The Explosive Child in Preschool
Children's skills and abilities develop at different rates. Flexibility and tolerance for frustration are two skills that we expect children to develop as they leave the "terrible two's". To the relief of parents, children usually grow out of this phase where they refuse to comply and are easily frustrated by the world around them. Instead, they learn to express their needs, more effectively, tolerate things happening around them, including changes, and learn to resolve problems. We support this in preschools by providing continuing support and guidance ("Paul, use your words to tell Carolyn you don't like that").
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?
- Explosive episodes are unpredictable, irregular and appear out of the blue - this child has good days and bad days, and it is impossible to predict ahead of time.
- Difficulty managing the emotions associated with frustrating situations, leading to "melt down" where the child cannot stay calm and cannot respond to your attempts to calm them down.
- An extremely low threshold for frustration: this child becomes frustrated more often and over seemingly trivial events that other children cope with easily.
- Extreme reactions to stressful situations: quickly becoming agitated, disorganised, and verbally or physically aggressive.
- Limited tolerance for change: the child seems unable to "shift gears" in making transitions from one situation to another.
- Thinks in black or white: not responsive to reason or explanation ("Sarah, we can't go out to the play area right now because it's pouring with rain").
- May be totally inflexible around one or two issues such as the order things must be done in.
- Where other children may become irritable when tired or hungry or at the end of a session, these children totally fall apart and are inconsolable.
- Behavioural consequences appear to have little or no effect.
Dr Greene suggests a good parallel is stalling your car, which is caused by a bubble in the petrol line. No matter how hard you pump the accelerator or turn the ignition, your car will not start until the engine has cooled down. Similarly, the explosive child will not be able to think clearly or learn until an adult helps the child to cool down.
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:
- Managing explosive outbursts to minimise the distress for the child and all those around the child at the time.
- At other times, teaching the child the skills to manage difficult situations, frustrations and challenges in more acceptable ways.
Dr Greene calls this creating a "user-friendlier school environment", assuming that changes in our behaviour as adults will result in changes in the child's responses to their environment. In an appropriate environment, adults will:
- demonstrate a clear, shared understanding of the child's skill deficits.
- reduce the demands placed on the child that may lead to explosive behaviour. Adults look for the triggers that routinely set off explosions, such as moving from outdoors to indoors, and modify their expectations: giving early warning, allowing the child longer time than other children to move, encouraging the child to bring a transitional object with them. Explosiveness and inflexibility are as good a reason to adapt programming as any other disability.
- identify in advance specific situations that may lead to explosive behaviour and try to prevent or head the child away from these situations.
- actively model, encourage and teach appropriate skills that the child lack: skills such as sharing resources and space, seeking adult intervention, asserting their needs - BUT NOT when the child is explosive.
What does this mean for the way in which we should handle incidents of explosive behaviour?
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?
- Give the child options and choices, which may avoid the stressful situation.
- Modify your expectations and offer alternatives to the required activity.
- Redirect the child into favoured activities that will distract their energy.
- The combination of logical persuasion and empathy will work, with empathy being the most important.
- Set boundaries and expectations so children know what is acceptable.
Commonly, teachers will ask: "If I allow the child to get away with a tantrum when I ask him to do something, how will he ever learn to comply? Isn't time out a better way so that he doesn't get attention for misbehaviour?" But what we know about the explosive child is that he or she is not trying to behave in this way to get attention. Rather, it is the child's way of telling us that the demand is too great at the moment. He will learn to comply, if that is necessary, by positive coaching and modelling when he is able to learn, that is, when he is calm. He is unlikely to learn anything when he is in melt down.
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:
- Use books, games role-playing and puppets to explore feelings and choices of behaviour.
- Develop the child's "emotions vocabulary" so that they can label emotions and responses effectively.
- Help the child to think of strategies to choose before melt down, and write or draw them for the child to refer to.
- Explicitly teach a set of words and phrases the child needs to join existing social groups or express needs. If language is the problem, talk to your Speech Pathologist about using visual strategies such as Red Cards.
- Encourage parents to model problem solving rather than explosiveness at home.
Creating a user friendlier environment for explosive children can set the stage for you and the child to begin to work together to deal more effectively with his or her inflexibility and explosiveness. Developing the child's skills base now will ensure that the child copes with the even more challenging environments to be faced in years ahead.
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