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Ask the Experts

How Can I Help my Son Stop Hitting?

By Dr. Lisa Hunter, Child Psychologist

Question:

I am the parent of a 5-year-old boy. He is in kindergarten and since preschool he has had difficulty keeping his hands to himself.

In preschool he would hit other children. Now in kindergarten, he may push, hit or try to boss other children or say mean things. I am a social worker and I know that children have to develop socialization skills.

However, his teacher has implemented a behavior chart in which he has to earn happy faces or get unhappy faces if he misbehaves. The behaviors have decreased, yet I want to know if there is more I can do to reinforce the positive behaviors and to eliminate the negative ones.

He is maturing in his play, which is good. If we can get him to keep his hands to himself it would relieve a lot of my stress.

Answer:

The behavior chart your son's teacher has implemented is a good idea, and it sounds like it is working to some extent because his aggressive behaviors have decreased.

I think it is also important to determine the cause of your son's aggressive behavior (i.e., what is motivating your son to act aggressively?). Is he hitting other kids to get attention? To get something from the other children? To escape an undesirable situation?

Careful observation of your son's behavior in his classroom by his teacher, a school psychologist or counselor could help determine the answer to these questions. Whoever conducts the observation should pay attention to what happens before your son engages in aggressive behavior and what happens after. This information coupled with the teacher's insight about your son's behavior will help determine the cause of his aggressive behavior.

It is essential that whatever behavioral plan the teacher implements for your son takes into account his motivation for his behavior. For example, if he is hitting to get attention, giving him attention in the form of stickers for good behavior makes sense. However, if he is hitting to get something from other children, a behavior chart will not be that effective.

In addition to identifying the cause of your son's aggressive behavior, I think he could also benefit from learning social problem-solving skills (i.e., how to resolve conflicts and get along with others). You can teach him these skills at home by helping him to identify his feelings, talking about how to deal with feelings of anger, and modeling effective problem-solving.

An excellent resource for helping parents to teach young children problem-solving skills is Raising a Thinking Child Workbook:Teaching Young Children How to Resolve Everyday Conflicts and Get Along with Others by Myrna B. Shure (Research Press, 2001).


Dr. Lisa Hunter is an assistant professor in the department of child psychiatry at Columbia University and the director of school-based mental health programs at Columbia University's Center for the Advancement of Children's Mental Health. Her research focuses on the development, implementation, and evaluation of school-based mental health and prevention programs. In addition she is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. She specializes in cognitive behavioral treatment for children and adolescents.

 

