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The Case of the Little Boy Who Found Himself

Jesse started in the playgroup in September of 2013.  Separation was relatively easy for him.  At first, he played quietly.  After a few weeks, when he was more comfortable with me, the other kids and the space, he began showing a quiet level of rebellion.  He started taking toys that other kids had chosen and were busy playing with.

One of the rules of the playgroup is that the child who chooses a particular game/toy has the right to play with that object until they are finished with it.  If someone else wants it, I ask her to give it to the child who wants to play with it next, but only when they have finished playing with it.  I tell the other child that they need to wait for their turn.  A few things are at play here.  The child who initially chose the toy gets to play with it without fear of it being taken away.  That child has the power.  It may seem to us to be a small bit of power, but not to them.  It’s important for them to experience this feeling, and then to pass it on for another child to experience.  The child who has to wait learns to practice patience.  For both kids, it means learning about fairness.  Most children understand fairness, even at two years old.  Some have a little trouble with the concept.  It takes them longer to understand how it works.

Jesse was more complicated than that.  He seemed inherently aggressive in this setting, and not able to stop himself.  This is not uncommon.  However, there is not just one way to deal with it.  At first I simply talked to Jesse when he acted out.  Later, I felt I had to separate him from the other kids for periods of time (aka: time out!), which I rarely feel the need to use anymore.  Later still, I held him on my lap until he calmed down.  Nothing seemed to make much of a difference.

Earlier in the year, his mother fell while holding Jesse’s baby brother, and hit her head. Jesse witnessed it.  The baby was unharmed.  It was a serious injury, and very frightening for everyone concerned.  Recovery took many weeks.  In the meantime, Jesse’s behavior didn’t seem to change, but at some point after the accident it became worse.  It took me a while (it sometimes feels like much too long) to figure out that I needed to have a conversation with his parents about the connection between the accident and his behavior in the playgroup.  It turned out that, like most of us, they hadn’t talked to him about their feelings around the accident for fear that it would upset him more than the accident itself. It’s true that it is often impossible to know what a two or three year old is thinking about or how much they understand or comprehend.  I’ve been working with this age group for 30 years, and it still amazes me how much they understand.  Or how little!  We have to be careful not to project our own fears onto our kids.  It can be tricky business figuring out what’s going on.

After they spoke to him about their own fears and asked him about his, it changed his aggressive behavior in the group.  He was much calmer, and rarely provoked his friends. Then, it suddenly came back with a vengeance.  I remember thinking, after he, unprovoked, pulled the hair of a very soft spoken gentle child, “Nothing I’m doing is working.”  I was really upset and frustrated.  It suddenly occurred to me that what he needed more than anything else was affection.  And it worked almost instantly!!! What Jesse needed was lots and lots of hugging, smiles, and congratulations on a job well done. Wow, what a thrill!  Thankfully Jesse’s parents agreed with me.  He turned from unprovoked aggression toward his friends to the gentle, sweet little boy that is his true nature.

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