Monday, July 06, 2009

How I deal with hitting (and kicking, biting, taking, scratching . . .)

One of my earliest memories is of tackling a boy in diapers and holding him immobile while he cried.

It happened in my family’s rose garden, an act that went unpunished because no one else saw it, or if they did see they thought it was all in good fun. But I knew what I was doing. I was physically powerful and I was subduing a smaller, weaker boy. I straddled his chest and watched him cry.

I learned something vital on that day about brute force. The image of that moment crosses my mind at least once a month, accompanied by a sharp flash of shame – I guess it’s a manifestation of what we call conscience. Every time I am gentle with others, it’s at least in part an apology to that boy in diapers.

We always have children in our Pre-3 class who hit. We have children who will take. We have children who will push, pull, scratch, and even bite. And we have children who will be “victims”. Often they will be the same kids. (For the sake of this article, the word "hit" will refer to the entire spectrum of behavior.)

That’s how it is in our rose garden preschool. I know that doesn’t take anything away from the anger a parent feels when her child is the one being hit. I know that doesn’t take anything away from the stinging embarrassment she feels when her child is the one with the clenched fist. But hitting is a fact of preschool life and everyone is playing a important role in a two-way learning process.

I often think of 2-year-olds as mad scientists rushing around the labratory of life pushing buttons to see what happens. They push the “button” of smiling at a stranger: the stranger smiles back. They push the button of helping a friend: the friend says, “Thank you.” They push the button of hitting another kid: the kid cries.

Quite plainly, our job as teachers and parents is to make the hitter feel badly about causing someone else cry. We don’t want them to feel badly about making us angry. We don’t want them to feel badly about wanting that last blue block. We don’t want them to feel badly about some higher power that will smite them. We want them to feel badly about hurting or scaring another person. We want to teach empathy. If we can teach that, we have done the most important job we will ever do.

Teacher Tom’s 8-Step Plan for Learning Through Conflict (2-year-old version)

1) Stay calm.

2) Use your superior physical strength to stop the hitting/pushing. Get your body between the children and hold both them in place. Say something like, "Hitting hurts people. I can't let you hurt your friends." Try to stick with statements of fact. Commands like, "No hitting!" are fine, but not ideal because they send the message, You shouldn't hit because an authority figure says so. We want them to develop self-control. If a child is clearly hurt (blood, visible marks, uncontrollable crying) get another adult (the child's parent if possible) to attend to that child. If you are the parent of the child who has hit someone, it's best to turn things over to another adult.

3) Normally, no one is very hurt and normally there is a clear offender. Keep both parties proximate, even if that requires using "physical force". (I've found that a gentle arm around the waist usually works, but will firmly hold an arm if a child is trying to get away) I know that sometimes it's impossible to keep both parties present, but you should at least try to trot the offender through the following steps, if only to re-enforce that one of the consequences of their behavior is the "inquiry".

4) Describe what you know to be true (e.g., "Susie is crying," "I saw you take that from him," "You hurt her.").

5) Draw the connection between cause and effect (e.g., "Susie is crying because you hit her," "Johnny is mad because you took that from him," "She screamed because you hurt her.")

6) Now is the most difficult part for most adults: stop talking and wait. Let the children fill up that dead air. It sometimes takes awhile, especially for boys, to find words. It's during this time that children will often spontaneously "apologize" by returning the taken item or attempting to hug their crying friend. This is a genuine 2-year-old apology. If it happens, you're done, but it’s rare so don't count on it. Take this time to read their facial and body language -- it's usually very easy with 2-year-olds. If the "victim" is ready to move on, let 'em roam. This child has learned an important lesson: life is not fair, but there is often justice. (Remember, there are times we teach from facts and times we teach from intention.) Sometimes the offender is moved to tears -- another version of a genuine 2-year-old apology.

7) Respond to whatever the offender says (even if they are trying to change the subject) by repeating what you know to be true and by drawing the connection between cause and effect. If the child clearly isn't paying attention, command that attention by asking clear yes-or-no questions (e.g., "Do you like to be hit?" "Are you going to hit your friends?" "Are you going to take things from your friends?"). Two-year-olds tend to be pretty honest. If they say they will not hit their friends then consider it a lesson learned even if it only "takes" for a few minutes. If they say "Yes" they will hit their friends (and I've had many children admit to this), then tell them, "Then I'll have to hold you." After a few minutes ask the question again and repeat until you finally get a "no".