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/17/2012:
"My 4 yr is hitting and when asked why he responds with because i did. Then later on he'll say that he is getting hit. The teacher does not say what they are doing when he hits just that he hits. I've spanked him and taken away things. Last night for the 1st time trying made him stay in his room all night fromm time we got home to the time his mom picked him up. We'll see if he hits today. "
09/21/2011:
"well first you need to teach him manners, you need to teach him that hitting is unacceptable in school and that if he keeps on doing that put him in time out and once he sees that hitting is not nice then you let him play with other people and also tell him treat people the way you want to be treated by keeping himself to himself and that's all you got to do! "
09/2/2011:
"i also have a son in the same situation but he doesn't talk and behavioral charts are of no interest to him. he is 8 years old and is 130 pounds. He is very mellow at home but when he is at school he gets aggresive at school. does anybody has any suggestions to what I should do. I need all the help I can get. "
10/4/2010:
"My son is three years old and we are having a problem with him hitting. I have asked his teachers if they have noticed if any one thing is provoking him and they have told me no that he is just hitting to hit. We have tried several different things from taking toys away, time outs, no movies (which he loves), rewards for when he has good days. Nothing seems to work. He will go one maybe two days without hitting and then the rest of the week he will hit or push several times throughout the day. The day school has started putting him in a separate room as he makes a big fuss when put in time out and disrupts the class. Any help or suggestion you may be able to provide are greatly appreciated. "
03/11/2010:
"My four and 1/2 year old keeps hitting and sometimes kicking at daycare. He's doing this not only to his 'friends', but the teacher. The daycare is on the verge on kicking him out. We have tried talking to him (he's very smart and has good communication skills, spanking him (a last resort) and taking away TV and toys. Nothing seems to help for long. He wants to be the boss and gets angry when he cannot. I am taking him to a behavioral (?) or play therapist next week. I am at the end of my rope. Any suggestions? "
12/10/2009:
"I have a question about a 2yr old boy I care for. I started taking care of him at 16 months. He bites, hits and pulls the other children hair. He is turning 2 know and he doesn’t bite any more but he is still hitting and pulling hair. I have to shadow him consistently. I do distraction methods and avoidance and time outs when he hurts the other children. I am consistent with him. I give him love and affection and try to teach him ways to express his frustration. I will give him lots of one on one time. Nothing seems to work, he is not getting any better. He gets violent over all situations it’s not just localized to one. He acts out when frustrated with his feelings, excited, happy, mad, upset, jealous, and bored. He also hurt the others when he wants something from them. His parent are doing the same work as I am to keep it consistent but nothing works. He also throws huge fits when his parents pick him up and try to get him dressed. He will hit them pull their hair and! scream. He has now taken up hitting and pulling my hair when his parents come. Can you please give me some advice on how to manage this situation. He is a sweet little boy. I just need help to eliminate this behaviour. Thank you for your time! "
09/29/2009:
"What Dr. Lisa said is very true. I would highlight that young children need to be taught how to control their emotions. It is normal for young children, 0-8, not to be able to control their emotions. Social-emotional control can be done taught explicitly. It often isn't though. Teachers are very good about making goals for children. However, they often fail to identify research based and developmentally appropriate interventions/strategies or what they will do to support the child in meeting the goal. A behavior chart is problematic when it only reports behavior. This is like weighing ourselves but never addressing our diet, excercise, stress and lifesytle. We cannot only report behavior but choose systematic interventions, identify who the key people are and what may trigger the behaviors. Sometimes adults have unrealistic expectations of children. Children can be taught through books, videos, modeling, clear expectations, role-playing, puppets, and stories. Children are not responsible for changing their own behavior."
04/15/2009:
"what if your child is hitting because he wants to get what the other child has or he wants them to stop doing what they are doing."
04/7/2009:
"so your saying making a behavior chart will get him to understand more what he is doing wrong.happy faces show he's doing good ,so he's rewarded and sad faces show he needs to have toys or activities tooked away.and does this really work and how long is the progress. "
06/2/2008:
"my child he hits so he will go to school next year and i dont wont him to get in trouble about hitting.so how can stop him from hitting so he wont get in trouble. "
04/7/2008:
"Another way to help a child keep his/her hands to themselves is by wearing a 'Don't Hit' Tee from Wear Your Manners. You can see the Tee at www.wearyourmanners.com. My son loves it and it really works!"
04/2/2008:
"My son is 4,and he is junior kindergarten. He is also experiencing the same behavior as the other mother has mentioned. He cannot keep his hands to himself. His teacher, has started this behavior book. But today when I picked him up, he not only pushed another male student. The student got hurt. And this is unacceptable. I have tried and explained that he needs to keep his hands to himself. He also knows, that if he misbehaves that he will lose not be able to play with his favorite toy. So I am not sure , if I should get an assessment done. If you could offer some ideas, that would be greatly appreciated. Thanks Christie"
03/11/2008:
"My child is autistic and in a blended classroom with other autistic children.One child has become increasingly aggressive and targeted negative physical behavior consistently toward my child. Despite meetings with the teachers,principal and special ed director for our school system the behavior continues. Yes I have even met with the child's mother. My child has sustained a facial injury with sustained scarring, a head injury that required a CT scan in a total of 14 incidents in three months. The aggressive child has been recommended placement at another facility however due to parental objection and the 'system' this has been nixed.Yet another incident occurred yesterday and I have requested a meeting with the School Superintendent as well as all parties involved to review the school handbook and actions to date. According to the 'code' this student should have been removed from this classroom. Please offer any suggestions for my addressing this situation. Observations by o! ther professionals have been conducted, evaluation by Emory University staff and other measures to include medicating the aggressive child have occurred. I have supported all of this thinking the aggressor just wants to communicate but my child's safety has become an overriding factor. "
09/5/2007:
"I have a 5 year old boy and I'm doing the same thing with chart but it's not working. I have took away T.V. his favorate stuffed animal and make him do more then just two pages of homework he comes home with. I know he wants to get that attention and he gets that at his fathers house because he is the only child there plus the only grandchild. When he's with me (mother) I have another son that 2 1/2 years old so he may not get all the attention but he does not act out when he's with me unless he tired or hungry. Grant my 5 year old does pretty much good until he's go to school. Not sure what can I do. Already tried talking the father about it but not sure he does the same thing that I'm doing on punishing are son. If you have anything I'm willing to try. Thank You Michelle Mills"
11/9/2006:
"Help...My daughter will not stop hitting! I read this article and practically fell out of my chair. My daughter is 5 and has Down Syndrome and is exhibiting the exact same behaviors as this boy being discussed in this article. The only difference is that she does NOT have good communication skills and trying to figure out what she is feeling or thinking is like trying to read Chinese. She has really good situational communitation but when it comes to her trying to recount an event or tell you her feelings when something happened, I dont think even she knows how to formulate those thoughts yet. She just kind of looks at us with a blank stare. She is VERY aware that hitting hurts other people because she does not like it when someone cries when she hits them, and even if they dont cry she immediately says, 'I'm sorry'. And continues on without a second thought. The other day she got sent to the Principals office because she tripped the teacher, whether it was on purpose or not has not yet been determined, but I have! been getting notes every day now for at least 2 weeks that it is getting worse. She has been on the reward system using Smily face stickers for good behavior and sad faces for bad but that does not seem to be working anymore. I tried to impliment good behavior rewards at home after school in the form of private time with me alone before bed for reading or playing, since she has a little brother and my time is shared, but even that does not seem to work anymore. I am today at my highest stress levil because I am afraid the school district is going to take action and try to get her out of the class. Any advice at all is welcome and appreciated. Thank you!"
09/27/2006:
"This is a great article. My son who is 2 years and 9 months has just started in preschool. It is a parent preschool and therefore I am able to participate and see how my son is dealing with each situation. He is a timid and shy child and therefore is 'bullied' by other agressive children. This article has helped me to look for signs before my son is 'hit'. In our parent education classes, we are also taught how to resolve conflicts amongst the children. This article will be very helpful for all those parents trying to teach their child conflict resolution. "
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