Friday, September 09, 2011


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 – a manifestation of 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 post, the word "hit" will refer to that entire spectrum of behavior.)

That’s just 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.

To put it bluntly and a bit crudely, our job as teachers and parents is to make the hitter feel bad 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 For 2-Year-Olds

1)  Stay calm.

2)  Use your superior physical strength to stop the hitting. 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 usually best to turn things over to another adult if that's possible.

3)  Normally, however, no one is very hurt and normally there is a clear offender. Keep both parties proximate, even if that requires using some "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 I always try to at least 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: 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, try 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 until I know you won't hit your friends." 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. You will, of course, want to 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.

(Tomorrow I'll try to remember to write about teaching children what to do when they are the "victim" of hitting, pushing, kicking, biting . . .)

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Anonymous said...

So sensible, so well explained. I whole-heartedly agree, and also picked up a coupla good pointers there. Thank you!

Arual said...

What's your advice for when a child is attacking his parent?

Dara Lynn said...

Great advice. Thanks. I've taken over the 2-3 yr old room at church (since my 3yr old won't let me leave her!) and I have found myself frozen in moments of conflict between 2 "other people's kids". I'm going to re-read this and go into that room better prepared this weekend. THANKS!!!! :)

Teacher Tom said...

@Arual . . . I'm assuming you're talking about a child hitting you in anger (as opposed to using hitting as a misguided way to get your attention). I just hold their arms gently, but firmly and say, "You're hitting me. It hurts me. I won't let you hurt me." Actually, at school, I would start my holding my hands in front of me and say "Stop!" because that's what we teach the kids, then go into the rest. I'll be writing more about how we use the "stop" technique tomorrow.

Tamara said...

I would just like to say thankyou for the wonderful job you are doing :) also I have a 5yr old son who is in his first yr of school and I think this is a wonderful guideline for even this age group. Empathy is one of those things that parents forget has to be learnt by children and are so easily disappointed when it is not shown. We as parents or carers need to teach and instill empathy and like you said it takes time.

sarahfelicity said...

Hey Tom,
I like the sounds of this "stop!" idea - can't wait to read more.

I appreciated much of this post, but felt squirmy inside at step 7, where you suggest asking yes or no questions, like "do you like to be hit?" I guess I have seen these used in a way that feels really manipulative and degrading to children. As in, it's clear there is a "right" answer, and the kid is expected to produce it.

I can see that it would really depend on how the question was delivered, however. If it is neutral and non-punitive, then it wouldn't seem so bad to me. I just don't like asking kids to "perform". I might try using questions like this, as long as I was genuinely not attached to a particular "right" answer from the kid. But if you saw the horrible video of the "hot sauce mother", then you saw a bad use of these yes or no questions (really bad).

To deal with a perpetrator who isn't showing any remorse, or even acknowledging me, I will get close and gently say "Please look at my eyes". This is partly so I know they are listening, and partly so I can convey to them that I am not vengeful. Then I might say something like "I know you were angry, but you hurt her when you bit her and that's not ok. Can you take a deep breath with me?" (That's a new one I'm experimenting with, with mixed success so far!)

I like your point about wanting the kid to feel bad about hurting someone else, rather than feeling shame for "misbehaving", for making me mad, or for having strong feelings and acting on them. I think that's a really important distinction, and so delicate! At 2, some kids already seem able to go into shame, even if that's not what I'm trying to evoke, while other kids seem absolutely oblivious to the impact of their actions. It's fascinating.

Sorry for my long ramble here but I think this is SUCH an important topic! Looking forward to hearing other people's thoughts.

Teacher Tom said...

@sarahfelicity . . . Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I probably did a poor job of making this clear, but I only use those yes or no questions when the child is clearly not paying attention and I'm trying to get him focused. I won't use them right off the bat, nor in an accusatory way, just as a way to focus the child when it's clear they are shutting me out. I'm not asking for performance. I don't actually care how they answer the question, just that I have their attention. I've tried "Look in my eyes" as well and it's usually a good technique with younger children, but some kids, especially somewhat older ones who are already feeling a bit of guilt/shame about their behavior, have a hard time with that.

Briana said...

Thanks Tom!
These steps are almost exactly the techniques we use at our school, and I always feel so re-affirmed when I know others who are working though the same process with the children they work with. I think one of the most important steps of the process is giving them the space once the adult narrates what they know is true. This takes so much restrain on the part of the adult, because it's our natural instinct to fix whatever's happening. I find myself using "I wonder..." alot, because then I can allow the children to be authentic with the emotions they are feeling.
I am currently caring for a group of wobblers( 13 to 20 months) and this is exactly where my head space is, as my little 'mad scientists' are beginning their social experiments. I look forward to bringing their attention to their explorations, as well as bring their parents into the joy that these moments can bring. I know it sounds a little crazy, but so much is learned through 'hitting', and when we approach it in a respectful manner then we're able to support the creation of beings who are aware, communicative, and positive members of their community.

