“What do you do when a child hits another child?”

Recently, a parent of an applicant asked this question on a tour of Greenhouse. I began by explaining that we see these moments—tussling over a truck, knocking over someone’s building, hitting another child who took your crayons—as an opportunity to teach prosocial behaviors.  I explained that young children are just beginning to learn how to get what they want in socially acceptable ways. I described the work of nursery school as centering around becoming a productive group member. I talked about scaffolding the conflict resolution model, supporting our young children’s ability to solve their own problems, and setting the stage for them to become change-makers in their own world. When I was finished answering the question, another parent on the tour said, with a very puzzled look on her face, “Wait. My child is going to get hit?”

I realized there was a deeper question being asked.

“What do you do when my child gets hit by another child?”

For many of our children, nursery school is the first time they are in a consistent social group of their peers. School provides the context for them to make and sustain relationships with people outside of their families. Conflict is an inherent part of any relationship. As our young children are just at the onset of their learning about relational skills like communication, respect for boundaries, and emotional regulation, these conflicts can often turn physical. Children can quickly become overstimulated or overwhelmed by the world. Our youngest children may not have the words to express their stresses; even the most verbal child can lose their words during stressful moments. Other children may have difficulties expressing their needs and wants because of developmental, social or language delays. Lashing out (hitting, kicking, biting) is what frustration looks like for young children. While this type of physical behavior is typical and developmentally appropriate for young children, it can still cause other children and adults to be filled with feelings of powerlessness, anger and fear.

At Greenhouse, we know and understand that it is our job to keep young children safe by having clear and consistent limits that are communicated with love and respect. We also know that a healthy understanding of how to deal with conflict is vital to our children’s development. The teachers remove their adult lens as they practice objective observation and try to identify the point of view of each child in their class. Teachers set children up for success; they make intentional plans for transitions or meetings. For example, they might assign seating arrangements at meeting or strategically identify someone to be the line leader. Teachers provide one-on-one support when needed. They attend to each child’s developmental level and identify how to help individual children learn and grow in these first friendships. Even with this strong preemptive planning, conflicts happen: a child pushes another child off the tricycle because she wants a turn or a child hits a classmate because he got too close. How do we support both children in these moments?

We begin by regulating our own emotional reactions. Children look to us to see how they should react in the world.  Using the above example with the tricycle, a teacher would approach the children with a calm, even tone and a steady body. This tone, stance and mindset demonstrate that the teacher has respect and care for both children and that she has an inherent belief in the capacity of both children to be in a trusting friendship. We do not approach with fear, accusations or shame; there is learning for everyone in this situation.  We avoid assigning fault, blame or labeling someone or something as ‘bad’. Instead, we approach with support, openness and empathy.  As we approach the children and the tricycle and we see that there are no obvious physical injuries, with our open mind, we might say, “It looks like we have a problem.” If there are tears, we allow space and support for the expression of those emotions. With a supportive hug or a comforting arm around the crying child, we might say, “You are really crying.” The child’s expression of emotion is healthy, not to be hushed or hurried. Sometimes adults are quick to jump in and start solving the problem of sharing the tricycle without taking time to acknowledge the emotions that are present. In the same vein, if the child who did the pushing is in a heightened emotional state, we would provide that child additional adult support. While our young children’s bodies are small, there is nothing small about their emotions, which can easily engulf them. Having an adult beside them, soothing them with quiet words and gentle hands, sends the message that they are not alone with these big feelings. While a child is in a heightened emotional state, she can’t reason or hear logic. At this moment, both children’s feelings are more important than lectures or negotiations; helping the children find emotional equilibrium is our first goal.  When it seems like the feelings and bodies are becoming regulated, then we can move forward.

The next phase of the interaction is approached with authentic and appropriate empathy for both parties; this sets the stage for our children to see each other as whole people with different minds, ideas and motivations. For the child who was pushed off the tricycle, we want to provide space for her to build her capacity to assert herself. A teacher might say, “You didn’t like it when your friend pushed you off the tricycle. Let’s tell her that.” Or, “You can tell your friend to keep her hands off your body.” This moment of finding and using your voice to express your feelings and personal boundaries is important ongoing learning. For some children it comes easily; for others it is an ongoing journey. For the child who is reluctant to assert herself, we will model the language for her in many different scenarios:

“It’s my turn now.”

“Hey, stop that.”

“I don’t like it when you call me that. My name is ___.”

“That is teasing. Stop it.”

We will stand with her as she gains the confidence to use her voice to declare her own needs. This ability to assertively express yourself is an important part of forming and maintaining warm, supportive, mutually-respectful relationships across a lifetime.

In addition to learning how to assertively and confidently communicate her boundaries in this interaction, this incident provides an opportunity to see into the mindset of another person. Simultaneously, while we are modeling the confident expression of one’s boundaries, we are also modeling compassion and understanding for the child who pushed. After the heat of the moment is gone and we’ve solved the issue of the tricycle, we might later return to the child who was pushed and say,

“That was scary when you got pushed off the tricycle. I think your friend had a hard time finding the words to ask for a turn. She is still learning what to do when she feels frustrated. Someday soon she’ll remember to use her words to ask for a turn. Until then, you have a strong voice and big words you can use to tell her ‘no,’ and I am always here to help you, if you need me.”

This powerful statement sends so many important messages:

 Acknowledging and facing the feelings that arose during the incident.

 Reminding the child who was pushed that she has strength and capabilities.

 Reminding her that she is not alone; a grown-up is always there to help.

 Framing the child who pushed as having the capacity to learn and grow (instead of as being “bad” or “scary”).

Ultimately, we want to move forward from this situation with both children’s dignity intact. The child who pushed will learn more pro-social behaviors as she grows and develops. The child who was pushed will heal and will learn how to navigate friendships as she grows and develops. Nursery school is just the beginning of this learning process. With each passing year, our children’s abilities to control their impulses, verbalize their needs, regulate their emotions and take on the perspective of others will continue to grow and develop.  Finding out who we are in relationship to our peers and learning how we all get along in this world is an ongoing, lifelong journey for everyone.

Further Reading

“Fostering Friendship Skills in Early Childhood: Assertive Communication.” www. familycompass.com, 2018. www.familycompass.com/fostering-friendship-skills-in-early-childhood-part-2-assertive-communication/

Landsbury, Janet. “When Our Child is Hurt by Another.” www.janetlansbury.com, 2018, http://www.janetlansbury.com/2016/06/when-our-child-is-hurt-by-another/

Markham, Laura. “6 Steps to help your child find his voice”. www.ahaparenting.com, 2018, http://www.ahaparenting.com/blog/handling-aggression-from-kids-at-the-playground

Markham, Laura. “When Your Child Hits Your Other Child.” www.psychologytoday.com, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/peaceful-parents-happy-kids/201306/when-your-child-hits-your-other-child

Wipfler, Patty. “When Another Child Hurts Your Child.” www.handinhandparenting.org, 2018, www.handinhandparenting.org/article/when-another-child-hurts-your-child/