This week’s Parental Advisory question is one that I suspect many parentshave struggled with: What do you do when your kindergartener or first-grader is struggling with impulse control, has been physically aggressive toward other students, and the school is fed up?
“At a loss” writes in:
I have two lovely children. My daughter is three and my son is six. My son is one of the younger kids in his first grade class and we are running into some behaviour problems. Overall, he is a well intentioned kid. He’s sweet. And smart. Loves to read and practice maths. What we struggle with is impulse control, primarily in regards to keeping his hands to himself.
He had a REALLY hard time in kindergarten. But that was mostly the running in the hallway craziness of a five year old. He had a behaviour chart last year when he received smileys or frownies based on how he did during each period. Towards the end of the year, the novelty had lost his charm.
He got in trouble for things that I considered petty. Like playing with the water in the sink in the bathroom. Or leaving a hole in the line in the hallway. I reached out to his teacher to suggest more positive reinforcement and was largely rebuffed with, “He knows right from wrong.” He was defeated and no longer put forth much effort to behave. I was glad to move on from kindergarten.
First grade, however, was GREAT. He was learning and coming home with sweet notes from his teacher about how good he was. And then right before fall break, something happened and I still can’t figure it out. We had a two week stretch where he came home on “red” nearly every day for hitting someone. Most of these incidents were things like bumping into friends in the cafeteria intentionally, smacking a friend on the back in the lunch line... annoying, yes. Malicious, no.
Then one day he punched someone in the face and received (in-school suspension). I was appalled. These incidents are generally unprovoked. The kid he punched had just beaten my son in a race to the top of some stairs. The next incident will result in out-of-school suspension. When I ask him what on earth is going on, he is unable to find the words to explain it to me. He just tells me he’s sorry. He didn’t mean to. It won’t happen again. But then of course, it does.
He does very well in structured settings. His problems happen during recess and lunch. We’re running out of things to try and modify his behaviour. We’ve taken away toys. Thrown toys in the trash. Kept him home from special events. We discuss alternate solutions to his choices. We talk about how to refocus and calm down when we get too silly. We’ve started using a “Zone” chart (per the suggestion from the guidance counselor) for him to recognise when he’s heading down the wrong path.
We practice these things daily. We LAVISH him with praise when he does good things and give him special privileges and treats when he has good stretches. There has been talk of having him evaluated or seen by a psychologist. That hurts my heart. I don’t believe ADD or any sort of learning disabilities play a role. He retains information very well and is quite capable of focusing on his school work or anything he’s asked to do at home.
I am at a loss of how to proceed. I personally don’t feel like he needs a doctor. I’d like to chalk it up to immaturity. He doesn’t turn 7 until after first grade ends. But he can’t hit other kids. I know this. And I feel like the school is losing patience with us.
At a loss
Dear At a Loss,
Your son is struggling with impulse control, as I know you already know. Because... he’s six. His kindergarten teacher may have been correct when they said, “he knows right from wrong,” at least broadly speaking. But knowing doesn’t seem to be the issue here. It’s the controlling of the reaction that he’s struggling with. Which is why he isn’t able to explain why he acted this way. He doesn’t know why he can’t control his reaction. (Because, again, six.)
The thing is, it’s ok for him to feel frustrated that his friend beat him to the top of the staircase. We all feel frustration, annoyance, anger or even rage from time to time. What comes next—controlling the impulse to act out either physically or verbally—is a skill that we’ve had to learn. And one of the places we learned it the most was in school, where kids practice these social skills every day.
Maureen Healy, an expert in children’s emotional health and author of The Emotionally Healthy Child; Helping Children Calm, Centre, and Make Smarter Choices, put it a little more bluntly to me: “I don’t know where we got this idea in society that six-year-olds automatically have to make these brilliant choices,” she tells me. “They’re going to school so kids can get the social and emotional learning they need to [resolve conflict in healthy ways].”
So far, it sounds like you’ve mainly been trying to correct the behaviour—the result of the lack of impulse control—through a variety of disciplinary tactics, like taking things/events away or tracking behaviour with a chart. And although that may be reinforcing in his mind the “right versus wrong,” or “acceptable versus unacceptable,” what it’s not doing is helping him to build those impulse-control muscles. It’s like trying to treat the symptom, rather than the cause.
How do you help him build impulse control? Discussing alternate solutions and talking about how to refocus, as you’ve been doing, is a good start. But he also needs lots of practice at this. There are a few different approaches here that you might find helpful, and you might also consider introducing a daily mindfulness practice that he can call on to help him slow down when he becomes upset.
Healy also says she’s a big believer in what she calls “a third voice.” The first voice is the parent’s voice, the second is the voice of their peers and the third voice can be a trusted coach or teacher; this person should be a positive adult influence outside of a child’s parent or primary caregiver. I can’t tell from your letter whether your son’s first-grade teacher might be this person. You mention that he’s one incident away from an out-of-school suspension, which may be the school’s policy, but I’m not sure whether you view this teacher as an ally in helping your son learn to control his impulses.
Either way, I do suggest sitting down with both his teacher and the school guidance counselor to talk through his behaviour and the mindfulness skills he’s practicing at home so they can reinforce these ideas with him at school. If you’ve already done that and don’t feel that it’s enough—and it very well might not be—then I do suggest reaching out to a family counselor who specialises in early childhood development or child behavioural challenges. This doesn’t mean I think he needs to be evaluated for a particular disorder or disability, but a counselor could be that “third voice” he needs to help him identify and practice other ways to build his impulse-control muscles.
Remember, too, that a lot of what is going on with your son may be directly tied to personality and temperament. The fact that he’s among the youngest in the class is probably playing a part in all of this, but also, some kids simply feel things to a greater degree—and that makes it harder to control their stronger impulses. It’s more difficult to brush off the things you feel most deeply about, and some kids naturally operate at that “deeper-feeling” level more than others. (I am, truly, speaking from experience here; if you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide For Parents Whose Child is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic.)
As you said in the opening of your letter, your child is lovely and has plenty of wonderful characteristics. His intense emotions can be a blessing as he grows and matures into an adult; he just needs some extra help learning how to harness them correctly.