Sunday, September 30, 2012


"What do you do when a child hits someone?"  

This is a question that we discuss a lot at preschool, especially at the beginning of the year when everyone is still learning their way. "I thought you didn't allow hitting at school!" "Shouldn't you DO something about it?"

We definitely do not allow hitting (or pushing, grabbing, or biting) at preschool. And most parents don’t allow it at home. But yes, hitting does happen.  Sometimes it can be confusing to reconcile these two statements when parents are first learning to grasp the basic concepts of positive discipline. But the reality is that most children experiment with aggressive behaviors at times, even in the context of a very positive and well-supervised environment. It’s a natural and normal part of social and emotional development.  It is expected.  But it’s not condoned, it’s not “allowed.”

So how should we handle hitting when it does happen? We know that punishment, such as punitive time-outs do not help children learn self-regulation and pro-social behavior that will guide them throughout their lives. Our goal is for long-term learning, not a quick-fix.

It’s usually best to ignore certain negative behaviors, such as whining.  This is often the most effective positive discipline technique in many situations.  But we should not ignore aggression or conflict. When hitting happens, teachers and parents need to work with everyone involved to make sure that it’s a learning experience. Once things have calmed down and everyone is safe and feeling better, we then can look for a “teachable moment”  and figure out how to make the best use of this opportunity for learning.

Every situation is different, and all children have different needs and are at a different level or readiness to learn.  But some examples of appropriate responses to hitting might be:

-Discuss the situation with the child who did the hitting, and make sure she knows she is cared for and will always be listened to. Children who feel that they do not have a voice often resort to hitting.

-See if the child is ready to learn better ways to express his feelings, and then help him practice. “When you’re using a toy and someone wants it, what can you do or say instead of hitting? Let’s practice saying  ‘I’m using that toy!’”
-Encourage the child to find a way to make amends to the child they hit. It makes no sense to try to force a child to say “I’m sorry,” so I definitely do not recommend this. But often, a child really is sorry, and would like help telling and showing their friend their remorse.

-Remain calm and nonjudgemental.  Quite often, I’ve noticed that a hitting incident shocked and surprised the child who hit just as much as the child who was hit. When adults overreact, it makes it hard for children to be calm enough to be ready to learn anything from the situation.

-Encourage the child who was hit to speak up and say, “No! I don’t like that.”  We want to make sure that every situation that happens between children is a positive learning experience for EVERYONE.

-Examine the environment and see if there is anything that we can change to make hitting less likely in the future. Need more toys?  Or fewer toys?  More space? More time for quiet play or more outdoor time? There are lots and lots of reasons why adults unknowingly create environments for children that make it very hard for kids to remain calm. Putting ourselves in the sneakers of the kids for a minute and asking ourselves how we would feel in this situation, classroom, or environment if we were 2, or 5, or 8, can help us identify things that we can easily change to help children be more successful in their social interactions. 

-Think about the age and developmental stage of the children.  A two year old thinks and learns very differently from an eight year old.  Different ages and stages require different approaches.

In any situation, we might do any one of a thousand things that could help lay the foundation for the children to gradually learn self-discipline. Every child is unique, and every situation is different, so a one-size-fits-all “rule” wouldn’t work to achieve the teaching of true self-discipline. But when any form of aggression is involved, we don’t want to simply ignore the behavior.

Parents and teachers who are committed to positive discipline want to make sure that everything that happens is a valuable learning experience.  We know that no one learns anything important “once and for all.” Real learning takes time and often requires repeated experience and practice. Role modeling, direct instruction, trial and error, and many other methods can support the process of learning. Children learn by doing.  They don’t learn just from being told what to do.  This is true for learning the alphabet, learning to tie your shoe, or learning to play with friends without hitting. 

The most important thing is that adults respect the process of social learning that children are going through every time they play together.  It’s our job to help make sure that any situation of conflict is a positive learning experience for everyone.

And no, that does NOT mean that we “don’t do anything” about hitting, or that we “allow” it.  It just means that we think deeply about our goals and intentions and about the needs of the children, and try our best to respond appropriately.

For more great help and ideas, look at  


  1. So timely for us, Annie. Thane is going through this stage at nearly 19 months. This will help us manage this stage more positively. Thank you!

  2. {\rtf1\ansi\ansicpg1252
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    \f0\fs26 \cf2 \cb3 \expnd0\expndtw0\kerning0
    \outl0\strokewidth0 \strokec2 This article completed yesterday's lesson of Brenda and I wanting the same toy and the 3 parenting methods one can use to solve it. This article is a great example/guideline of how to practice pathway building and turn a "bad" situation into a learning experience while installing the 3Rs and the 10 Principles of respect.


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