overzealous playgroup participants

There's a toddler in our playgroup who is constantly tackling the other kids, much like a football player. He doesn't appear to be angry when it happens, and his mom steps in immediately to issue a firm NO and remove him from the situation. But within a few minutes he's running across the room to "attack" once again. What can we do?

Physically aggressive kids in playgroups can really raise a lot of parental hackles, and it's almost MORE exasperating when the physicality doesn't appear to be motivated by anger. Since the attacks seem so random and unpredictable, the other parents feel the need to keep their guard up all the time, and therefore don't relax or unwind. Not much playing gets done, by either parents or children.

I suspect the mother of this child is also quite upset by her son's behavior, since it is impacting her social life as well, and she is probably concerned that they will not be welcome at the playgroup for much longer if this keeps up. She's probably feeling embarrassed and ineffectual and frustrated.

So there's already a lot of stress in the room, and we've only thought about the parents so far!

Now let's look at what could be going on for the little boy. Bryan Post and Heather Forbes, in their book Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control, ( http://www.beyondconsequences.com/ ) make an unusual yet powerful suggestion about the roots of aggressive behavior. My summary of their theory is that when kids (or adults) experience stress, they display a variety of unpleasant behaviors. The nervous system heats up, and an outlet must be found to release the steam. Some kids cling, some whine, some collapse. Some cry, some hit, some grab things, and some run. Others tackle.

Stress is an internal condition, not an external one, so the same situation may be stressful for one child and not for another. Think about the sensory stimulation at playgroups - strange surroundings with unfamiliar sights, smells and sounds. Other kids may be eating food that not everyone can share. There's usually only a certain number of toys, yet manners and turn-taking are not yet developmentally online in most toddlers. Plus, the parents may be hoping for a break and some adult conversation. Sounds like a set up for a meltdown, doesn't it?

If we look at our children's unpleasant behaviors as red flags that signal a nervous system on overload, our intervention changes. Of course we still jump up and remove the child to ensure safety for all. However, we don't then expect him to control himself and send him back in to the fray.

That would be akin to taking the battery out of a smoke detector to quiet that shrieking alarm until it's more convenient for us to leave the house. We'd get pretty burned if we did that. Instead, we drop everything and get out of there, pronto.

When a child's nervous system is overstimulated, he's sending us a message with his unpleasant behavior. That message could be Get me out of here!

So if his mom asked me what to do, I'd tell her to get him outta there when he starts tackling. They may not have to go home, though. She'll want to become a detective to learn what helps him settle down enough that he can safely reintegrate.

Maybe they can go outside and run a race around the fence together. Maybe they can go to the car where it is quiet and read a story and then come back in and see how it goes. Maybe a snack in another room will help. Maybe they need to go to the park before the group meets, so he's just a little bit tired. Maybe he's acting out BECAUSE he's a little bit tired, and instead he needs a quiet morning with lots of lap time before coming to the group. There's no one-size-fits-all solution that will work for every child.

If Mom experiments with many interventions to help settle him down and finds that absolutely nothing works, it may be useful for her to have him checked out for sensory integration issues. Occupational therapy can be a huge help for some kids who don't seem to know where their own bodies stop and start.

Some kids with sensory integration issues truly don't realize they are not hugging, but tackling -- either because they don't feel the feedback in their own bodies, or cannot yet control what their muscles are doing. Some kids with sensory issues hardly feel anything, and run into walls, other kids, and big objects just to figure out where they are in space. Early intervention can be profoundly helpful. Here's a terrific website with a lot of info on this topic: http://www.sensory-processing-disorder.com/.

In summary, tackling other kids could be his way of saying, "This situation is too much for me." As he matures, he will develop better strategies to communicate this and to settle himself down. But for now, he needs an adult to help him take a break, or take him home if necessary. And it may be worth a checkup to see if sensory integration issues are preventing him from behaving as his best self.

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