Q. For the past few months, our usually compliant 4-year-old son has been having problems with defiant behavior at school. He often refuses to do what he is told by the teacher. What concerns us even more, however, is that he has recently had two episodes of aggressive behavior toward other children, both very well-behaved girls, and both during snack time. In the first incident, he stabbed a girl with a plastic fork when she told him something he didn’t like. The second incident occurred when he pushed a girl over some minor territorial dispute. When confronted by the teacher or us, he is very aware that these behaviors are not OK. We’re at a loss as to why they have occurred in the first place and not clear on how to handle them.
A: Asking why a child is misbehaving in a certain way can be very distracting if not downright confusing. In most cases, any answer is going to be speculative. Furthermore, 10 psychologists are going to come up with at least six different speculations, five of which are going to be plausible.
That being said, I will speculate. First, boys by nature are more aggressive than girls. Second, boys by nature are impulsive. Third, boys are more likely to respond physically rather than verbally to conflict. Girls talk; boys fight. Add those together and you get a boy who stabs a girl who says something he perceives as provocative and aggressively defends his territory – or what he thinks is his territory – when it is “violated.”
Problems in preschool, when there are no such problems elsewhere, can indicate a mismatch between the child and the program. Defiance may be a child’s reaction to an impatient teacher or an overly structured classroom (the rather ubiquitous result of overregulation). If that’s the case, behavior problems may miraculously disappear with a new school year.
But even if the teacher has an authority issue, you should support her expectations and discipline. Your son needs to see a unity between home and school. Setting that precedent is extremely important to his future classroom success.
A simple preventive approach to his aggression would involve having him sit by himself during snack time. If he’s aggressive in some other context, the teacher should immediately remove him from class and call you to come get him and take him home. At home, he should be confined to his room (stripped down, in advance, to bare essentials) for the remainder of the day and sent to bed early. Assuming there’s no more than meets the eye to the problem, that approach usually cures classroom aggression within a few weeks.
Where his defiance is concerned, obtain a report from the teacher when you come to take him home. Every defiant incident at school should result in less privilege at home. One can result in no television; two incidents can result in early bedtime, and three can result in room confinement.
A calm consistency on the part of both you and the teacher should minimize if not eliminate these problems in fairly short order.
Visit family psychologist John Rosemond’s website at johnrosemond.com.