I once saw the biggest kid in my music class haul off and shove a sweet tiny little boy who was brand new to class. I’m not going to lie- it made my blood boil and my heart sink. Why was it always the most docile, not to mention diminutive, children who got hit, pushed, and kicked in my classes?
This is my thirteenth year as an early childhood music teacher, and though it doesn’t happen every week, I will often have children in my music class who hurt other kids. Do I think this makes them bad kids- somehow defective or mean at their core? No. Not hardly. Do I tolerate it? No. Not a chance.
This is a tricky situation for me to navigate from the perspective of teacher, but not nearly as challenging as handling it when you are the parent. When I am teaching, I would highly prefer that it not be my responsibility to handle behavior problems, but not all parents are vigilant, ready to step in and apply the appropriate consequence to aggressive behavior. So if I am reading a story to the children while the parents are sitting away from me back in the circle, and one kid hits another, I intervene- immediately.
Generally, I address the child who has hit/pushed/licked (just kidding) the other child, and I gently but firmly say, “We do not hurt our friends. You may not hit Jack.” I will then ask Jack, “Are you okay?” If the act is still in progress, I will put one of my hands on each child to separate them while I talk to them. Other variations I’ve used are:
- We touch our friends gently.
- Hands are not for hitting.
- We keep our hands and feet on our own body.
- Jack, you may tell Tommy, “Please don’t hurt my body. Please don’t hit me.”
I have found that the variation where the adult empowers the child to assert him/herself can be very helpful. I avoid using terms (even in my brain) as “victim” or “offender/bully” because I don’t think that is helpful for the child who has been wronged. Empowering the injured party to stand up for themselves by saying, “Please don’t touch me.” or “I don’t like that,” goes much further to correct problematic interactions between children rather than becoming shocked and irate on their behalf.
At my toddler’s Montessori childcare, if one child hurts another, the child who has done the hurting asks the injured child how he can help: sometimes s/he will bring an ice pack or a glass of water to the child who was hurt as an act of “restorative justice.” When adults avoid forcing roles such as offender and victim onto children, we help the so-called “victim” to avoid feeling worse. This gives kids great confidence. I witnessed my two-year-old walk up to a bigger three-year-old boy and tell him, “Michael, please don’t pull my hair and push my body. Okay? Okay, Michael?” She waited until he affirmed this course of action, and I actually became tearful as I watched her confidence and poise “confronting” this older boy. Was Michael a bad kid? Was he a bully? Not at all. Most children at least “try on” the roles of each side of the behavior, and I think most parents would attest- it’s almost worse when your child is the hitter/biter than when they are hit/bitten.
But it is still awful to watch our children get smacked around or mistreated– physically or verbally– by their peers, especially if it is a recurring dynamic. And while there is great value in allowing kids to work things out themselves, it is sometimes appropriate to intervene.
After a recent music class, a grandmother expressed her frustration that her grandson seemed to “attract” bullying. “Does he have “victim” written all over him?” she asked, after another child had pushed him several minutes earlier in class. I acknowledged how disheartening it is when quiet, kind children are targeted by other kids, and I wanted to help give her some strategies for eliminating this from becoming a pattern.
- Validate their feelings Let your child know that it is NOT okay for another child to hurt them- physically, verbally, and emotionally.
- Give them the words and tools Even toddlers can understand the words, “Stop! Don’t do that!” or “You may not hit me!” or “That’s not okay.” or “Please don’t push!” Help your child find language that works for him/her to be assertive when kids are being aggressive, or even simply unkind.
- Role play One thing that has helped me out tremendously with my older child is to role-play with her when we are alone together. This is particularly effective if you have noticed a pattern. When my daughter was in preschool, there was another girl who wasn’t very nice to her. We took turns playing the role of “Emily” and then being my daughter, Izzy. My daughter found it very amusing to concoct scenarios where her friend might say unkind things, and then to craft her own response.
- Speak for them, if you need to When children are very young, even if they understand the concept of telling another child, “Don’t push me!” they may not be able to do it. As a teacher, several times I have encouraged a student to “use their words” and address a child who was bothering or hurting them. If they are not comfortable or able to respond, I do it for them. “Sarah, Aidan does not like it when you poke his head. He is asking you to please stop.”
And what about if it is your child who is doing the hurting? I said it before, and I’ll say it again- as much as it sucks to watch another child clobber your offspring, witnessing your own child biting or pushing another kid can be worse. It doesn’t make them bad, and I strongly advise against using words like that when handling aggressive behavior. Judging and labeling our children is not instructive. Here are a few things that have worked for our family, when one of our kids is being rough or physical:
- Buy the books Hands Are Not For Hitting or Teeth Are Not For Biting Reading these books when our oldest was a toddler and preschooler helped to cement her vocabulary for understanding why these behaviors are not okay.
- Encourage restorative justice As I mentioned above, asking your child to not only apologize, but offer something comforting like an ice pack, drink, or hug, will help restore a positive dynamic and lessen the victim-bully scenario.
- Remove your child from the action I know some people are opposed to “time out,” claiming it is cruel and overly punitive. I’m not a big fan of “time out” as a regular consequence- I find other natural and logical consequences often work better. But I do believe there is a time and place to remove your child, and hurting other people is one of them. Rather than viewing it as a punishment, try this spin: Putting your child someplace safe like their bedroom, crib, or chair in another room, is a necessary and helpful opportunity for them to regain control of their body. When our two-year-old pulls her sister’s hair, or whacks her, or (gulp) chokes her with a blanket, we immediately take her to her crib and tell her, “You are not in control of your body. You hurt your sister, and you need some time to get control of your body.”
While these types of behaviors are extremely developmentally appropriate for toddlers, they are still frustrating and discouraging, and need to be mindfully dealt with so that they do not become patterns.
I think this is an important topic, and I’d love to get a dialogue going- if you found this post helpful, please “like” or share! What are your most successful techniques for dealing with these situations? How do you handle it when someone hurts your child? How about when your child hurts another kid?
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