In a previous post, we explored how natural consequences can help children learn to control their own behaviors.  A question arose in the comments: “How should adults (parents and teacher alike) handle a child who is disruptive and aggressive to others?”

The short answer is: There’s no one right answer (but some wrong ones!).  Because every scenario, every child, and every adult is different, the right approach has to include a tailored mixture of common sense, compassion, firmness, and consistency.  Additionally, you should consider the age of the children you’re helping, since toddlers and pre-schoolers use different levels of communication and reasoning.  With that said, here’s an approach I’ve used successfully in the past, but again, the ideal “technique” will depend on the characteristics of the situation at hand…

First of all, if a child is putting a peer in danger (i.e. biting or scratching), it is best to separate the aggressor from the situation as unemotionally as possible and take him to an area where he can calm down safely.  Theresa, an experienced Montessori guide, placed a pillow under a table and used it as a calming spot for one student.  In some cases, an over-stimulated child might need to leave the scene entirely for a little while.

Reacting to a child’s behavior out of anger and panic is NEVER an effective solution. You might feel angry and frustrated with the aggressor (I know I have!), yet the situation is not about youHis behavior is not a reflection of your ability as a parent or teacher! He is simply asking for guidance in dealing with an unfamiliar experience and strange feelings… It’s a beautiful learning moment, so take advantage of it!  You should use a firm voice to let the child know his behavior is unacceptable, but don’t fight violence with violence!

After separating the children, give the aggressive child time to sort through his emotions while you (or another adult) make sure the other child is not seriously hurt; let them both cry if necessary, and invite them to breathe deeply (you might want to take a few deep breaths yourself!).

When the aggressor has calmed down enough to talk, ask him the following questions:

1)  What are you feeling? (The language of emotions is key to developing emotional intelligence)

2)  What happened? (Get his side of the story but don’t jump to conclusions)

3)  Are you ready to tell your friend how you’re feeling and find out how he’s feeling? (If he’s not ready yet, respect this and let him know that you’ll give him a few more minutes to collect himself before going to talk to his friend.  Then follow through!  If he is still unwilling to talk, invite him to sit in a chair and let him know that when he’s ready to talk he can get up and join you.)

Truly listen to his answers without judging him or dismissing his claims.  What sounds trivial to you could be of monumental importance to a four-year-old and will define how he deals with problems as an adult!

When both children are ready, invite them to sit down (this provides a non-confrontational setting), sit with them at their level, give each a turn to air his grievances, and listen to both sides of the story carefully without taking sides (even if one child got hurt).  You’ll be surprised how many times I’ve found that the child who got hurt was the one who started the altercation!

Once you have the facts, find out how each child felt during the altercation. Make sure they understand each other’s feelings by re-stating their emotions: “John, Peter says he felt angry when you took the tricycle away from him.”

You should also make sure that the aggressor understands physical violence is never a good choice, by asking, “How do you think Peter felt when you punched him in the stomach?”  Don’t be afraid to put him in the victim’s shoes by following up his answer with, “How would you feel if someone did that to you?”  If you get a muttered “I dunno” as a response, you could add, “I think you would feel hurt and angry, just like Peter did, because nobody likes being hit and nobody deserves to get hit.”  As always, keep your voice firm but calm, because unnecessary drama on your part will cloud the lesson.

Then, ask both of them what they could have done differently to prevent the situation from happening.  Sometimes they draw a blank here, and this is normal.  After all, if they knew what the right choice was, they probably wouldn’t have gotten into a fight to begin with!  Prompt them by asking what the rule is about the limit that was broken.  “Peter, what’s the rule about taking turns with the tricycles on the playground?”

Once they state the rule, if they are still unsure of what they should have done differently, you can provide a couple of positive and reasonable suggestions that adhere to the rules of the environment (i.e. playground, home) and are easy for the children to remember in the future.

Never make two children to apologize to each other before they are ready. A forced “I’m sorry” teaches the aggressor that he can get away with anything as long as he’s willing to say a few empty words, while it devalues the needs and emotions of the victim.  Instead of demanding an apology, you could ask both children if they feel better after talking things through.  Since it’s quite likely that they will be ready to make amends using their own words (instead of your prompt), you can point out how wonderful it is to talk about our problems and understand how the other person is feeling.

You might be shaking your head and thinking, “How in the world will I find the time and patience to go through this?”  Have faith!  It really only takes about five minutes to go through this mediation process, since children are very transparent and their issues are normally easy to solve (thank goodness!).  Sometimes, before you finish mediating they’ll be running off to play holding hands!

I have seen this approach work even for children who are what you might call “repeat offenders”.  With consistency and love, even the most impulsive children can develop a more peaceful method of dealing with problems.  Children use the tools we give them, so behave with them in the exact same way you would want them to behave with each other.  You will be amazed at the long-term results!

Above all, don’t be afraid of conflict, because within it lies an amazing opportunity for growth and learning, not just for the children but for you and your entire family.

Pilar Bewley is an AMI trained Primary teacher in Southern California. This summer, she will start AMI Elementary training in Bergamo, Italy.