Cave Momma said...

Wonderful post! I too have an internal conflict on having kids say they are "sorry". I still haven't made a final decision on it. How does this technique differ with a slightly older, say 3 or 4, child? I could use some insight for my own 2 children who are that age as my older still has a difficult time controlling her physical anger.

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

Yeah, the "say you're sorry" technique has never sat well with me. I tell my children, I would like you apologize when you feel like you're ready that they can kind of try to be aware of when empathy/remorse sets in (rather than the robotic "sorry" that gets thrown out automatically to placate a parent/teacher who insists on that little nicety)...bless two-year olds! They're so beautifully spontaneous and REAL!

Carolina said...

Thank you for the post! I've been reading your blog for a while now, and I really appreciate your insightful words. I'm really sorry that my daughter can't go to your school though, but as I live in Uruguay, that's not a possibility :) I will wait for your thoughts on what to say to a child when is the one being hit. Last year, my daughter -who was 2 at the time- attended daycare & was hit by a classmate on a daily basis. She started having nightmares, where she screamed her classmate's name out loud. She also stated several times that she didn't want to go to school anymore, as she was afraid. I later found out that, even though she was the smallest girl in the class -in age & height- her teacher decided that it was good for her to work with her classmate every day -they shared a table-, as a way for her to learn to "cope with the aggression" (as her teacher said to me). The teacher also said that, as she used to confront the boy and she also defended other classmates from him, she was better prepared that the others to share activities with him. I think she really wasn't learning anything, but she felt afraid and unprotected instead. At one point, after trying other strategies, I must confess that I said to her that it was ok to hit back if the boy was hurting her & if there was no adult in sight that could help her get away. I didn't want her to learn that it was ok to stand any kind of aggression. The nightmares did continue for almost a year. Anyway...I really like your blog & makes me rethink about parenting & what we teach to our children. So thank you again!

SarahSews said...

I'm a new reader and wanted to thank you for this. My three year old had recently (like in the last 5 weeks) become really physical with me and tries to hurt my husband and I when he doesn't get his way. He is trying to hard to be the boss of himself (and others) and I've been trying these exact strategies with him after losing my own cool a few times. One part of it wasn't sitting well with me though and that was using my physical ability to dominate him to get him to stop hurting me, etc. It feels like I'm teaching him to use his power over others for evil, even though I'm clear verbally that I'm doing it to protect myself, and that is my job as his mother (to protect him and me).
As for school, he's mostly a bystander in all the aggression of other kids and I hope it stays that way. He is very sensitive and actually said he was involved in a tussle at school this week and we found out this morning that he was just standing there, not involved. But it upset him so much he didn't want to go to school today.

Anonymous said...

What a great lesson! Very well put. As a parent of a child that is almost always the "victim," I am looking forward to tomorrow's blog.

Akemanartist said...

I am a person with Asperger's disorder which kind of inhibited the ability to have Empathy or to be taught to me. But what you have written was never used on me, it was always I should apologize and being ego centric and 'accurate' as I was I did NOT want to say sorry when I did not feel sorry, it didn't make sense to me. Being 35 of course I learned better but it was hard then. Having children of my own with similar problems I tend to isolate when they are 'going nuts' as I put it, it calms them down but it's integrating back in that's the problem, I only learned to limit my contact with others, hard with a family and husband but even he gets it. Lovely post, just wished I had someone to help me with understanding cause and effect, I saw things seperate often times, I see this in my daughter and I have to play it out or use pictures for her to get it and she's NINE.

maxsmommy said...

I, too, would love to hear if your strategies differ for 3-4s. I just started in-home family child care, and my three, almost four-year-old, is having so much trouble adjusting. He's been hitting, kicking, biting, and taking toys from the other kids. I feel at such a loss as to how to stop the behavior. We talk all the time about how hitting hurts and scares others, and come up with other, safer ways to express our frustration, including coming to me and asking for help. I DO want him to feel bad about hurting the other kids, and am trying to teach him empathy on almost an hourly basis. He seems to get it, and be remorseful at the moment, but the goes right back to the terrorizing behavior. This post was very timely for me!

Anonymous said...

