How to Deal With a Kid Who Hits Other Students

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I teach in a PK-K Montessori room. What do you do for children who are hitting/hurting others or saying and doing unkind things on a consistent basis? Parents are involved in this, we’ve had meetings, the student has been assessed, etc… but it just keeps happening to the point that other parents complain about their child, worrying about this student picking on them or hurting them. We go through the steps of helping the student who is hurting to use their words and say, “Don’t hit me,” or “That makes me feel bad,” and then the child who’s hitting will have a chance to say something like, “Are you okay?” and “What can I do to help you feel better/fix your heart?” and so on. This child has gotten really good at these exchanges, but the behavior still gets worse. So now we’ve started suspending him, which has also made the behavior worse. -Lee Ann, Eugene, Oregon

Lee Ann,

What you are doing as a teacher falls into the “Perfectly Fine, but Woefully Inadequate” category. This has then put your administrator in a position to do something which is pretty destructive (suspension) to the little guy, though it may seem unavoidable if you aren’t shown exactly what to do with this kid in the classroom.

You are skillfully intervening in the use of this kid’s negative behavior. That’s great, but it is clearly not enough, as he continues to hurt people. You are stuck on interventions when you should be moving on to consequences. You need to give this kid the opportunity to suffer the consequences of hurting people. He is learning that there are no consequences for hurting people, and that is a dangerous lesson. It is best to teach this kid the lesson that hurting others causes pain for everyone: including the hurter. You can teach him this now, or the police, or someone bigger than him, will teach him this lesson later.

Here’s how I would teach this lesson to a Kindergartener the day after he has physically hurt a kid. I would have a conversation with a parent about keeping him after school for this consequence. Otherwise, I would do this at recess.

Kid Whisperer: Hey, buddy. It really made me sad when you hurt Juriah yesterday.

Kid: I did say “I’m sorry.” Well, all’s well that ends well! That’s what I always say. Anywhoo, I’ll be leaving now. I have a 4:00 appointment…

Kid Whisperer: Actually, I talked to your mom and she isn’t coming to pick you up just yet.

Kid: I sense that something is afoot.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, boy. You are presently struggling with not hurting people. I’m going to ask that you become an expert at not hurting people before you start doing things where you have the chance to hurt people. While I sit here and grade papers, I’m going to ask that you stay next to me and pretend that I am a student. I’m going to ask that you practice not hurting me.

Kid: I said I was sorry!

Kid Whisperer: I know. Thank you for that. How long do you need to practice being next to me without hurting me: 20 minutes or 25 minutes?

Kid: I don’t know!

Kid Whisperer: 25 minutes it is. Would you rather sit, stand, or march in place?

Kid: Aaaaggghhh! Sit, I guess!

Kid Whisperer: That’s fine. You can march in place or stand if you change your mind. Just stay right next to me so you can practice not hurting me. I don’t have the energy to talk to students after school since this is my break. I will keep time. Your practice time starts now. Good luck!

Every few minutes the Kid Whisperer will say, “I notice you not hurting anyone!” in order to reinforce this peaceful behavior. Kid Whisperer can read if he wants to. If Kid doesn’t stay near you peacefully, you simply don’t count that time as successful practice time. He won’t be able to participate in high-risk activities such as recess or lunch near other kids until he practices successfully. This kid learning that his world gets worse when he hurts people and better when he doesn’t could be the most important lesson of his lifetime!