Dear David Coleman: My son lashes out at school. Can we help him stay calm?
Q My seven-year-old son seems unable to control his temper at school. He gets angry and lashes out at other children almost immediately if there's any kind of disagreement. Usually, then, the situation deteriorates rapidly because he will be given out to for his reaction. He's getting into a lot of trouble in school for this. We punish him at home if he has a bad day in school, but wonder if this is excessive? Have you any advice on how to teach him to react more calmly if other kids don't want to play what he wants?
A I think we have to be patient with seven-year-olds in terms of their ability to fully regulate the strength of their emotions. Children this age will have an instinctive response to feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness and so on. For some children, however, that instinctive response may not yet be filtered by their rational, thinking part of their brain, and so they may just react behaviourally to the feeling.
Lashing out, when frustrated, is something we can almost expect from a younger child, like a toddler or preschooler. We hope, however, that as they get older they will learn that it isn't okay to just lash out, and that they must check their behaviour, even if they feel very frustrated or angry. Your son still needs to learn how to do this.
Giving out is unlikely to help him change. Punishing him is likely to be equally ineffective. Many children, when punished may feel like the punishment doesn't fit the crime (so to speak) and might feel resentful of the punishment, leading them to "retaliate" against the perceived injustice, and so the situation escalates. This may explain your observations of your son appearing to get himself into more trouble by how he reacts to the teacher's intervention.
Inevitably, seven-year-olds will make mistakes. They are only learning about the world, and primarily, even at this age, they are learning through their direct experience. So they might find out how something works, by pushing, pulling, squeezing, tipping, holding, swinging or otherwise manipulating it. So, sometimes their efforts to understand objects, other people, situations or experiences is based on this trial and error approach.
In order to help them learn, they need correction and guidance. They need to be stopped from doing the wrong thing and shown how to do the right thing. Punishment for doing the wrong thing might actually impede their learning, since their focus moves onto the punishment and away from what they need to do differently or better the next time. Your son is already being punished in school and so further punishment at home is likely to only further add to his grievance and might block him from listening to your advice.
Reaching the point of being able to correct a child might also involve first being able to show understanding of their point of view. We need to be able to see it from their perspective in order to be able to show them the better approach for the next time. So, listening to his side of the story and then empathising with your son's frustration that others are not going along him are the first steps to helping him to learn other coping strategies for dealing with their opposition to him.
Over time, teaching him skills of listening, negotiating, sharing and turn-taking will all help him to deal with disagreement. These skills are best coached, by demonstrating to him how to do them and then giving him some guidance, either during his efforts to use them, or afterwards on what bits worked well and what bits may still need to be done differently.