8) For me, that's the end of it, but there are many who don't consider the process complete without a formal apology. I won't go into why I'm not a fan of the artificial adult-sponsored "I'm sorry." An apology that is offered merely out of social convention, rather than out of genuine remorse, just doesn't sit well with me. Besides, I've watched too many conflicts between children get diverted into a conflict between parent and child as the former insists on the word "sorry" and the child refuses. But if you want your child to say, "I'm sorry," I won't judge you.

This is the process that has evolved for me. Adapt it to your own personality, beliefs and experiences, but try to keep the goal of teaching empathy in mind.

Naturally, empathy is not taught in a single moment. It’s a long, often painful process and we’re mostly just there to help it along. But still, there are moments of epiphany, like mine in the rose garden with the be-diapered boy. And you’ll never know when you’re in the middle of one.


Anonymous said...

One thing that they did at my son's daycare was , if possible make the hitter stay with hittie and ask "are you okay?" and the hiiter would have to wait until the hittie says yes.

Teacher Tom said...

Oh, I like that MUCH better than a forced apology. I can imagine that it's sometimes a long wait, but that's where adult patience -- and silence -- comes in.

Tracey said...

love this post! teaching empathy is so powerful, it's not a set of rules on a wall, it's a lifestyle that stays with children forever. It's a cornerstone of my classroom too.

sproutsinthekitchen said...

what?! your most popular post and only 3 comments? well, at least you know we're reading it. I just wanted to say thank you for blogging. we're going through a somewhat "difficult" period with our 3.5 year old (what period isn't "difficult" in one way or another?)--been traveling, speaking a non-English language, now jetlagging and readjusting, and a friend of mine pointed me toward your blog. Not because you could solve my problems, but because she liked what you were blogging about. And I have to agree. Reading your blog has given me much to reflect on while I "re-fresh" my parenting tactics/repertoire. Thanks for that!

Teacher Tom said...

Thanks sproutsinthekitchen!

My comments get all spread out. Some of them are here, some wind up on Facebook, some people email me directly . . . But, you're right, Google Analytics lets me see that people are reading even if they're not commenting!

It feels good knowing I help you refresh and reflect. Thanks for reading. =)

Ms Danielle said...

I love your approach to a sometimes trying situation (particularly when the parents are present).

I agree that forced apologies are not ideal. I've always ended "hitting" incidents with asking the offender for ideas on how he or she should change their behavior so that the hurt child does not get hurt again. which leads into natural suggestions of ASKING for a toy first, etc. And also, I remind them, if you hurt someone, (on purpose or accident), there's a question we need to ask them: Are you okay? Which leads to: How can I help you feel better?

This might mean the offender helps to get the ice pack or band-aid, and/or sits with the hurt child until the hurt child feels better. I've even had some children help the hurt child up, supporting them with their arms as they walk together. Sometimes the hurt child just needs some alone time, and that's okay too.

It just makes me so proud to see them learning responsibility for their actions. By the end of the year, they're all typically very empathetic to someone who's been hurt, accidentally or purposefully.

Stephanie A said...

I couldn't agree more! This is a timeless post, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the "artificial adult-spopnsored apology". Love it!

Early Childhood Education and Common Sense said...

This is good to read someone with a similar way of handling this hitting/ bititng/scratching behavior.

I learned from my director about 4 years ago, to coach my offender to ask the victimm child the question, "Is your body ok?", and then to follow the cues of the victim child. I find usually the offender might offer a pat, or on his or her own say "sorry". (I don;t require "sorry", because it is an artificial, meaningless concept for the child I think. Although I am now in another center, I still use the words "Is your body ok", and sometimes I need to help both children find words for what happened. Also, regularly we talk about gentle touching, and sometimes in circle time everyone wull hold up their arm, and give themselves a gentle touch on their body to explain gentle touch.

My kids are also pre 3, and it is an age with quite abit of hitting, etc., maybe because of being still new at expressing things verbally.

