Monday, April 2, 2012

4 year old's aggressive behavior in school

I’m reaching out to you, like many parents, with sadness, desperation and frustration.  My son, who is 4 years old (to be 5 in July) has been having behavioral problems for a long time.  He was always a very strong willed child, however, we started having more serious issues after enrolling him in nursery school at the age of 2 years and 4 months.  He was expelled from his first nursery school for aggressive behavior towards teachers and too hyperactive (this was after 6 months of attending the school).  After this incident, my husband and I were very careful at selecting another school.  He was then enrolled in a Montessori school.  He has been attending this school for 2 years now.  As in the other school, he has been very aggressive towards teachers.  He has been suspended from school many, many times due to his behavior. Recently, he started to show aggression towards other children (becomes frustrated because he doesn’t win, etc) which was never a problem before.  He has been (unofficially)diagnosed with ADHD and he is currently attending behavioral therapy with some improvement.  My husband and I can work with him very well, but his behavior at school is a big challenge.   My question is regarding any strategies that can be used in a classroom environment.  His teachers try very hard to work with him, and I know that they will try any techniques that can improve his behavior at school.  I’m looking forward to your new book, please let me know once it becomes available.

Hi, First, think about what is going on when your son becomes aggressive toward teachers.  Can you and the teachers identify some triggers, and can you alter the scenario to reduce your child's frustration?  For example, if transition time is difficult for your child, maybe he can be cued ahead of time, and he could earn an incentive for cooperation.  If you use incentives, you could use smiley faces, for example, that your child could trade for a special activity when he gets home.  The activity would vary each day or two so your child does not become bored with it (and could repeat the following week), would be something your child likes, and would need to be short term (no more than a half hour) or else it gets too difficult for you to do the activity with your son on a regular basis.

If your child gets angry with other children when he loses, you and the teachers could cue him when he starts a game that "everyone loses," or direct him toward non-competitive games.  You want to try to use catch phrases like "everyone loses sometimes" before he starts to get upset, because it will be harder for him to delay and think rationally once he gets upset.  He could also earn a smiley face (or other reward) if he shows self-control when playing with other children. 

If he has a tantrum, it is best to remove him to a time out area where he does not get any attention until he calms down.  He could also lose a privilege that night at home, or you could just go with the time out in school as a consequence if the school is able to do this.  If you use consequences make them short term and fairly immediate if possible.  If he has a lot of tantrums, set the goal ( to earn a reward or to avoid a consequence) as a reduction in frequency of aggressive behavior rather than make the goal "zero" tantrums. 

I would recommend you set up play dates if possible so he can practice interacting with one child at a time.  Many young children have trouble managing the interactions in bigger groups, so it would be good then for him to develop social skills in one-on-one situations first.  I also wonder if there is delayed social development, or if he shows any Asperger's signs (check my book or others on the subject).  You would want to work with him on social skills if this is a problem.  Check with a psychologist or therapist in your area if you are concerned about social skills issues.

Mostly in school you would want to start with behavior modification strategies until he matures and is able to show more self control on his own.  I describe a number of other strategies in my book, and will let you know when it is available, Dr. David Gottlieb   

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