good job. Clearly, you are! Wonderful story!

  11. Most of the posts are from a couple years ago, but I just found your blog and think you're just a wonderful breath of truth and fresh air. So I would like to bring my problem to you:

    My daughter (32 months) recently learned that she has an incredibly powerful voice.

    When recently visiting her close cousins, she was met with one older cousin and one younger cousin. She would watch her older cousin push, shove and smack his younger brother to get a toy from him, but when he was dealing with her, he was respectful, but still bossy and took her toys.

    The younger cousin is bigger than my daughter, so he would in turn try to enact the same behaviour on my daughter to get her toys and because she was smaller and unable to defend herself, she learned that screaming incredibly LOUDLY and long, would stop her cousin as well as get him into trouble.

    In the space of 4 days, she learned this down to an art form. She'd see her cousin coming towards her and instantly she would scream. She's also unfortunately learned how to push, shove and smack back as well. She's also learned how to utilize this behavior when she's in a tantrum now. Previously when she had a tantrum, she would just cry and ask for cuddles. Now she just hits us.

    Honestly, no idea what to do here. Can you give me some pointers?

    1. Hi Anonymous. Thanks for your kind words! I haven't been posting much lately because I've been ill- hopefully on the mend now.

      The first thing I want to say to you is that you do have the power to restrict access to damaging modelling. In other words, it might be wise to stop visiting these cousins until they're through the current stage of violent conflict, because you've already seen how your daughter soaks the modelled behaviour up like a sponge. If you don't want to stop visiting, then you may need to take a more assertive role with your sister / brother, because letting their kids hit your child is not okay!

      As for your own child: First, remember you are the adult. When she screams, don't react. (This will be hard!) If she gets a different reaction from you, ie 'it doesn't work', she will learn that different behaviours work in your house and eventually give up. Sit down on the floor by her when she starts to have a tantrum (out of hitting range). Keep calm and in control. When she takes a breath to scream again, say calmly "I can't understand what you want when you scream. Can you tell me in your normal voice?"

      If she hits you, take both her hands calmly but firmly in yours and say "I won't let you hit. It's okay to be angry but it's not okay to hit." Keep hold of her hands until she calms down- this may require a firm hold, but that's okay as long as you keep your voice and words calm and loving. You can add more words to reassure her that you are in control: "I am staying here with you till you feel better. I will help you not to hit by holding your hands." "When you feel better I have a big cuddle for you. You tell me when you want it."

      Tantrums are about not being able to cope with big feelings. She needs your help! She has seen one way to cope with big feelings from her cousins, and she's experimenting with that method. You need to show her that this is not okay in your house, and you must be firm but loving about it.

      Have you had a look at the site Janet Lansbury - Elevating Childcare ? There is a wonderful post there called 'No Bad Kids - Toddler Discipline Without Shame' which is well worth a read.

      If your relationship with your sister / brother allows it and you want to keep visiting them, you could try the hand-holding method with their children too, saying "I won't let you hit (name of your daughter). Please use words to say what you want." Perhaps you could discuss this approach with them before your next visit? Explain your problem to them and offer a solution...

      Good luck. This is a very frustrating time, but thoroughly normal!

  12. Hi Aunt Annie,

    I was wondering if you could help me out? We have a child who I will call 'Will' whom is 3.2 years old. He has an excellent vocabulary and I am always amazed at his ability to communicate. The thing about Will is that he is aggressive at times, with no 'apparent' cause for it. If another child walks past him he might get up and take the toy they're holding right from their hand, or he might take a hat from another child's head and run off with it. Other times he might hit or kick another child, again with no 'apparent' reason for doing so. When he does these things I notice his lower jaw is held outwards, like an underbite, as if it might be tensed.

    When something like this happens I of course get down on his level. I then firmly say 'STOP' and hold my hand out, and then I might say 'Stop pulling the toy from Alicia's hand' (I'm still building my repertoire of various strategies). I will then focus my attention on the other child and provide comfort. I then attend to Will, I might say 'Will, that is not okay to take the shovel from Alicia, she is upset, here are some more shovels over here' or perhaps 'You need to use your words Will, you might ask 'Allen, may I please look at the shell too?' and he will then repeat that line. During these moments I have to say I am a bit lost on how to communicate with Will, and I just know that it's more than meets the eye with his behaviour; there is an underlying cause.

    When I ask Will why he does those things, he doesn't look at me, he looks over my shoulder or around him, and he'll fidget and shuffle around. He might say something like 'Um cause I, cause I needed to take the shovel' and I will ask 'Why did you need to take the shovel' and he will say 'Cause I needed to' to which I'd reply 'Alicia is playing with the shovel, when you take the toy from her she's sad, see'. If I point out that the other child is upset or crying, his face changes, as if he knows he is responsible for that.

