Often if our children are aggressive towards others, or bullying others, it is not a simple thing to understand the reasons.
If asked, children may try to justify what is going on so as not to get into too much trouble. The reasons they give you may not reflect what is really happening. Younger children also may not be able to articulate what is really happening and how they are feeling. It may require the skillful hand of a psychologist or counsellor to get to the bottom of what is happening in some cases.
However, there are some things you can do to start investigating why a child may be acting a certain way.
Just a note - it is important to identify child, home and school factors that may be contributing to a child’s behaviour. This is not about blaming anyone, finding fault or judging. It is about getting the full picture of what is happening.
Here is a checklist of questions to work through:
- Does the child have the language to communicate what he feels, wants and needs when playing with peers?
- Can the child work out what to do when something upsetting or frustrating happens?
- Is the child able to identify the feelings of others using body language, facial expressions and what others say?
- Does the child respond appropriately to others’ feelings (eg. wants to comfort others when they are sad)?
- Does the child act impulsively and/or in a hyperactive way?
- Does the child usually take on a leadership role in games (directing or “bossing” other children)?
- Has there been any big changes or traumatic events (divorce, new baby, family illness or death, financial stress) at home recently?
- Is there any conflict happening at home (between siblings, parents or extended family members or neighbours)?
- How is conflict managed at home – through talking, yelling, throwing things or hitting?
- Does the child have a group of friends at school? If so, how do these friends interact with others?
- Does the child understand the rules of games played on the playground? Can the child follow these rules?
- How does the child respond to teacher directions?
- Is the child aware of and able to follow school rules?
The incident (answer these questions for each incident):
- When does the aggression/bullying usually happen? (eg afternoons)
- Where does the aggression/bullying usually occur? (eg. on the soccer field at lunch)
- What happens before the aggressive/bullying incident? (eg. the opposing team is winning )
- What did the child do? (eg. the child started saying offensive things, insulting and putting down the weakest members of the opposing team. Then an opposing team member legitimately “tackled” the child for the ball. The child yelled “p*** off!” and started pushing and shoving the other child)
- What happened next? (eg. the game disintegrated into a brawl, they were all pulled into the Principal’s office, and the most bruised and vocal children were put on detention).
- What conclusions might you draw from the incident? (eg. the child can’t cope with losing).
Draw conclusions and test them
In this case, if there were also some difficult events happening at home, and the child was struggling to follow teacher instructions, it is probably an indication that the child needs control over their environment. They are probably not coping with what is happening at home, and this has impacted on their ability to cope with the smaller things in life such as losing a game of football.
For another child, it may simply be that their personality traits or other characteristics mean that they struggle to cope with losing a game. For example, some children who are gifted and talented, or have Aspergers or Autism, or “perfectionist” by nature. They may struggle with failure to meet their own expectations or not be flexible enough to cope with any change to an expected event.
Teachers and families should try to work through these questions together. The questions about the incident should be answered during or directly after the incident so no details are missed, mis-interpreted or forgotten.
If we get the full picture, it is more likely that we can understand why the child is behaving a certain way even if they can’t tell us themselves. However, if we can’t work it out for ourselves, there may be a deeper underlying reason that can only be addressed with the help of a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.