Q: When my 3-year-old son misbehaves, I generally take things away from him and he generally responds well. One lingering problem is that he tends to react physically when he’s mad at a classmate instead of talking it out and letting the teachers intervene. We have all encouraged him to use words when he’s angry, but he doesn’t seem to get it. Today he bit a classmate (the second time in a year this has happened) and got sent home. Once home, I fed him lunch and then confined him for the rest of the day to his bedroom with books and some trains. From now on, I plan on sending him to school every day with a “behavior report card” on which I’ve listed the problems of hitting, not obeying his teachers, not sitting still during circle time and taking toys away from other kids. I’m going to ask his teachers to give him a mark every time one of the problems occurs. If he misbehaves five times in a school day, then I will confine him to his room when he comes home and put him to bed early. Biting will override the list and get him sent home immediately. What are your thoughts?
A: First, a “duh” statement: Boys are more aggressive than girls. Unfortunately, in most preschool settings these days, boys are being held to female standards of behavior. This is not to say that aggression in boys ought to be overlooked, but female teachers and mothers are more shocked by it than are males, including most dads. (But then, women are even more shocked when aggressive behavior comes from a girl.)
When the perpetrator in question is a 3-year-old boy, there is no apocalyptic significance to the sort of behavior you’re describing. Even occasional biting — which tends to provoke near-hysteria among preschool staff (and mothers of bitten children) — is not pathological at this age and does not predict later adjustment problems. In the previous sentence, however, “occasional” is the operative word.
Boys also are more impulsive than girls and language is not their natural problem-solving medium. Trying to persuade your son to “use words” when he’s angry is a laudable effort, to be sure, but you’re not likely to see much success with this approach for another year or two. This is another example of women expecting boys to be more like girls. As you’ve discovered, boys respond to concrete consequences. At much earlier ages, girls respond to words and are more successful at using them in social negotiations.
Your “five strikes, you’re out!” plan is pretty much along the lines of the approach I generally recommend in situations of this sort. I would only add in 10 minutes of time-out when one of the target misbehaviors occurs. Taking him out of the group for that period of time will give him an opportunity to calm down and “reset.” It will also strengthen the “Don’t do that!” message. And yes, if he bites, his teachers should remove him from the group, call you and keep him isolated until you arrive to take him home.
In the final analysis, the success of this plan hinges on everyone keeping their cool and cutting him no slack.
A family psychologist, Rosemond answers questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.