I have 1-year-old boy/girl twins with the girl seemingly the more dominant twin. I do think kids sense this. I noticed that our son gets bitten, toys taken from him, etc. - he seems to be a target, perhaps because he is quiet, a thinker, keeps to himself? This might be crazy, but are "victims" prone to end up bullied as they get bigger if they are not taught somehow to be assertive? I was surprised today that a boy pushed our daughter from behind; it's the first incident I think of something happening to her. She took it in stride and didn't react. I let it go, even though the "offender's" parent talked to him, and that boy did try to hug our walking-away daughter afterward. Our children have not been "offenders" to other kids yet though maybe that will come later?

VoofaVoofa said...

@sarahsews, I am having the same feelings recently with my son, who will be four next week. When all forces add up improperly (tired, hungry, 1-yr-old sister in his personal space), he will get frustrated and hit, kick. When I interrupt and explain he is hurting, and that he may not hurt, he hits me. After explaining that it hurts me, telling him he may not do it, and he continues to hit and kick, I follow the advice of many and hold him tightly (slowly, not in anger) and calmly say, "It hurts when you hit. I cannot let you hit me. I cannot let you hurt yourself or me." He screams in a way I've never heard him scream, and thrashes. If my husband is within view, he will desperately scream, "Papa! Help me!" The whole scene is awful, and the strategy is clearly not working at all.

The one-year-old is taking notes, and really into hitting and biting right now. Thankful for the advice from TT and other commenters on how to help her.

Provocations for Early Childhood Education said...

I find that one of the hardest things to remember to consider as an early childhood education practioner (and parent too, i imagine) is the perspective of the "offender." Sometimes it is he or she who is most frightened by his or her own strength, anger, and reaction and may be the one in need of the most comfort. We are all human, and remembering not to let the lens through which we naturally see victim and aggressor entirely color our adult reactions to how children treat each other is one of the hardest challenges.

air said...

Very insightful article, thank you for the great advice. We have been practicing some of the ideas you have put forth but as with the other mommies and teachers who have commented, what do we do when immediately after the whole exercise of separating the two kids who are fighting and then talking to the aggressor, the aggressor goes back to the same kind of behavior with no feelings of remorse for what he did? Like he starts hitting another child again? What if this behavior manifests regularly with no hint of change in a child?

Unknown said...

Tom, many of the trainings I've been to recently are "Anti-forced apology". I, too, feel that it is often just words that kids will say to make the adult feel they are being "compliant". Instead, I try to offer a chance for the two to have a small dialogue about the incident and suggest to the "offender" to simply ask the "victim" "What will make you feel better?" Often, the response is for the other child to apologize, and usually the hitter will apologize, but without me forcing them into it. If the offender doesn't apologize, I model the apology by saying "Gee, I'm so sorry that you got hit. That must have really ___ (hurt, made you sad, etc.) What can I do do make you feel better?" We take the focus off the offender and onto the victim.

melanie said...

Thank you so much. I am getting frustrated with the "hitting". My four year old is a caring, gentle and empathic little person but gets physical when the fire burns high and words are lacking. I think the hardest is sensing the judgement of others and to keep cool ALL the times. I am a teacher myself and now a stay at home mom. My teacher background has helped me tons in dealing with the usual and unusual things but being a mom makes it sometimes harder. Thank you for this post. I love your site and deeply appreciate all your effort.

Gina Phillips said...

My name is Gina Phillips and I’m a student in Dr. Strange’s EDM310 course at the University of South Alabama.

I have thoroughly enjoyed your posts this week and felt this was an appropriate post to comment on this week. I am a Secondary Ed major and will be teaching much older students. If every student had a teacher like you when they were 3 there would not be near as many bullies in high schools today.

The thing I really like is that you acknowledge the kids have emotions that they can learn to deal with pretty easily. My favorite is that you do not push the child into apologizing. I really can't stand to hear the empty "I'm sorry". Most of the time I think that even teenagers apologize for things that they aren't truly sorry for doing.

It is my hope that more parents/teachers would employ this simple yet strong stand with pre-schoolers hitting.

I will be posting a summary of your blogs that I have commented on and a summary of my comments on my class blog. You are more than welcome to check it out. Thanks for all your great advice!


Jess said...

One thing about "look me in the eyes" is that it's often not culturally appropriate for many non-dominant cultures. In fact, children are taught to avert their eyes when being disciplined, as in "don't look at just did [____ behavior]." Important distinction for those working with minority children, if you'd like to maintain some credibility and trust as a teacher.

MissAngie said...

