Q&A: My Son Is Hitting and Throwing Chairs in Daycare

CME WebsitesBehavior, Challenging Behavior

blockquote_bgMy 3-year old son has been dismissed from a second daycare because of hitting and throwing chairs and I am at my wits end. I am a single mother and his dad has never been in his life because he’s incarcerated. He’s had timeouts (that don’t work), had his toys taken away along with television (he’s ok with this) and I’ve just reached out to his father’s mom for help. She said that the dad was difficult as a child and I am scared that my son will end up in prison like his father.

This sounds like it is really frustrating and frightening for you. Has your son ever been evaluated by early intervention for behavioral or other developmental issues? It is hard for many child care centers to handle behaviors in young children such as hitting, biting, throwing, etc. and sadly we often hear of young children being excluded for these behaviors instead of trying to help the family & child seek professional help and support to minimize these behaviors. Since your son is over 3, he is too old for the 0-3 early intervention services in your county, however, he should still be able to be evaluated at the preschool 3-5 level. You might try calling someone at this website to obtain information on developmental/behavioral testing for your son in Brooklyn.

The first step is finding out what is behind your sons hitting and throwing behaviors: when they occur, what happens directly before they occur, who they occur with and where they occur and what are the consequences afterwards. For every behavior there is a reason behind it. Young children lash out by hitting, biting & throwing for a variety of reasons (and this list doesn’t cover them all): A) they can’t express verbally that they are angry, upset or frustrated B) they are imitating behaviors they see other children or adults do in real life or on TV C) they don’t like someone being too close to them or in their “personal space” D) they are overly tired or hungry E) they want attention and have learned this is a way to get it (even if it is negative attention) F) Hitting, throwing, kicking and biting are fulfilling a sensory need for the child (a child may have a sensory processing disorder).

The keys to changing a behavior are consistency and for young children positive reinforcement is a big key as well. When a behavior occurs, everyone needs to be responding to it in the same way, at home, day care, grandmas, etc. For example, when Jack throws his car across the room, he is told to go pick it up. If he does not pick it up he is told matter of factly and in a calm tone by the adult “Jack, you need to go pick up your truck or I will help you to go pick it up”. If he picks it up he is then told that “cars are not for throwing, they are for driving on the floor” and “if you throw the car again Jack, it will be put away”. If he did not pick it up, the adult can walk him over to the toy and assist him in picking it up and then repeat “cars are not for throwing, they are for driving on the floor” and “if you throw the car again Jack, it will be put away”. If he does throw it again, it is taken away for the rest of the day. But, keep in mind if he throws something at home and is allowed to get away with it, and then throws something at day care and simply gets yelled at and told “no throwing” and he throws something at grandma’s and gets a smack on the bottom, this behavior may never change since it is being dealt with in an inconsistent manner by all the people involved.

Many young children get into a pattern of acting out for attention because over time they have learned that the only time adults are paying attention to them and responding to them is when they are hitting or throwing. They soon don’t care if someone is yelling at them, scolding them, smacking them, etc. they only know that it is adult attention and that is what they are seeking. To change that pattern we need to “catch children being good” and lavish the praise on them whenever they are doing something positive or doing what we want them to do. They need to learn that attention comes from doing things well and listening and following rules, not for breaking rules or misbehaving. Many preschoolers are still in the “no” stage and can be defiant and this is not abnormal or unusual. But, if behaviors begin to disrupt learning or classroom routines, then this can be a problem.

Consequences for behaviors should match the behavior, so taking TV away in the evening because he hit another boy at day care would serve no purpose since the behavior occurred hours earlier and there is no association with the actual behavior that occurred. When he hits (or any behavior that hurts someone) it does need to be dealt with firmly, calmly and immediately and not with lengthy words or explanations or hitting him back. So he is told “no hitting, hitting hurts, you made Bobby cry” and he is removed from the situation immediately, while all the attention should be lavished on the child who got hit, not on the hitter himself. Time out is effective if used properly and consistently for hurting behaviors. No more than 3 minutes since he is 3 years old. When 3 minutes are up he is told again why he was in time out “You hit Bobby and made him cry. Hitting hurts. We use nice touches with our friends. Show me a nice touch”.

You can even use dolls or stuffed animals and act out scenarios with toys to encourage him to express feelings and learn it is ok to be mad, we all get mad, but it is not ok to hit people when he is mad. When he is angry teach him to use words “I am mad” and if he has a need to lash out, let him take out his anger or frustration by punching some pillows, etc. Some kids have a need to do this, so it’s a matter of letting them get it out in a more socially appropriate way. Some child care centers have even created “quiet corners” full of pillows and maybe a tent like structure where kids can go when they need to be alone or need to kick and hit and burn off steam…this can be more positive than going to “time-out” and being told to sit in a corner in a chair. For some kids it’s a matter of recognizing their early anger or frustration brewing and asking “do you need to go to the quiet corner?” and some kids will go willingly because they need that break and that time to release their frustration.

We have a lot of information on our web page about dealing with behaviors in young children, and some of these links may be helpful to you: behavior managementchanging behaviornegative feelingspositive reinforcement, and self-regulation. I would also suggest calling 718-522-7300 (All About Kids NY) for more information and then setting up a meeting with your son’s day care staff and asking them to write up a formal “behavior plan” detailing how their staff and your family will be dealing with specific behaviors, and let them know that you want to actively work on helping him learn to diminish these behaviors and that you need them to meet you at least half way and help you work on the behaviors through their teaching at day care and your teaching at home.