Sometimes it is hard when parents complain, their child has been hit, or scratched one to many times, and they seem to expect more is done then what I do, but really I think it is a process of repetion, and learning, generally I find soon the behavior will diminish, but now perfectly.

Grace said...

Thank you so much for this! My son is not quite two and is a hitter. He uses it in play, to get someone's attention, and if he doesn't like what you're doing. I knew that saying "Don't hit" and "No hitting" wasn't coomunicating the idea I wanted him to understand, but didn't know what to say. "Hitting hurts" conveys why I don't want him to hit.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post. This is my first year teaching preschool, and one of my three year olds has a problem with hitting (and occasionally kicking or biting). I love what you said about teaching empathy, and how we want them to feel bad about hurting their friend, not for any other reason. It's like something clicked in my head when I read that, and I think it'll be easier to help fix this behavior.

The school I teach at also doesn't believe in making a kid say, "I'm sorry," for the same reasons you do - and I agree, too! It's much better to learn true empathy as a child then to have to reteach yourself to care as an adult.

One thing we've been doing with our kid that hits is, if the victim is crying hard or is physically hurt, the offender comes with a teacher to get ice, carries it back, and she gives it to the other child. Sometimes this comes with an apology, a hug, or a short rub on their back to console them (all depending on what the offender wants to do - no teacher direction). I think that having the offender actually see and feel something like ice or (in worse situations) watching a teacher put on a bandaid, the hurt becomes much more real for them and it makes a bigger impact. Already we've seen this child using her words more, and coming to a teacher when she feels angry instead of hitting! Adding that to the idea of empathy being key and I don't think this will be a problem much longer. So thank you for the inspiring post!

Anonymous said...

I agree with what you are saying..but i have a 3 1/2 year old who is about 1 1/2 year old very behind in his agehe likes to hit and push...i do the things that you say but he doesn't understand ..i think he is alittle autistic ..he can't talk that well but is very smart..he does the shaking of the hands when gets excited and likes to hold onto one toy all day long.just can't find anything that works..any advice i work at a daycare and anything would be helpful..thanks

Teacher Tom said...

@Anonymous . . . Yeah, I've had kids like that as well. If it's true that he's on the spectrum it means he's going to have a very hard time understanding the basic principles without step-by-step instructions . . . and lot's of repetition. By this I mean, you're probably going to have to come up with an unvarying "mantra" along the lines of, "When you hit people it hurts them, then they will cry and stop playing with you. When you are angry do not hit, say, "Stop!""

I would come up with something like that and repeat it exactly the same way every time: word-for-word. I know it sound a little off pedagogically (e.g., using the language of command -- "don't") but I think with these kids they hear it as instructions more than commands. I've found it really helps to provide them with a "script" to internalize.

And it might take a year of repetition. Good luck!

katie101084 said...

I recently witnessed my daughters (15months) daycare teacher,shove my nephew(who is in the same class) while saying NO DONT HIT JAMES!he was sitting down and once she shoved him he fell over and started ti cry and then was told to go sit in time out(he is also 15 months old)I was in shock, I couldnt believe that the teacher did such a thing. To me, to hit a child in the same breath as telling them not to hit someone else is contraditory to what you are trying to accomplish. When my daughter hits me I hold her hand tightly ans look her in the eyes and say NO you do not hit mommy, that hurts me. I have spoken to the director and she is going to speak with the teacher, but I was so upset. Should I be concerned that there is more going on in the daycare that I do not see?

Teacher Tom said...

@katie . . . Yes, I would be concerned.

When you talk to your young daughter about hitting, you might also want to try telling her how you DO like to be touched. For instance, "I like to be touched gently." Children that young really don't understand what hitting is all about. I once had a 2-year-old girl in class who would start hitting any child who cried in a misguided attempt to sooth. Just the other day a 3-year-old went after a friend in a way that looked aggressive. An adult broke it up and said, "It looks like you have something you want to say to your friend." He looked right at him and with the same fierce expression said, "I love you." Hitting is not always what we think it is.

Becky said...

Encouraging post! Any suggestions on how to adapt it to the two year old hitting baby at home?

Anonymous said...

what do you do when the child is attacking the teachers ignoring doesnt work talking doesn't work the child laughs! help

Teacher Tom said...

