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Stop aggression with SIR method

At the end of last week’s episode, in which I aimed withering criticism at the American Academy of Pediatrics for their generally “soft” stand on discipline, I promised to provide a tried-and-true solution to a problem that is, by all accounts, increasing in both frequency and magnitude: children age 3 and older who aggress violently toward other children in preschool and day care settings. The age qualification is due to the fact that aggression during chronological toddlerhood—18 to 36 months—is a horse of a different color, and therefore the subject of another column (but not next week’s). The operative term in the preceding sentence is “chronological,” employed because aggression after the third birthday indicates that the emotional and social development of the child in question has not progressed beyond toddlerhood.

Indeed, it is my contention that contemporary parenting practices are failing, generally, to move children out of emotional toddlerhood and into creative childhood. Thus the significant number of 5- and 6-year-old children who come to kindergarten still exhibiting toddler characteristics—“focusing” problems, impulsivity, inadequate self-control, defiance, tantrums, aggression, and so on. The American Academy of Pediatrics (along with the American Psychological and American Psychiatric Associations) encourages cultural denial by calling this problem by various quasi-scientific terms, including “attention deficit disorder” and “oppositional defiant disorder.”

Persuading the aggressive preschooler to stop is a fairly simple matter, but the response on the part of the adult community must be collaborative and compelling. Talking, role playing, and positive reinforcement (the AAP’s recommendations) do not fit the bill. They are likely, in fact, to make matters worse.

Parents and preschool/day care staff have reported the greatest success rate (nearly 100 percent, when both are on the same page, in the same paragraph), with a procedure I call “Separate, Isolate, and Relocate.” Immediately after the target child commits an act of aggression (pushing, hitting, kicking, biting, shoving), the teacher separates him (more often than not, these kids are boys, but aggression by female children is, by all accounts, rising) from the group and calls the designated parent. The child is kept separate from the group in a non-stimulating area until the parent arrives to take him home (relocate). At home, the child is isolated to his or her room, which has been stripped of most “play value” until dinner, for which the child joins the family. After dinner, the child is sent immediately to bed, but no earlier than 7:00.

It generally takes two or three experiences with SIR to persuade an aggressive preschooler of the benefits of non-aggression. Interestingly enough, these children seem to figure out how to behave pro-socially when they aren’t getting their way without anyone counseling them or role-playing with them. In other words, the problem is not a lack of learning, but a lack of motivation. When the choice is clear—behave and stay with the group or misbehave and be removed—these kids make the right choice, and keep on making it.

As the mother of a 4-year-old recently reported, “After the first ‘therapy session,’ he played well with the other kids for two weeks, after which he needed one more trip home and to his room, and that was it.” Not surprisingly, these children are always observed to be much happier and relaxed after their aggressive impulses are exorcised.

This confirms what I have long maintained: More often than not, unhappiness is not the cause of aggressive behavior in children; it is the result. "Psychological" approaches to these kids bark up the wrong tree.

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