When a Child Plays Rough

Ways to help the child who crashes and bumps into other children

Dear Polly,

One little boy in my class consistently plays too roughly. He crashes into people with a smile on his face and, when we're outdoors, rides his tricycle around children playing, threatening to bump into them. How can I get John to calm down?

The first thing you have to ask yourself is how you define “rough.” Does John shout during outside play, race around, roar like a lion, and get the other kids caught up in his wild games? Excited shouting and vigorous, active play are normal behavior. As teachers, we can help children channel their energy, but we wouldn’t want to stop them from shouting and running in situations where it may be appropriate, such as during outdoor play. On the other hand, does John hurt himself or other children, disturb their games, or break things? If so, he has a problem that needs to be addressed.

What causes rough behavior? There are a number of possible reasons for rough behavior, ranging from the physical to the emotional. Some children (often, but not always, boys) simply have a lot of aggressive energy. Activities that others experience as pleasurable play, such as quietly building a block tower, can feel confining and dull to a child whose urges compel him to RUN and SHOUT and SPLASH and CRASH.

Some children are slower to develop impulse control. (You and I might want something that a friend is holding, but our ability to control our impulses keeps us from snatching it.) Maybe John is still at the stage where wanting turns into grabbing without thinking.
John could be using roughness to get attention. Maybe he isn’t sure how to start a game with other children, so he runs into the middle of their play without realizing it will disturb them. Or could it be that John most often gets attention from adults when he is being rough?
In addition, John could be anxious or upset due to temporary or permanent stress at home. Moving, the birth of a new sibling, losing a pet, or tension between parents are just a few of the things which can cause stress — and acting out.

How can you help? Of course, no matter what the reason is for John’s rough behavior, you can’t let him hurt people or destroy their belongings. What to do? Some suggestions:

  • Change music time to music-and-movement time, so instead of sitting and singing, children can choose to become physically involved by moving to songs.
  • If possible, have an assistant teacher take John and a few other active children out for extra outdoor-play time while you supervise the classroom.
  • Give John “sensitivity training.” He may be oblivious to how his actions affect the other children. Talk with him and explain how his roughness is hurting others.
  • Demonstrate the concept of pretend. You might say to John as you demonstrate: “When you play cars with Jane, you can pretend to crash into her, but don’t really crash into her.”
  • Help him engage other children in socially acceptable ways. Say, “Would you like to play blocks with Brad? Let’s go ask him!” Or direct attention to John for positive reasons: “Listen to how loud John can bark! Who else wants to try barking like a dog?”
  • Set limits. Gently but firmly remove John when his behavior becomes destructive.
John’s energy might be wearing now, but it could be a great asset for him later. Just think … you could be teaching a future football player, stuntman, firefighter, or racecar driver!

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