Anonymous . . . You don't say how old the child is, but if he's 4+, then you need to get an OT involved.

Kate Elizabeth said...

This is my first year teaching preschool for a state funded program that services mostly low income families. I have ages 2.9-4.9 year olds in my classroom. I am concerned about numerous behavior issues I face on a daily basis that consist of opposition and defiance as well as a new child who is hitting the teachers and students. He is one of the older children who is 4.5 years old and this is his first experience with school and a routine. I have noticed that he has a speech problem and struggles to make coherent words. Even when using gentle reminders and directions to him, he becomes angry and clenches his fists and hits both teachers and students. I am not sure how long yo wait before referring him for outside services. Also what other strategies can I use for my oppositional and defiant 2 and 3 yr olds?

Teacher Tom said...

@Kate . . . I see a certain amount of opposition and defiance as normal. I don't know if my tolerance is higher than others, but I would likely never refer a 2-3 year old to outside services. Most of them just need practice and it's really hard, even dangerous, to attempt a diagnosis at such a young age. Older kids who are new to our school, or who have had negative earlier school experiences, often take 2-4 months to really settle in, especially if language is delayed.

Anna Henke said...

Thumbs up for this article!
As a mom of two kids and a coach of a software development team at work I am dealing with conflicts every day. And the following applies for both: You can not apologize for a behaviour that has offended someone else. You can only ask for apology. And then it's the "victims" choice to either say yes or no.
And this is the reason why also forcing a 2-year kid to apologize won't work - in either way: The hitter will only learn that an apology is a way to end this conflict and the "victim" will be offended a second time: He or she is forced into a situation pretending that everything is ok again - which will not be true in most cases as well...

Kelly said...

@Katie: yes, you should be incredibly concerned. If this "teacher" would do that in front of you, what is she doing when she is not being observed? Can we please stop calling day care providers "teachers"? Something tells me this provider holds no degree/license/training. Her behavior is dangerous!

Sarah Lantz said...

This is such beautifully, productively written content! Thank you so much. Just shared it with Co-op where I am subbing for three weeks. We just got a bunch of new students including several first to school, and have 2s in with the 3-5s. It's a challenge! Seeing empathy in a child's eyes is so rewarding- I had a few of those moments last week :)

Laura Whang said...

What would you do if you have a very smart 3.5 year old trying to bite a teacher because he is angry? I teach a lot of kids and some of them are very difficult. One will hit and try to bite me and I'm so tired of being attacked by kids at school...I think they don't respect me because I wasn't firm enough and now Id on't know how to get it back.

Teacher Tom said...

I would hold him away with my superior physical strength and say, calmly, "I won't let you bite me." It has nothing to do with respect (which is usually used as a synonym for "fear"). It has to do with strong emotions and a dearth of opportunity/practice in expressing them appropriately. I would say, "I know you're mad." I would say, "You can hit/bite this pillow." But I would also, say, "I won't let you bite me," and enforce that.

Red said...

My five-year-old son was kicked out of a preschool at age 3 for refusing to go to circle time and eventually throwing his shoes at the teacher. (He wanted to keep playing with Lego bricks.) At 4, he was sent home for throwing a chair at a teacher at another school. I asked what time the incident happened because he generally is not himself if he is hungry. I suggested that they pull him out of the class and give him a snack at a certain time each day. They worked with us, and he was fine. We just put him in a new school two weeks ago because we moved out of state. They didn't say anything about problem behavior until the 9th day when we got a call saying that he bit a teacher and hit her, resulting in broken glasses. So he cannot return. He says school is stupid. I think he is bored. He is a smart boy, but he is socially less than graceful (a creative introvert). At home I've seen him blow up only when being yelled at instead of listened to, but I don't think the preschool teachers would yell at him. Do you have any advice for me as a parent in order to get things straight before he starts kindergarten in the fall?

Teacher Tom said...

@Red . . . From what you write, it sounds like those preschools were awfully quick on the trigger. A high quality preschool knows that these types of behaviors are normal. That said, having been kicked out of two preschools, I would be concerned. If you've not already, please talk to your pediatrician, tell her/him what you've told me. You're now entering kindergarten, presumedly public school, and that's a whole new world. IF there is a problem, you need to know so that you can advocate effectively for him.

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