Dr Cara Swit, University of Canterbury
Understanding whether young children believe aggression to be acceptable or unacceptable is one of the first steps for teachers and parents to better predict their behaviour and understand the feelings and needs that are expressed via these behaviours. As adults, when we see young children using aggression, we are often quick to step in to solve the problem for the child. While we do this with very good intentions in mind, we might be missing critical opportunities to support young children to develop their own social competence and strategies to respond to social situations.
Research has shown that children who view aggression (e.g. social exclusion, rumour spreading, kicking, punching) as acceptable are more likely to use these behaviours to solve social conflict. So if children’s acceptability beliefs predict their behaviour, can we use young children’s social behaviours to better understand the feelings and needs (e.g. frustration or anger) that underlie those behaviours and support children to develop their own appropriate strategies to solve social problems?
Some real scenarios
Consider this scenario …
Sam was playing with blocks on the floor and Riley came over and kicked the blocks over. Sam stood up and said to Riley, “I’m not going to be your friend anymore if you don’t stop it.” Sam then walked away to tell other children not to play with Riley. Riley sat on the floor crying.
Now consider this scenario …
Alex and Bailey were playing in a life-size car. Alex was singing and Bailey said “Stop singing, we won’t hear the sirens” – but Alex continued to sing. Bailey then hit Alex on the head and Alex responded by hitting Bailey on the head but much harder, making Bailey cry.
Both these scenarios are real examples of behaviours that occurred during my research observations of young children playing with their peers in early childhood centres. Teachers and parents often consider these to be common, ‘typical’ behaviours used by 3-5 year olds; however, less is known about what young children think about these behaviours and whether they think they are acceptable. To some extent, one could argue that because the child is using these behaviours, they must believe that they are acceptable – and indeed, research has shown this to be the case for much older children – but what about younger children? As teachers and parents, we are often very quick to make conclusions about why children use aggressive behaviours without providing opportunities for children themselves to explain why they chose to use a particular type of behaviour.
Recall Scenario 1. I asked Sam why he had responded to Riley by saying “I’m not going to be your friend anymore.” Sam’s response was that it was because Riley was
“kicking over my blocks and that’s not nice. I was building a road for everyone to play with. But I’m sorry for making Riley cry.”
Even though Riley’s behaviour was inappropriate, by giving Sam the opportunity to explain and justify why he excluded Riley from the group, I now understand (1) that Sam views kicking over another person’s blocks as “not nice” – but also (2) that he is remorseful and sorry for retaliating with aggression that caused Riley to cry.
Now recall Scenario 2. I asked Alex why she had hit Bailey on the head. Alex’s response was
“Bailey hit me first so it’s okay to hit back.”
Again, while both girls in this scenario used harmful behaviours, this response tells me that Alex views physical aggression as acceptable, particularly if it is in retaliation to another negative behaviour used by a peer.
Scenarios 1 and 2 also show that by seeking information about why children choose to engage in aggression, we can more accurately understand:
- Whether the behaviour was intentional, and
- What functional purpose the aggressive behaviour serves for the child.
Like any behaviour, aggression comes from a functional place and young children are not just being ‘naughty’. As teachers and parents, we can take this information and teach children more appropriate ways to respond to their peers when they interact socially and when they are faced with conflict.
From aggression to teaching opportunity
New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, provides a foundation for children to be supported in learning about boundaries of acceptable behaviour and how to respect the rights of others. Teachers and parents play critical roles in encouraging young children’s positive social participation and competence, and this can be facilitated by providing support for behaviour that is socially and individually appropriate. For example, we can encourage children to reflect on the impact of their behaviour and empathise with the situation by asking questions such as:
- Why did you do that?
- How do you think (name) is feeling now?
- How would you feel if that happened to you?
- What can you do now?
These are all questions that tap into young children’s motives. Questions like this allow teachers and parents to understand more about the function of the child’s behaviour – and, more than that, such questions also encourage young children to reflect on the why of their own behaviour. Generally, no matter how young or old you are, if you don’t know why you’re doing something, it is very hard to change your behaviour.
The ways in which teachers and parents approach young children after the children have engaged in aggression are also important if we want to use these situations as teaching opportunities. For instance, when a child is frustrated and incredibly upset, they may not be in a receptive state to reflect on the situation. Timing is therefore important if we want young children to be receptive to our approaches. Rather than responding reactively and in the heat of the moment, we often need to be patient, allowing the child to cool down and process the situation and their behaviours. However, there is a fine line between allowing a young child sufficient time to cool down and intervening early enough to ensure they make the connection between their actions and the impact of their behaviour on others. The timing of this intervention will differ for each individual child; however, it is important that the approaches that teachers/parents choose to use promote a sense of acceptance and ensure that the child knows they are supported by the teacher/parent rather than being judged and labelled. All approaches to intervention should protect young children’s mana and develop their social and emotional competence – all of which have a significant impact on their peer relationships.
By approaching situations with empathy and openness, teachers and parents can use these social situations as an opportunity to teach appropriate and acceptable social skills. When teachers and parents rely on their own judgements and conclusions about why a child has engaged in aggression, or when little consideration has been given to the context and models of behaviour that children may have around them in the home and community, critical teaching opportunities are lost. While we often assume that young children who engage in aggressive behaviours lack social skills and social competence, we can’t forget that there are a number of children who strategically use aggression to achieve social dominance or other personal goals, usually in the form of proactive relational aggression. These children often are aware of their social status amongst their peers and may have more advanced social skills, as they are better able to predict the behaviours that will more effectively hurt or upset their peers. In some cases, these children could be using these types of sophisticated behaviours for much of their early years without being taught that these behaviours are unacceptable or being given more appropriate and acceptable social skills to use to achieve their underlying personal goals.
If there is one thing I want teachers and parents to take away from these findings it is this – there is value in directly asking children about their intentions and to explain their behaviour. Young children are much more clever than we give them credit for. By giving them a voice, we are proactively engaging them in the conversation about how to develop more acceptable and appropriate social skills before their aggression becomes pervasive.
Dr Cara Swit is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Canterbury and currently teaches in the Postgraduate Diploma in Specialist Teaching – Early Intervention. She continues to explore the important role of teachers and parents in fostering healthy social relationships in young children.