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Aggressive Behaviors in Preschoolers

written by: Sylvia Cochran • edited by: Jacqueline Chinappi • updated: 1/17/2012

Dealing with aggressiveness in young children requires a solid understanding of the potential causes. Although preschoolers genuinely desire to cooperate with adults at this age, they are not always able to pinpoint the reasons for their sudden aggressive behavior.

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    What Does Aggression in Preschoolers Look Like?

    Generally speaking, aggressive behavior in children is frustration that is being let out at someone else’s expense. Forceful acting out begins in toddlerhood and continues on seamlessly into the preschool years, unless the child is made to find alternative avenues for expressing aggravation.

    Most commonly these actions include hitting, biting, kicking, pushing, head butting and tearing another child’s clothes or hair. A temper tantrum that has the child howling on the ground with flailing limbs is not a sign of aggression; but it may be a precursor for the behavior, if the child chooses to act out against a passing child.

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    Causes of Aggression

    Limited vocabulary

    Child A wants to play with a doll. Child B is holding the doll and won’t relinquish the toy. Child A remembers that just yesterday Child B took a rather long turn with another coveted toy. Perhaps Child B brushed against Child A when entering the classroom. Child A is combining these perceptions about Child B but does not have the words to express displeasure and frustration about Child’s B perceived attitude and behavior. Thus, Child A resorts to ripping the doll out of Child B’s hands and pushing the child out of the way.

    Help Child A by offering the child the vocabulary needed to communicate anger, frustration and upset. Offer words for the child to express impatience at having to wait – two days in a row! – for a desired toy and being wronged (when the other child brushed against her/him) without receiving an apology.

    Physical discomfort

    When you are tired, hungry, wearing clothes that are too tight or battling a headache, the odds are good that you might snap at the person next to you, if the situation is right. The same holds true for preschoolers. They outgrow their clothes and shoes, daylight savings time might have upset their sleep rhythms, they might not have had a nutritious breakfast and they may be getting sick. Pushing a child, who is taking too long with using the potty, is a natural outcropping of this mounting physical discomfort.

    Once again, offer the child words to use that help her/him express what is really bugging them. Go beyond verbal expressions of frustrations and keep extra clothes and nutritious snacks on hand. This kind of aggression needs to be “fixed" hands on, or you risk for a quick resurgence of the behavior. Seasoned preschool teachers usually ask parents to provide a couple of extra sets of clothes and keep pre-sliced apples and boxes of Apple Jacks handy.

    Unstable home life

    Even as there has never truly been a perfect nuclear family, societal changes in mores and acceptance of alternative family models has given rise to a number of parenting setups. For boys in particular, the absence of a male role model may cause the child to look up to other youngsters, who may be exhibiting aggressive tendencies when resolving conflict. In some cases, a child may act out what s/he sees modeled in the home; this may be a strong indication of domestic violence but without proof, there is little you can do.

    Attempt to draw in the parents or caregivers and get a better sense of what is going on at home. It may be something as simple as inappropriate television shows or video games the child sees older siblings play. Then again, there may also be drug use, alcoholism or gang influences marring the home life. In this case you may need to clarify your position as a mandatory reporter with the preschool director and explore appropriate avenues of dealing with the situation.

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    Common Mistakes Made by Preschool Teachers

    It is a common mistake to try and avoid the problem altogether. Perhaps you don’t want to deal with the angry child or the potential fallout from disciplining the youngster. You might – by nature – be a conflict avoider, who prefers to just gloss over problems. Not acknowledging the aggressive behavior of a child damages the integrity of your teaching and also dooms the child to continue on to kindergarten with an anger problem.

    Another mistake is to slavishly adhere to a preprinted schedule. It is okay to allow a chance to start naptime 20 minutes early or eat an unscheduled snack, if this means resolving the physical discomforts that caused the aggression. If you do decide to go off-schedule with a child, you must communicate with the parents and explain the child’s action, the causes and offer tips for how to avoid a recurrence. After all, seeing to it that a child is well rested and well fed falls under the umbrella of parental responsibility.

    The most damning mistake is turning a blind eye to domestic violence. While it is true that it presents a very gray area in your role as teacher, it is also a test of your ability to relate to a child holistically rather than merely academically.

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    • California Childcare Health Program. "Aggressive Behavior in Young Children" at (accessed May 30, 2011)
    • Project No Spank. "Parental and home influences on the development of aggression in children" at (accessed May 30, 2011)
    • Science Daily. "TV Exposure May Be Associated With Aggressive Behavior in Young Children" at (accessed May 30, 2011)

    Aggressive Behavior in Preschool Children

    Aggression in preschoolers is a common sight and usually continues on from toddlerhood. It is not always automatically outgrown but instead requires teachers and parents to offer hands-on assistance.
    1. When Toddlers Are Hitting: Behavior Modifying Educational Activities for a Toddler Who Hits
    2. Aggressive Behaviors in Preschoolers