Living with Children: What to do about aggressive 3-year-old
Q: My 3-year-old son tends to react physically when he's mad at a preschool classmate instead of talking it out and letting the teachers intervene. We have encouraged him to use words when he's angry, but he doesn't seem to get it. Today he bit a classmate (the second time in a year this has happened), and got sent home. I fed him lunch and then confined him for the rest of the day to his bedroom. From now on, I plan on sending him to school every day with a "behavior report card." He'll get a mark for hitting, not obeying, and snatching toys from other kids. If he gets three marks in a day (morning, actually), I'll confine him to his room at home. Your thoughts?
A: My immediate thought is that boys, by nature, are more aggressive than girls. My second thought is that the problems you're describing are not that unusual when it comes to 3-year-old boys and aren't, in and of themselves, cause for alarm. This is not to say that aggression from a boy that age ought to be overlooked, but female teachers and mothers are more shocked by it than are males, including most dads. (But then, women are even more shocked when aggressive behavior comes from a girl.)
There is no apocalyptic significance to the sort of behavior you're describing. Even occasional biting -- which tends to provoke near-hysteria among preschool staff (and mothers of bitten children) -- is not pathological at this age and does not predict later adjustment problems. In the previous sentence, however, "occasional" is the operative word.
Boys are also more impulsive than girls and language is not their natural problem-solving medium. Trying to persuade your son to "use words" when he's angry is a laudable effort, to be sure, but you're not likely to obtain much success with this approach for another year or two...or three. This is another example of women expecting boys to be more like girls. As you've discovered, boys respond to concrete consequences. At much earlier ages, girls respond to words and are more successful at using them in social negotiations.
Your "Three Strikes, You're Out!" plan is pretty much along the lines of the approach I generally recommend in situations of this sort. I would only add 15 minutes of in-school time-out when one of the target misbehaviors occurs. Taking him out of the group for that period of time will give him an opportunity to calm down and "reset." It will also strengthen the "Don't!" message. And yes, if he bites or hits, his teachers should remove him from the group, call you, and keep him isolated until you arrive to take him home.
In the final analysis, the success of this plan hinges on everyone keeping their cool and cutting him no slack.
(Visit family psychologist John Rosemond's website at www.johnrosemond.com; readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org; due to the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.)
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