Thank you, Tom, for all of your amazing articles! Between you and Lisa Murphy (The Ooey Gooey Lady), I am constantly inspired. I have just begun a new professional path at a Free School in Manhattan, where I can finally practice the child-directed style to K-3rd graders that I have been using with 3-5 year-olds for so many years! Another thing, though, that I bring from one age group to the other, is the use of Conscious Discipline techniques, which are so similar to what you use. (

With respect to an issue like hitting, we bring both kids together as you do. I typically will hold them sort of with a gentle side hug, or reassuring hand on their hand. I look to the victim/in their eyes first.. this non-threatening manner typically relaxes the child who hit and placing my attention with the victim empowers them. The sideways hold is also less threatening (learned this from a Bank Street professor [can't remember his name] who specializes in applying neuroscience regarding gender differences to classroom practice.)

We do ask the victim, "Did you like it when _____?" (In 9 years of applying this, no one has said "Yes.") Then we say, "Tell ______, 'I don't like it when you ________.'"

Then we look to the one who hit, and find out their intent. An example would be, "You _____ your friend because.....?" It's amazing the reasons that come out. Let's say for example they answer "He took my toy." You can guide the one who hit by saying, "You didn't like it when he took your toy. We agreed as a class to use gentle hands at all times. What could you say next time if someone takes your toy?"

Varying answers have been, "Give it back," "I was playing with that," etc. This can go on with addressing the hitting victim, but then empowering the hitter to teach their friend how to ask for a turn. Alternatively, you can ask if they want to "rewind" and do it all again.

As teachers and parents, it is important to know that neuroscience has shown us that we have to repeat these things up to 1700-2000 times,in context, for them to really be able to apply a rule. So, the next time you think, "How many times do I have to say?" now you know! :)

I always say the investment of energy it takes to be on top of these things is the best you can make. So often we assume the worst of the offender, but by digging deeper and teaching them problem solving and giving them the words to use, we empower both.

By the way, we also do not force apologies. We tend to teach responsibility by either asking the victim "How can ____ help you feel better?" or asking the offender "How can you help _______ feel better? Hugs, ice bags, and smiles are usually the result... and then they typically end up playing together!

Wishing you well,

Beansprouts said...

Tom, thanks for another great article. Had to link this on on facebook. I like your mad scientist analogy...that's spot on! Also, have you noticed that people leave very long comments on your blog posts? Your thought-provoking articles just bring it out of us! Thank you for that! --Steph

kristin @ preschool daze said...

100% ditto.

and frankly, i don't do anything different with my 3s, 4s or 5s...

they are the ones who fill that dead space differently.

funny and true: there was a hitter last week, a crying victim, i said: she's crying because she got hurt when you hit her. 2 year old hitter gets really wide eyes and huge smile like she just accomplished the greatest thing of her life.

ah, joy.

Casey@LoveWhatIs said...

Do you have any posts dealing with hitting in older children?

Arlington Girl said...

Thank you, Tom, for reinforcing what I've strongly felt in my 10+ year of teaching elementary: we *want* kids to feel bad when they hurt someone. Over the years I've had some undermining parents who are aghast that I'd want their kid to ever feel bad (in spite of what ever horrible thing they'd done to their classmate).

One last comment: I'm pretty sure it's "feel bad", not "feel badly". You can check online. One of my high school teachers always explained that if you "feel badly", that means your fingers don't work well.

Anonymous said...

Dear Teacher Tom, Thanks for your great blog, and for the clear description in this post.

I have a four-year-old who gets into physical fights with his big sister regularly. He was doing great with his super teachers at a new Montessori school until this week when he bit another child (his favorite friend, a three-year-old who "wouldn't get out of his personal bubble" as he explained it).

The teachers' solution was to keep them apart, and to keep my son "within arm's length". The next day, he hit someone, and so his outside time was taken away, then he scratched someone, so he lost the privilege of playing with the bug-catchers (his favorite activity at school). The teachers told me about the situation with growing annoyance. They said "he can't be with the other kids if we can't trust him. We are responsible for their safety", and "he needs to know there are consequences for his actions." I agree with these things in principal, but I cannot help but feel like his behavior is getting worse in part because the teachers are all over him, and because he is not allowed to do the things he used to like.

I am not opposed to punishment for misbehavior, but I think the end goal should be to help the child do his best, not set him up for failure.

I am meeting to talk about "strategies" with his teachers, but I don't know what to suggest, except maybe if they feel he should be punished, just resort to the old-fashioned time-out or something, rather than excluding him from his favorite activities. I don't want his whole day to be about crime and punishment, rather than learning. If you have any suggestions, or any reading to suggest that might help me speak productively with his teachers, I would be so grateful.

PS: you should publish a book.

Anonymous said...

Is my son at your house? Having exactly same time of it. Help!