A Look at Aggression
Let’s examine the subject of aggression in the preschool-age child—where it comes from and what to do about it.
We’ll start with Cory. He’s a 4-year-old who attends an all-day preschool in which he is one of a group of 30 children. He gives his teachers a lot of trouble because he seems always to be hurting someone. Someone is constantly having to deal with the aftermath of his aggressive behavior. What’s going on with Cory?
Causes of Aggression
It’s not easy to say what’s going on with Cory. There are many possible reasons for his aggressive behavior—some simple and fairly easy to solve, and some much more complex. It could be simple—Cory has just not learned any other way to behave. In that case, he needs to be taught. Or it could be that Cory was rewarded for this behavior in the past and is continuing to be rewarded for it, so he continues his aggressive behavior. It could also be that Cory’s behavior is the result of bottled-up emotions. Maybe something is going on at home, and he’s feeling very upset by it. He’s letting off steam at school. His behavior might even stem from a physical source—either his own body chemistry or influences of the environment interacting with his physical makeup. Or his aggression can come from an extreme defensiveness. The following sections explore these sources of aggression more closely.
Children can learn aggression from watching others get what they want through aggressive means. They may see this on television or in their own homes or neighborhoods. They can even learn it at preschool from watching classmates. They can, of course, also learn it from firsthand experience.
For example, a child wants a toy. She grabs it from another child, and pushes him when he fights back. She has the toy—she gets her reward. Or, if adult attention is the reward she’s looking for, she gets that attention when the adult marches across the room, grabs the toy out of her hand, and holds her arm tight while squatting down to look her in the eye and give her a good, long scolding. She gets even more attention when she is marched over to apologize. Her final rewards come when she is placed in a time-out chair and brought back every time she gets up. She has the adult’s full attention—including eye contact, touch, and a long stream of words. She can get the adult to notice her even from clear across the room simply by her behavior. If she still wants more reward, all she has to do is push one of the adult’s buttons. Spitting will probably do it. A “bad word” will usually do it, too.
If this child has learned this way of getting attention, the solution is to give her the attention she needs in other ways, and to make her “unlearn” the ingrained behaviors. Behavior modification is the answer. The adult must unlink the behavior and the reward by withdrawing attention rather than pouring it on. This is not easy to do while keeping everyone safe. Sometimes it is a matter of providing physical control while giving the least attention possible. Other times just ignoring the behavior will eventually make it go away. However, if this is a longtime pattern, it will probably get worse before it gets better, until the child learns that the attention she so desperately needs will come, but is linked to a different kind of behavior.
The problem is that most adults who have to deal with this kind of aggression in a child are sorely tempted to turn to punishment; they want to hurt the child either physically or emotionally. What they may not realize is that hurting children doesn’t work. You don’t make a child less aggressive by hurting her—you make her more aggressive. Way back in 1975, Barclay Martin reviewed 27 studies on the effects of harsh punishment and concluded that children were likely to store up frustration from being punished and vent it later, using the violence that was used on them. The message regarding avoiding using aggression to deal with aggression is still valid today.
Power may be behind the child’s need for aggression. Power issues are never solved by being overpowered, which is the message behind punishment.
© ______ 2009, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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