When a child's skills in a particular area lag behind, we know the benefits of providing extra support. In his book, Dr Ross Greene explains that "The Explosive Child" is not choosing to behave in this way, but rather has not yet developed the skills of flexibility and tolerating frustration. Thus our role, as with any developmental delay, is to help the child develop these skills to an age appropriate level.
What are the characteristics of an explosive preschooler?
And this is the important part: behavioural strategies such as time out or negative consequences will not work while the child is in "melt down". These strategies assume that the child is choosing not to behave appropriately, and that the child can be persuaded to behave appropriately by logical consequences. Dr Greene stresses that the explosive child does not choose to behave in this way, no more than the child with receptive language delay chooses not to hear what you ask. The child behaves in this way because he or she lacks the skills to cope with the situation in any more effective way.
Thus our job becomes two-fold:
First and most importantly, motivational strategies such as withdrawing attention and time out are neither appropriate nor effective. Anyone who has observed incidents of extremely explosive behaviour knows at a gut level that the child is "out of control", that is, cannot take control of their own behaviour at that point in time. The child cannot choose to bring their behaviour under control, no matter how nasty we make the consequences for continuing to behave in this way. Frequently staff report that the child appears frightened, possibly reflecting their own awareness that they have lost control. Strategies to help the child calm down, withdraw from the triggers, find a soothing object or place, even just a big cuddle, will be more effective in helping the child at that point in time.
Secondly, assume that the child can't comply with your requests rather than won't comply. We do not expect a child with motor control difficulties to pick up the toys they have accidentally brushed off a table, nor to apologise to the child using those materials. Rather we might help the child steer a better line around the table, and quickly pick up the toys ourselves. Similarly, insisting that a child in "melt-down" pick up the play dough and apologise to another child for throwing it to the floor is an excessive demand at that time. These are skills to teach in calm times with modelling and encouragement.
Related to that, rather than insist that a child return to the scene of the crime after a major episode, assume that this was a situation that placed excessive demands on the child, and thus should be left until the child has developed the necessary skills. One wise teacher recently told me of taking a group of preschoolers on a walk to the nearby shops. After major resistance at the gate and a screaming tantrum at the first corner, she decided that this activity was beyond the coping skills of the explosive child, and returned to play with him in the sand pit while the group continued on.
Ideally, these incidents would be minimised if we are able to detect early warning signals that an explosion is about to occur.
Unfortunately, the preschool child is unable to say in words "This situation is starting to make me feel frustrated and I'm not sure that I am going to be able to hold it together much longer, so could we please find some alternative so that I don't lose it entirely...." Rather, they will say "I'm hungry" or "I hate you", or their non verbals - body language, facial expression, whining, irritability, restlessness, a sudden drop in energy levels - will indicate that they are losing control.
What should you do if you read some of these early warning signals?
Teachers recognise that if the child's behaviour was seeking attention, behavioural strategies such as time out would have an impact - typically, teachers of explosive children report that these strategies are not working and indeed may aggravate the severity of the child's tantrum as the child perceives that you are criticising them for something they have no control over.
The long term goal is to develop the child's skills at dealing with frustration more effectively, using play - based explicit teaching:
For further detail, look for The Explosive Child, by Dr. Ross Greene (2nd. edition), Harper Collins, 2000, readily available in bookshops including the COPE bookshop. For support and ideas, talk to your center's Psychologist or Special Educator.
Jenni Pearce, Psychologist (2009)
Child & Educational Psychology
6 Edward Street, NORWOOD 5067 South Australia, Australia.
Telephone: 0407 726 332
Fax: (08) 8362 0332