Tag Archives: self regulation

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Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Aggression in Early Childhood

Aggression is a good thing. It motivates initiatives – including learning, athletic effort, and healthy competition. Yet, good outcomes depend on the capacity to regulate aggression, and that is always a challenge. Self-regulation, as we have said many times in this blog, is a developmental competency that we keep working on throughout our lives. Self-regulation is a special challenge in early childhood, when it is just getting established, but it is a challenge at any age when we are under stress.

How do young children express aggression? They express it by running joyfully with their friends through the playground, by throwing a basketball or riding a tricycle fast, by shouting out the words of a song when cued, by laughing at a clown or shrieking with excitement at a magician. They also express it by pushing another child, by screaming, biting, or hitting, or by grabbing a toy away from a friend. What is the difference between these two ways of being aggressive? The difference is that the first way is adequately regulated; the aggression is under control. The second way is poorly regulated and out of control.

If children do not have adequate self-regulatory capacity to manage their aggression, they may express it with aggressive outbursts such as noted, but they also may express it by holding themselves tight – holding their bodies tight and holding on tightly to their emotions. That frightened, too-tight holding-on is intended to guard against an unwanted aggressive outburst and can manifest as excessive shyness or fear of speaking, or even as bodily problems such food pickiness or constipation. The reason that children fear the loss of control of aggression so much is that they are afraid of the destructive force of their aggression. Even if it is completely unrealistic that a small child could hurt an adult with an aggressive attack, children (out of their awareness) fear that this could happen. That can lead to nightmares of bad things happening to them or to their parents, whom they love and depend on. I want to stress that it is not the aggression that is bad, but it is the fear of losing control of it and harming someone that is bad for the child.

Why do some children have more difficulty managing aggression than others? Some children are temperamentally more sensitive, more active, or more intense. Some children have developmental difficulties that make it hard for them to “get it altogether” – from the point of view of regulation in various domains – motor, emotional, cognitive. Imagine how hard it would be to feel relaxed and confident if your body “didn’t listen to your mind”- that is what I sometimes say to impulsive children. Other children come from high conflict families in which overt or covert aggression presents a chronic threat. Still other children have histories of trauma – either directed at them or at a parent or even grandparent. Finally, some children have more than one of these reasons to have difficulty with aggression.

How can we help children develop the crucial competency? We can help them in three ways. First, we can create a safe situation in which both child and caregiver are not afraid. That usually means adequate and predictable adult supervision, predictable routines, and secure boundaries. Second, we can communicate tolerance of aggression and model constructive forms of aggression. For example, teachers who play basketball or tag with the children are helping the child experience the high arousal state of aggressive activity without the fear of losing control. At home, a parent’s skillful rough housing with a child can offer the same experience. Third, we can make it possible for children to practice aggressive activities without getting hurt or hurting others. Children cutting play dough with a wooden knife, crashing small cars into magnet tile constructions, and engaging in active playground activities are just a few ways I observed today at the preschool.

Our society has a strange and highly ambivalent relationship to aggression. Some parents in our culture prohibit pretend play with toy guns and soldiers, while others teach their children to shoot real guns. American television, video games, and movies are full of aggression. That puts parents in a difficult position, having to negotiate a reasonable balance between under and over controlling both their children’s aggressive behavior and the aggressive displays they are exposed to. There is no simple solution, but the guidelines as mentioned above are – demonstrate to your children a healthy attitude towards aggression; offer them a safe opportunity to take risks with their aggression and to practice using it; and give extra support to children with special sensitivities and needs so that they too can try out their emotions and test their bodies with exuberance.

Read this blog in Spanish.

The School

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Ginger went to observe in the school with a group of other visitors the first day. When she returned, she had many positive things to say about the school and the teaching. Every classroom they visited had active engagement of almost all the children. The teachers were tolerant of children having conversations with each other while working on projects. There were no desks. The students moved freely from place to place during the classes, while still staying engaged in their work. The teachers maintained a calm, contained environment. 

The teachers managed lack of participation and disruption – potential or actual – in an unusually skillful way. In one class on Social Studies, the students made paper lanterns and discussed a topic about profit and loss in an animated and involved way; the students who had trouble actively participating in the discussion, had something not disruptive to do with their hands in a self-regulating way, allowing them to listen and follow along. A little boy in the upper kindergarten who wanted to be part of a puzzle activity during a free choice time had difficulty collaborating with the puzzle doers. The teacher came up and put a hand on his shoulders and to calm him and support his efforts, and when that was not successful, guided him to another activity that had a more sensory basis, sorting seeds. He never sorted the seeds the way everybody else did but sat next to another child and kept scooping up the seeds and letting them fall through his fingers, his way of participating. He tried to take seeds from a little girl, but she set a clear boundary and he stopped. 

The teachers consistently displayed a calm and receptive manner, quietly acknowledging individual children’s successes.  In the upper kindergarten classroom, each child had to bring the teacher his or her journal when finished with each lesson, so that she could mark it. In that way no child was allowed to fall behind or drop out. The kids seemed to expect it to be a good day. Even at the end of the day, the children did not seem eager to leave.

After the school day was over, Ginger and I gathered in the Resource Room and gave a presentation about helping children learn. In addition to showing some videos of El Salvador that offered an example of adults facilitating learning in an infant, we concentrated on teaching about early developmental problems that can interfere with learning, introducing Dan Siegel’s model of the brain (Siegel, 2012) and Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model, and also offered some interventions designed for the “bottom up” healing of developmental problems that affect learning, such as breathing exercises, regulatory breaks of various types, and meditation (which is culturally syntonic here). The teachers were receptive and and stayed late to listen. At the end, Prajna suggested that we continue the next afternoon, so we did that.

After school, Prajna brought over tea and biscuits, and she reflected on how the school had changed over the years that she had known it. She discussed the project-based learning curriculum, a change from the original lecture-based curriculum. They eventually moved to what they called an activity-based instruction method in which they added structure to a project-based model. In that way they “grew” their own curriculum, adding structure to allow for more helpful classroom control. She explained that the teachers remain with their classes through the lower grades, providing a continuity of the caregiving role of the teacher. Prajna also mentioned her belief in the value of practice and structure in learning. 

Then I did a little work of my own and later followed her to the dining room where the older children (“standards” 5-8) were doing homework. It was now 7:00, and the children would not eat until 9:00. There were thirty kids, both boys and girls, sitting in two circles on the floor, and Prajna was the only adult in the room besides me. Prajna was leading a lesson on English grammar, and of the twenty children sitting with her, all of them were actively engaged for more than 40 minutes, eagerly offering answers to her prompts.  From time to time, a child from the other circle, where the children were working together in small informal groups doing math, would come to ask Prajna to review their work. She always interrupted to do this, and she gave a non-effusive but affirming response to each child. One thing I noticed is that Prajna immediately responded to each child who made a bid for her attention, even if it were for a few seconds; I remember being impressed with Rachel’s habit of doing this at Love and Hope.

Siegel, D. (2012) The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (Second Edition). Guilford Press.

photograph by Ginger Gregory

 

Read this blog in Spanish.