Monday, December 10, 2012

Pint-Sized Bullies

When Makayla started Montessori preschool this fall, I anticipated dealing with separation anxiety, potential tantrums and maybe some negative feedback about her stubbornness. Instead, we are dealing with an issue I never anticipated- bullying. It's not Makayla who's being bullied, she's the bully.

It started about a month after school started. She started getting even more obstinate with us at home and then the first report from school- Makayla bit another kid because he was washing his hands and she wanted to wash her's first. Jeff and I were both pretty shocked. We haven't really been doing the "play-date" thing and she is an only child so her interactions with other kids were fairly limited but whenever we were playing at the park, out at the store or in Sunday school at Grandpa's church she was nothing but loving to other kids. She freely gives hugs (whether wanted or not) and really adores babies. Nothing about her behavior prior to the start of school would have made me anticipate this. Two days after the biting incident, she hit a kid for not doing what she wanted and pulled another girl's hair because she wanted the work the other girl had.

So we went in for a parent-teacher conference and worked out a plan in which after a "touching" incident Makayla would be sent to the "rethinking chair" after which she would be asked to apologize to the kid she wronged. The next week she struck again. She got sent to the rethinking chair and seemed appropriately apologetic when we talked to her about why what she was doing was wrong. She knew that she wasn't supposed to hit but she said "she couldn't help it". Grandma instituted a reward system in which Makayla got 1 quarter on days that she kept her hands to herself but on days she hit she had to give Grandma 2 quarters. It's here where I point out that Makayla is wise beyond her 4 years. She quickly figured out she could still be bad 2 days a week and come out ahead in the quarter system. So every week, 2 or sometimes 3 times a week, Makayla has hit, poked or pushed another kid at school. She doesn't seem to be limiting it to one particular child. She gets angry and immediately strikes out with her hands. So we continued with the plan at school and at home we started taking things that she loved away on days that she hit. We talked to her about what she was doing and why it was wrong. We tried to make her put herself in the other kids' shoes. She said she would be very sad if someone else hit her but she couldn't extrapolate that into "what I'm doing is making the other kids sad".

Meanwhile, her behavior at home continued to slide downhill. She got even more stubborn. She refused to clean up after her messes. She doesn't understand bargaining- she wants what she wants and that's it. So we started using the "counting" system where we count to three and if she's still refusing to do what needs doing, she gets a spanking.

After a month of no improvement we talked to the teachers at school again and made some modifications to the plan. They too are completely baffled by her continued hitting episodes. They said that normally, kids who are lacking verbal skills to express their feelings are the hitters but Makayla is very advanced verbally and she tells them why she hits (she was angry) and yes she knows she shouldn't (but she can't help it). They also said that most kids respond right away to the rethinking chair but it seems to be having no effect on Makayla. So they are teaching her to cross her arms tightly across her chest when she feels like she's getting angry and they are moving the rethinking chair to a place away from the rest of the class to make it feel more punishing. I plan to give this another month and then re-evaluate. Every day I ask her if it was a "good friend day" and if she says yes, I let her know how proud I am that she made good choices today. If she says no, I tell her that I am disappointed that she made bad choices today and that I hope she makes better ones tomorrow. Then we discuss what happened, why and why it was wrong. Time will tell if it helps.

Yesterday, I was talking to my sister who was telling me a story about one of her friends that was complaining about how her kid was being bullied in preschool. She was mad at the parents because obviously they weren't being strict enough or parenting well enough or something similar. Makayla's school tries to keep everything confidential about who hits and who gets hit but Makayla will tell me right off who she hit so I'm sure the other kids go home and tell their parents who hit them. So I'm the parent of the bully. I find it terribly embarrassing but I don't know what else to do. I'm not strict enough? I feel terrible every time I spank her- would beating her harder help? I don't think so. I am I ignoring or encouraging the behavior? Not by a long shot. I honestly think that with more time, Makayla will mature out of this but I'm not sitting around waiting for her to "grow out of it". I am actively trying to change her behavior so that other kids don't get hurt. Hell, I was bullied in middle school, I hated every minute of it, there is no way I want my daughter to turn in to one of the "mean girls". I can understand why other parents would be upset even, I probably wouldn't be looking at from the bully's side if Makayla were the one coming home telling me someone hit her at school.

I don't know, I don't have the answers. But we are trying.