Managing Violent & Explosive Behavior in Young Children
"Violent outbursts do not necessarily mean the child is overly willful, wild, or bad. It speaks to an inability to cope with strong feelings, communicate needs, or navigate social situations."
Kit Richert, Ph.D.
Consider the following vignette:
- Mrs. Berdine tells her 1st grade class that it is time to line up to go to art class. Little 6 year-old Daniel races to be first in line but is narrowly beaten out by James, who also wanted to be first. Daniel explodes, screams at James that he is going to kill him, and pushes him to the ground. Mrs. Berdine responds to the commotion by telling Daniel to come talk to her. Daniel screams “No!” and begins shouting swear words. He rips the poster off the wall to his left. This is the third explosion from Daniel this month. His other incidents resulted in a thrown pencil and more threats that he would “kill” his peers. Efforts by Mrs. Berdine and the principal to discipline and counsel Daniel are not working.
Does Daniel’s meltdown sound familiar? Explosive physical and verbal behaviors from elementary and even preschool aged children are becoming more common, perhaps due to familial and societal factors. These behaviors MUST be addressed early in the child’s development or they can evolve into a fixed tendency to become violent. Some key points:
1. Violent outbursts do not necessarily mean the child is overly willful, wild, or bad. It speaks to an inability to cope with strong feelings, communicate needs, or navigate social situations.
2. Social skills and coping skills are things that can be taught and practiced at school.
Of course it is critical that the life circumstances and overall health of each child be considered and assessed individually to create the best intervention. Meltdowns can indeed be symptomatic of a difficult home situation. But on a general level, experts agree that the key to early intervention for young children to build new resources within the child and reinforce positive behavior.
1. Use a Team Approach.
Work With All the Adults Involved.
Make every effort to create the intervention with parents. Ask parents if they see violent behavior at home and where and when it occurs. Find out if there are any significant events occurring in the child’s life outside of school, such as a birth of a sibling, a death in the family, a divorce, or high level of parental conflict. Have they been victimized in the past? Do they have any medical or mental health problems that are known? Are they eating and sleeping properly? These questions will help you get to the bottom of the child’s difficulties.
Don’t Forget to Involve the Child.
Kids are often more intuitive than we give them credit for. Ask questions about their explosions, why they happen, and what may be going on outside of school.
2. Identify the Underlying Trigger for the Explosions.
Using everyone’s help, brainstorm about when, where, and why these explosions occur. These answers will help you create your intervention. What situations tend to lead to a violent outburst? Are they social, academic, or athletic? Do they occur when the child doesn’t get what they want? To they have a low academic skill level and get frustrated with work? Are they modeling the behavior of a violent role model? Are they being teased?
3. Identify the Warning Signs That the Child is Headed Toward a Meltdown?
Children often show a pattern of behavior when they are becoming upset. Making sounds, saying things, increasing or decreasing their activity level, pounding the desk, etc.
Create the Intervention With the Child and All Adults Involved. Take the Following Steps:
1. Share your ideas about triggers and underlying causes. Get everyone in agreement about them. For the example of Daniel, we may guess that he doesn’t know how to cope with disappointment or communicate his wants.
2. Teach the child to self-monitor and recognize when they are headed to a meltdown. We might help Daniel to identify what his pattern of behavior is, what it felt like in his mind and body when he was triggered (feels his fists clench, face get hot, etc.).
3. Develop behavioral alternatives and new coping skills for the child to practice. In the case of Daniel, he might be helped to identify what he could have done differently when he got angry. Perhaps seeking help from the teacher would have been a better way to cope with his feelings of disappointment, or taking a time out to cool down. There are usually several possibilities.
There are many comprehensive curriculum programs for schools that teach social positive behavior skills. All young children struggle to learn to share, manage a conflict, tell without tattling, and tolerate disappointments or teasing. Adopting a school-wide curriculum gives children and teachers a common language and system for working through problems, and creates a culture where working-it-out lessons are seen as being as much a part of school as math lessons. It will give explosive children opportunities to practice new skills and problem solving techniques along with their peers, and make them feel normal for working on their intervention goals.
One such program is called Second Step. Second Step includes a weekly social skills curriculum for each elementary grade level.
Some Other School-Wide Prevention Measures Are:
1. Develop and communicate clear expectations and consequences for behavior to all students and parents at the beginning of the school year.
2. Reinforce behavior values through bulletin boards, regular announcements, etc.
3. Praise every student that you see making a good choice.
4. Model the skills you want your class to learn.
5. Train teachers and aids to model behavior.
6. Develop a problem-solving team among teachers at your school to discuss difficult behavior cases.
7. Create a time-out room for children to go to when they need to regroup.
8. Be accessible to students and parents call home when you are concerned.