    Another staff member recently told me that Will spends a lot of time at his grandparents' house, and that infact he is at home only one day a week. Another staff member is also family friends with Will's family, and her father said 'You make sure that you give him a lot of love and care when he is at the centre, because he doesn't get much at home'. Now his mother seems very caring and attentive of her son. They are both always well presented and from what I can tell (not what I know) they seem to come from a fair socioeconomic background and stable home. Either way I am not here to judge, always to support.

    A few other notes, he doesn't play much at all with other chn. Maybe he just doesn't know how to? Or maybe he gets bored doing so. I used to work full time at this centre but after completing my Cert III in April I work casually, so I do not see him consistently, but when I am there I want to help him in anyway I can, and assist the other staff too.

    Anyway, I was wondering of you're able to provide me with some strategies for connecting and communicate with 'Will', he is very fond of me so that should make things easier. I am very eager to help him learn to play and form friendships with others.

    I love your blog by the way!

    1. Hi Anon. What an interesting child Will seems to be!

      The first thing that I can note from what you've said is that Will's behaviour is being addressed, but not his feelings. While you you identify 'Alicia''s feelings as sad to him, it doesn't seem that anyone is helping him note his own emotions. At this age they need our help to do so. Perhaps when you see that jaw go forward, it's time to quickly step in and say "Will, your face looks angry to me- is that right? Are you angry?" Only then can you perhaps find out why. The string of events from feeling angry, to acting on the anger, to perceiving with your help that he's caused sadness- that is too much for him at this age. Early intervention is the key!

      If you already have a good relationship with Will, you are a good person to step in and help him identify the emotions. After that, you can work with him on alternate behaviours BEFORE the damage is done. See if you can identify some triggers. Is it sharing that causes him to lose it? Noise? Going outside? What other activities lead up to these events? Try to trace back what has happened to Will BEFORE he gets angry or upset.

      Puppets are also a great help. If you can act out what has happened with puppets and ask him for suggestions, it will help him to see the situation through new eyes.

      The home scenario sounds worrying, but we only have limited ability to address any damage which may be being done to children at home. You sound like you're doing a really good job within the scope of your employment. If Will feels like you're on his side, that MATTERS.

      Another thing to consider: if Will is intellectually advanced, he may have asynchronous social development. In other words, his brain is ahead of his emotions. He might need help to enter play. He might simply be experimenting on other children the same way a toddler would! You know, "If I do this, what will happen?" as they push another child over with absolutely no remorse. If this is the case, he needs patience, compassion and a LOT of modelling. It sounds like you're already doing this- don't expect fast results. Just keep at it and keep loading him up with love and approval when you can.

      You sound like a great asset to our profession. :)

    2. Wow Aunt Annie, thank-you SO much for your response, I TRULY appreciate the advice and I will adhere to it. Sometimes I do wonder if he is intellectually advanced and if is social development is asynchronous.

      Also, when I have chatted to Will after he has done some of those things, sometimes I say "are you angry?" and he says yes, I ask him why but I'm not sure he knows how to say why. But I can see he holds frustration.

      Outside we have those cushioned pads that you place around a pole so as to lessen the impact if a child ran into it. He had just upset another child by taking a toy from them. I asked him what made him do that, he shrugged his shoulders, I asked "Did he make you upset?" and "Were you feeling sad?" both to which he shook his head. I asked him "Were you feeling angry?" and he nodded his head, I asked him if the child made him angry but he shook his head, I asked him what made him feel angry but he didn't respond much. Anyway, I said "If you're feeling angry, that's okay, I feel angry too sometimes, if you're feeling angry you can hit this pole see, but you cannot hit your friends because they will get upset and you will get into trouble (I just thought I had better mention that just incase)" He hit it a couple of times, and I think I could see the tension as he hit it, like he meant it. Another time when we were in the sand pit, I mentioned that he could squeeze the sand, he had the same look when he did that too.

      Anyway thank-you again for your help!!(And thank-you for your kind comments too, working in early childhood is my vocation!)

    3. You are doing so well with him. Remember that change is slow.

      It sounds rather as though Will's anger may be related to things other than what happens at care. You don't have a lot of power in this situation, especially as a casual worker, but it would be worth mentioning his responses to one of the permanent staff if there's someone there whom you trust.

      If Will is into art, one activity that I found really helpful with angry kids was a 'feelings' painting session. First I provided crayons, including black ones, and said "Let's do some angry drawing!" Of course all the kids had a big angry scribble, often with black. Then I provided some beautiful bright water colour paints and said "Okay, now let's calm the anger down, we'll gently brush these lovely colours all over the anger." The kids had a ball and it provided some beautiful paintings, as well as opening that door to expressing feelings through art. Worth a try?

    4. I agree. And I really like that idea!

      Thank-you again for your time and help, it is truly appreciated.


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