Monday 18 December 2017

David Coleman: Why is my son so aggressive in school?

Our five-year-old son started school this September. He is by nature a caring child and dotes on his new youngest sister. We have four children in all with the five-year-old being the second oldest.

We are concerned by reports of his aggressive behaviour at school. We have spoken to him about the incidents, explaining that he should not be hitting or kicking other boys or girls.

He always responds by looking chastised and saying "ohh kay". The incidents are continuing, however.

The school has started a star chart to encourage good behaviour. They have asked us to work with them by denying treats when he fails to get his stars, which we do. Is there anything else we should be doing to help him through this?

David replies:

I imagine it was a bit of a shock to discover that your otherwise caring child suddenly appears to be hurting other children. From how you describe the situation this seems to be out of character for him.

It is interesting that he doesn't act in an aggressive way at home, even though I could imagine it must be busy there with four young children.

In my experience, children often get frustrated when there is a lot going on in a house where there are lots of needs to be met beyond their own. Despite his natural frustration he has clearly learned, at home, that aggression is not allowed.

His behaviour seems to be very different in school. I am guessing, therefore, that there must be something about the environment in the school that leads, or allows, him to act this way.

So, perhaps there are other children at school who hit or kick? Perhaps the culture and the atmosphere in the school is such that aggressive behaviour can persist?

I wonder where in the school are the incidents of hitting and kicking happening? If the hitting and kicking occurs in the playground, then the school staff may need to reconsider how they supervise the yard.

If it only happens at breaks then it is unlikely that your son is the only child being aggressive. In this case, dealing with your son's aggressive behaviour needs to be part of a wider initiative in the school incorporating the responsibility of the children and the staff.

If the hitting and kicking happens in the classroom, and appears to only be carried out by your son, then it is fairer to focus just on him in terms of regulating his behaviour.

You describe that the school have decided to use a star chart to help focus on his behaviour. The principle of a star chart is that adults reward children with stars for specific behaviours that the children show.

This kind of a behavioural reward system works best when its focus is positive. So there must be clearly identified positive behaviours that children can demonstrate to earn the rewards.

For example every time he does something helpful for another child he can earn a star.

Even then, you might find that he needs examples of the specific friendly behaviours that you and the teacher want to see.

As you describe it, the star chart system that the school has set up seems to me to be a bit confused. Firstly, it seems set up so that your son earns stars for the absence of bad behaviour, rather than for demonstrating specific kinds of good behaviour.

Secondly, rather than gaining a reward for each star, or an accumulation of stars, it seems that his teacher wants you to punish him for not getting enough stars.

It makes no sense for you to be punishing your son for behaviour over which you have no control in terms of monitoring, intervening and regulating.

It is up to the teacher to have either consequences in place for misbehaviour or rewards in place for appropriate behaviour. When in doubt, we should always opt to reward good behaviour than to punish misbehaviour.

Where I think you and the school can work in perfect harmony is in the area of feelings. Feelings can be addressed whether the behaviour occurs in the yard or the class.

We can assume that your son either gets frustrated and hits out, or gets over-excited and hits out. The teacher can work on these kinds of feelings with the class as a group, getting them, in circle time for example, to talk about their cross feelings and what they do when they get cross.

This can then be expanded by the teacher to include other behaviours, that are safer and less hurtful, that children can do to express their anger without hitting or kicking.

For example the teacher might designate an area in the class (or the yard) as the 'cross spot', that has something soft that children can squeeze or hit or even yell into without taking their anger out on other children.

Similarly, in circle time, the pupils can be encouraged to talk about how upset they feel if they get hit or kicked. Then they can work together to set up some class rules about behaviour.

This kind of circle-time approach doesn't even have to target your son specifically, although naturally the hope is that he will learn what is, and is not, okay.

Your role at home, then, is to support this work about feelings, by also helping your son understand the impact of his hitting and kicking the other children.


You can help him to develop empathy with other children and begin to realise how others feel when he kicks or hurts them. You can do this by creating pretend scenarios and getting him to talk about how everyone is feeling.

You can do it with reference to programmes or cartoons that he might see on TV, encouraging him to identify the feelings that go with the different behaviours that TV characters might be acting.

It sounds like your son does know that the hitting and kicking get him into trouble (because he seems to understand that you are upset or cross with him when you hear about an incident).

More than that you just need to help him learn that it is distressing for those that he hits and that it is better to be friendly than aggressive.

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