My 4-year-old has been kicked out of preschool for behavior problems we don’t see anywhere else. What can I do? The first step is finding out what’s triggering the behavior.

Melanie A. Fernandez, PhD, ABPP

Director, Parent-Child Interaction Therapy Program

Q: My happy, bright and athletic 4-year-old has just been kicked out of preschool for behavior problems. He’s been hitting, kicking and throwing. He apologizes immediately and the teachers have indicated they don’t think he was being malicious, but just can’t control himself. In other settings with children (play dates and daycare), we don’t see these issues. When asked why he does it he cannot produce an answer. We constantly talk to him about what the rules are and we try to reward good behavior but he can’t seem to make the right decisions. What can we do?

A:  The best way to help your son be successful is to have as much specific information about the aggressive incidents as possible: What came before, during, and after. That way, you can be actively involved in setting up a plan to promote the safe behavior you see from him in other settings. One way to do this is to have a professional behavior observation of your son.

That entails classroom visits in which an observer uses some kind of assessment tool or has a pre-set plan for how to measure the behaviors of interest in your son. The goal is for a trained person to observe in a formal way (rather than just visiting for short time) and to collect data (for instance, the frequency of disruptive behaviors like aggression, or the frequency of noncompliance).

The drawback to these structured behavior observations is that having an observer can change your child’s behavior, and it often takes multiple visits to really get a handle on the pattern of behaviors that are problematic. That said, an observation can be very helpful in understanding triggers for aggressive behavior (e.g., being told to complete a task, being asked to transition from an activity he enjoys, being told “no,” getting minimal attention during appropriate behavior).

You also want to know what the consequences are for the aggressive behaviors. For example, if the escalation tended to happen during an activity that was challenging for your son (e.g., sitting down in circle time), was he removed from it and, therefore, inadvertently got out of what was hard for him? Did he have to sit with a teacher, which could be one-on-one attention that is actually a reward rather than a punishment? Was he sent home?

Your first step should be to understand why these behaviors of concern are happening at school, particularly because you are confident that they’re not happening in other settings.Then you could work with a teacher to take steps to encourage the behavior you want to see from him.

It is certainly helpful to review the rules and expectations with your son before school. Likely, he also needs more frequent reminders at school about the expectations and more frequent feedback about when he is meeting those expectations. The more immediate the feedback, such as praise, the more effective it will be. Also, adding in a tangible reward, such as stickers, to boost the potency of the feedback can be extremely helpful if done consistently.