Friday, February 5, 2010

What do you do when one child hurts another?

I'm asked this question so often...just today, regarding a little boy who hurts his older sister (scratching, hitting).

I hope I don't sound flip when I say - this is what preschoolers do! It is so commonplace, it is developmentally within reason. A bit of an aside - I can't help but consider the many different ways we learn and I'm convinced that some children learn to get along with others in a much more physical fashion - they will surprise you in their physical reactions to friends and family. Of course, none of this "developmentally-sound/different-style-of-learning" blather is going to help you one bit when you see your own child hurting another. As parents, watching your own offspring hurt one another is an extremely difficult thing.

It is important that you remember you are the adult, you are the role model, you are the teacher. Additionally, little children are sponges. A sharp angry explosive reaction is not what you want your child to absorb.

Take some time apart from the incident to think about a better way to respond. Here are some of my ideas:

When one child hurts another, I turn toward the one who has been hurt ("the victim") and shower him with love and attention - "Oh my dear, what has happened to you? Let me give you a hug...sweetie, let me see." Dare to ignore the one who did the hurting, for a moment.

If the hurt is not too egregious (not bleeding, no lump), consider asking the one who did the hurting to help you take care of the injured person. In my class, I have a "boo boo bear," a soft cuddly bear that gives comfort to someone who is hurt. In a calm, non-threatening, matter of fact voice say "Please get the boo boo bear for your sweet friend; he has been hurt." If the child won't get the bear, I don't make a big deal of it; I continue to shower the injured with attention and care, and get another friend to get the bear, or I get it myself. You might even have the aggressive child help you put a band aid on the hurt. (But please - use the hurt child's reaction as a barometer - if he recoils from having the one who hurt him help, then just continue to love and care for the child yourself.)

I repeat, almost a script, throughout: You are safe here in Ms. Maureen's; we take care of each other; I'm so sad that you are sad; friends are kind with one another; we need to use our words not our hands, when we are angry; I'm so sad this happened; you are safe here; let's help you feel better. Here, I'm really setting the tone - this is the tone of my class, that we get along, that we are safe. It's important to have scripts in our families as well - we love one another, we care about one another, we keep each other safe, no one should feel scared in our home.

Once the hurt child is on the mend and playing again, then I turn my attention to the one who did the hurting ("the aggressor").

It is essential that you are calm and "removed" - as if this is the most ordinary and expected event. Which it is, developmentally - right on!! If you can't muster that calm voice, dare to say John, I can't talk to you about this right now. Go play elsewhere. I will talk to you later. Allow yourself to take a deep, cleansing breath; approach the aggressor only when you are calm. (And, yes, it is okay that the child sees you are frustrated by him, and that you are modeling restraint in responding to him.) When you are ready...

Calmly take this child by the hand (and if he won't come, I scoop him up into my arms - gently, lovingly, assuredly), and walk off to a quieter location. Now it's time to help this child reflect. Here's where my script varies depending on the situation. If it is the first time or a rare situation for this child, I say:
- Did you see how hurt Bob was? Did you see him cry? (Let the child answer)
- What made him cry? (Let the child answer)
Sometimes I lead,
- Bob says you hit him; that you wanted his toy. Can you think of some ways that you could have the toy that don't hurt Bob?
- Let's talk about good choices: what if you said "May I use that when you are done?", what if you traded him another toy?

If this is a situation that happens time and again with this child, I might say again:

- Did you see how hurt Bob was? Did you see him cry? (Let the child answer) and then add:
- Was it a good choice to hit him? What are some good choices instead of hitting?
- What could you have said?

- Ms. Maureen is going to have you take a break now, to find something else to do. You may not play with Bob right now or with the xyz toy. You have lost that privilege. Ms. Maureen tries to keep everybody safe at school, I will help you to stay safe by having you take a break, sweetie.

If this is a repeated behavior, depending on how old the child is (say 3 years old, minimum), you have a puzzle to solve! Behaviors never happen in a vacuum. The good news is, if a challenging behavior is repeated over and over, you have more data with which to solve the puzzle.

There are some tremendous resources for parents and teachers available through the The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations of Early Learning (CSEFEL), based at Vanderbilt University. I particularly like their script called "How to be a Super Friend". I have made this into a coloring book for my class, letting them draw pictures to support the words.

I would also consider one or both of the following:

1) Start a behavior log. Record what happened and also what preceded it, where did the incident happen. Teachers - it would be terrific to have another adult come into your classroom and observe/write down the behavior over a couple of days. (An objective observer will notice the nuances, the triggers that set off the behavior.) Parents, it is not so easy to find an objective observer - you and your spouse are pretty invested/emotionally involved! What I suggest here is for you to think about the incidents at a quieter time - perhaps in the evening, after your children are in bed, take out a small notebook and record - When? Where? What? and any possible Whys? See if something stands out. Perhaps you'll catch some undesirable reactive behavior on your own part - and realize your need to be a calmer force in your child's life.

2) Take the child aside at a calm time - apart from any ugly incident - and start the 1-2-3 Magic routine [1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D] as follows: I notice that you have been hurting your friends with your hands. Ms. Maureen needs everyone in the class to be safe. You are loved, your friends are loved; none of us can use our hands for hurting. Ms. Maureen sees that it is hard for you to remember this, so she's going to help you practice. When I see you start to use your hands, I will call your name and count with my fingers "1", then "2" if you don't walk away or stop, and it's an automatic "3" if you actually use your hands. A "3" means you will have to take a break. We will do this over and over, until you can remember, okay? I know you can learn not to use your hands. I know you can be a great friend. You can do it!

And then - follow through! Keep in mind, "taking a break" (timeout) should last no longer than one minute per year of age. And they are not lecture times! I often sit alongside the 3 year old in my class that has to take a break; just sitting, breathing together, often my hand lightly stroking his hands...physically giving a gentle hand lesson. And when the time is up, I say "Okay, sweetie, let's make good choices now!" and give him a quick hug and send him on his way.

(Notice - there's no ranting, raving, accusing, or screaming.)

Will things be automatically a-ok? Will your child never hurt another? No. But, with your helpful focus on the right way to behave, a calm attitude, and lots of repetition, you can teach your child to be more empathic and kind.

1 comment:

  1. Some great advice here! Heck, we need a "boo boo bear" in my office :-)