Education: Is it a phase or is it a bully?

Growing numbers of pre-school children are showing aggressive tendencies says Heather Welford
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The Independent Online
Debbie Taylor's daughter Izzie, three, started to cry every morning, and seemed reluctant to go to her well-loved nursery. "At first, I just tried jollying her along," says Ms Taylor, who lives in Newcastle. "She seemed okay when I went to collect her."

But Izzie began saying she thought nursery was "scary". Why? Because a boy called Tom hit the other children, and "he might hit me".

Then Debbie remembered conversations among some of the other mothers who used the nursery: "I'd heard them complain about Tom - he was big, and rough with the others, and often tried to get his way. He was genuinely frightening to some of them."

There have always been aggressive toddlers - children who bite, or scratch, or push, or hit to get what they want, whether it's first go with a bicycle, or first bite of a biscuit. Dealing with these kind of children is nothing new to nursery teachers, who are trained to help small children become the social animals they need to be.

Small children have to learn about sharing and waiting their turn, and most of them manage to do this quite quickly with the right guidance at the pre-school level. Tom and Izzie are now quite friendly. The nursery workers worked with Tom and his behaviour improved.

But there is growing evidence that there are more pre-school bullies around than there used to be, and their behaviour is not quite so easy to improve. This is confirmed by the increasing numbers of disruptive children arriving at primary school, and the rise in the numbers of school exclusions among very young junior school children. It is increasingly obvious that bullying behaviour is something you learn very young.

Kidscape, the national children's charity, has noticed a significant increase over the last 12 months in the numbers of calls it has received asking for advice about pre-school bullying, either from parents whose children are being bullied, or from parents who have aggressive under fives. Cath Bracher-Giles, Kidscape's Helpline adviser, says: "We think the sort of behaviour these parents describe goes against the popular myth that aggressive behaviour in this group is mischievous play. Some of it is targeted at smaller children, and it's the sort of abuse of power usually associated with the bullying we know of in primary and secondary schools."

Health visitors working with young families also report an increase in bullying and aggression among the under fives. Mary Daly ,spokeswoman for the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association, says it reflects growing pressures on families with young children. "It's harder to be a parent these days, and we shouldn't be surprised that children are coming to nursery with problems," she says.

"Too many parents are missing out on family support. Mothers are far more isolated from their own parents and relatives than they used to be."

Parents under stress, without shared care from others, may not be able to give the right sort of attention to their babies and toddlers: "We need quality daycare that works with parents, from the start of the second year, before problems begin," she says.

Children thrive on good quality attention. Busy working parents, frequent changes of carers, or a new baby, can starve them of this. In the absence of enough attention to meet his or her needs, the child decides to grab any bit of attention available - and if that means poking another child in the eye, so be it.

Elaine Redman, an educational psychologist from Hertfordshire, and co- author of a guidebook for early years' workers, thinks that most educational psychologists would agree that aggression is now more common in the early years of child hood. "For some children, any attention is better than no attention," she says.

Parents under pressure - and all professionals recognise there are more of them today - and their nursery teachers, she says, need to pay attention to a child when he or she is not behaving badly.

Reception class teachers have to pick up the problem if the nursery school is unable to deal with it. Lynn Mellor, from Ashington, Northumberland, says that she and her colleagues have to deal with aggressive behaviour more and more frequently. "We are seeing more children like this. These are children that have already caused problems in the nursery class. The other children have learnt not to play with them, so they have no friends, and this makes it more difficult to teach them to co-operate."

She is working closely with one five-year-old at present. "His schoolwork shows he is bright, but he still finds it very hard to be with other children without kicking them, especially if they're playing football.

"His mother dreads asking about his behaviour at the end of the school day. She tries, but her partner thinks the boy should just be hit every time he misbehaves."

Underlying a lot of this concern is a collective dismay about children's diminishing language and listening skills. This lack has a knock-on effect in the nursery or playgroup, and makes a major contribution to aggression and other behaviour difficulties.

Elaine Redman sees bullying as a sign of anger that cannot be expressed in words, because the child lacks the language skills. She says: "Some children are overwhelmed by the new environment of the nursery. There's so much choice available, so much equipment. They don't know about sharing, or about being co-operative, and they take time to learn."

In the meantime, their frustration and confusion is directed at other children, or they may appear to deliberately destroy books and toys.

Some have so few language skills that it can even lead to being wrongly diagnosed as suffering from a psychological disorder.

Dr Sally Ward, a researcher at the Speech, Language and Hearing Centre in London, describes how she worked with a boy diagnosed at age three as having autistic tendencies. His parents were both currency traders, and his aggressive behaviour at home, and in pre-school, had led his distraught mother to make a desperate trawl round psychiatrists.

Dr Ward says: "It turned out that this little boy had been with nannies, more or less from birth, who cared for him physically, but never really spoke to him. His mother was told she should read to her son. She read him bits from the Wall Street Journal - she just didn't know how to choose the right books or how to use them. With help, though, she managed to change. She actually chose to give up her job for six months, to spend the time with her son... and he was fine."

There are early years' experts who believe that some children's aggression could be due to the physical surroundings they find themselves in. Under- fives may rely on their nursery or school experience for regular opportunities to enjoy open space and the outdoors, or simply to let off some steam because of lack of safe space indoors and outdoors at home.

But, two years ago, national minimum space recommendations for state nursery schools were relaxed, and non state-run pre-schools and private nurseries don't have to provide any outside play space at all. Research at Leicester University has concluded that diminishing opportunities for physical play affects social development. Children who miss out on safe rough and tumble play may respond with aggression when accidentally touched or knocked, according to the researchers .

The British Association for Early Childhood Education worries that relaxing the space guidelines is paving the way for an emphasis on more formal, sit-at-the-table "academic" skills, ignoring the fact that children need to play in non-directed physical ways in order to learn.

"Children of this age need space to be as active as they wish, and free access to the outdoors," says Wendy Scott, a spokeswoman for the association. "But our inspectors recently visited a playgroup that took place in the crypt of a church, where the children didn't even see daylight."

The truth seems to be that young children's needs are not always remembered by parents, who undoubtedly love them, but who may have problems and stresses of their own to deal with. For an increasing number of these very young children, the only way to deal with this is to hit out, regardless of who is in the way, or how small they are.


Is your toddler aggressive?

The Pre-school Learning Alliance offers this advice:

n Be understanding. Aggression can arise because of frustration in communication.

n Remove your child from the situation where he/she is shown aggression, and calmly explain why you're doing so.

n Be consistent, so your child knows the boundaries.

Spend time in the nursery or pre-school:

n Does it foster an atmosphere of respect?

n Check staffing levels - regulations state adult to pre-school child ratio should be 1 to 8, but the Learning Alliance recommend 1 to 6.

n Do the staff talk to the children and interact with them one to one?

n Liaise with staff, to ensure consistency in the way you deal with your child when he/she is at home.

Kidscape helpline 0171-730 3300.

`Making a Difference', by E Redman and

S Lissman. pounds 16 post free from Psychological Services, Tyne House, Hepscott Park, Morpeth NE61 6NF