Have an Aggressive Child? Strike while the ‘Iron is cold’.

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In this article, I will discuss a powerful and positive way to change aggression in school age children in a school setting, or perhaps in your own family.

In comparison to other approaches, the distinctive features of this approach are:

1. The timing of learning opportunities
2. The target behaviour that needs to change

Timing of Learning opportunities.

What are the emotional circumstances in which learning best occurs? Typically it is when we are calm, safe and can concentrate. That being the case we have now created a problem for ourselves when we try to teach aggressive children using conventional approaches. Our natural instinct is to teach aggressive children about their behaviour when they are already upset. We must change the times at which we try to teach children because they are simply unable to learn at times of great emotion. A child never learns when upset. When children are upset, the hippocampus shuts down and the amygdala revs up. They aren’t made to think, and they don’t think, at those times.

Yet it is not just that they can’t learn, it is that we make the situation worse. When a child is aggressive, so often we only respond at an instinctual level. This instinct to rise up and punish an angry or aggressive child, only makes the child more unsafe, which will lead only to further escalation of the aggression, and leads to less learning and comprehension.

If children learn better when they are calm, we ought to seek out learning opportunities at those times. This isn’t ‘Striking while the iron is hot” it is “striking while the iron is COLD”. The good news is, if we Strike while the Iron is Cold, not only is the child more likely to learn from us, but we are more likely to come across these opportunities in the day because they are much more numerous. Consider the pie graph below.

Calm and Angry

This pie graph shows us that the portion of time in a day that a child is aggressive, is actually only a small part of their day. This is a general picture of an aggressive child and I appreciate that this will not be true of all children. Some will be more aggressive, and some will be less, but the general picture for most aggressive children is that they are aggressive for only a short time during the day. The rest of the time they are relatively calm and it is at those times, that we want learning to occur.

The good news is, not only are children more likely to learn when we speak to them at times when they are calm, it is also more practical for teachers and caregivers because the opportunities to teach them are far more numerous when we strike while the iron is cold. Of course I don’t mean literally ‘striking’, I mean taking the opportunity to address the issue verbally in a safe way. Most of the day aggressive children are calm and can converse. This means that there are many opportunities to have a chat with the child about how they are going and what is expected of them.

2. The Target behaviour

You’ll notice in the pie graph, that the two different behaviours or states are in opposition to each other. Many human emotions compete like this. We can’t be generous when we are resentful, we can’t be loving if we are full of hate. Just like you can never be happy when you’re sad, you can never be aggressive when you’re calm.

This presents us with a terrific opportunity. By identifying what the aggression competes with, what Alan Kazdin, the Director of the Yale Parenting Centre calls the “Positive Opposite”, we can see the emotional states and the behaviours that oppose the aggression. If we strengthen them, we might be able to snuff out the aggression.

In the above graph we can see that the competing or Positive Opposite to aggression is being calm. This is the skill that needs to be practiced. Positively practiced. With crystal clear clarity tell the child that being calm is what is expected of them. We tell them we know they can be calm and compliant and that we have full confidence in them. Then we practice. We train. We, the teachers and the parents, make requests and then praise the child when he or she calmly complies. We catch them out doing the right thing, and we tell them that we are proud of them. The calmness grows. The aggression dies.

I hope these two points encourage you if you find yourself dealing with an aggressive young person. Communicate when the child is calm and encourage the competing positive opposite, which is of course being courteous and calm.

Dr Jonathan Andrews MAPS
Clinical Psychologist

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