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“How I Helped My Son Stop Hitting Classmates”

When my child started hitting classmates, I spared the rod and did some behavior modification. It’ll work for you, too, if you give it time.

ADHD comes with undesirable behaviors. From hyperactivity, to emotional sensitivity, to not responding when spoken to, it can be challenging to not let those “annoyances” get under your skin. Knowing the reasons for each undesirable behavior can help you keep calm and work on modifying them.

When Ricochet was in second grade, he was the classroom vigilante. Every time he felt someone had broken a rule, or had been mean to him or another student, he’d scrunch up his meanest scowl, rear back, and punch him. As you can imagine, this was a behavior problem for the school and they weren’t tolerating it, nor should they.

I was perplexed. Ricochet is a sweet kid with a warm heart and an affectionate spirit. Hitting was outside his nature. Yet he was hitting his classmates, at least a couple times a week. At the time, I didn’t know the reason for his aggression in these instances, but I was determined to turn this impulsive reaction around.

Every time Ricochet hit a classmate, we had a conversation that went something like this:

Momma: What made you hit that student today at school?

[Free Download: Parenting Resource to Manage Your Child’s Anger]

Ricochet: I got mad at them because they ……… ! (It was things like cutting in front of another student in line, using someone’s yellow crayon without asking, or talking when the teacher asked them not to.)

Momma: Is it OK to hit someone when you’re mad at him?

Ricochet: No.

Momma: What are some acceptable ways to show that you are mad and deal with your anger?

Ricochet: I can tell the teacher.

Momma: Right! What else?

Ricochet: I can use my words?

Momma: Yes! You can also walk away, right? Because it’s not your job to enforce the rules.

Ricochet: Yeah.

[More Than Meds: A Guide to ADHD Behavior Modification]

Momma: Was “hitting the person” on that list we just talked about?

Ricochet: No.

Momma: So is it OK to hit someone when you’re angry with him?

Ricochet: No.

Momma: So, next time someone ……….., what are you going to do?

Ricochet: Tell the teacher, use my words, or walk away.

Here’s the key to this behavior modification strategy: time and consistency. It took about six months of going through this same conversation every time Ricochet hit a classmate, but he finally stopped hitting. In fact, that was more than five years ago and he’s never hit another kid (except the two times someone started beating on him first).

Did I feel like a broken record? Absolutely! Did I think it was hopeless? At times. Yet I stuck with it, crazy as it felt sometimes, and it paid off.

Behavior modification is simple and can be used for many different behaviors (even something as mundane as putting down the toilet seat after using the restroom). The trick is, you have to stick to it and you have to give it time, lots of time.

In the case of Ricochet’s hitting, it was because he didn’t have the skills to manage frustration and his emotions. Kids with ADHD often lag behind in these skills. Knowing it was part of ADHD helped me remain calm. Behavior modification ended the unwanted behavior, and helped him improve these necessary skills as well. A true win-win.

Which of your child’s unwanted behaviors can you work on in this way?

[Shape Kids for Success With Behavior Modification]

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  1. The problem with that approach in real life is that no school will actually tolerate it. Over 6 months — heck, that’s a full school year, give or take — your child has been hitting his peers with regularity. There is no telling after 6 months if the child outgrew the behavior, if some school intervention did the magic, or if your dogged determination was to be credited for the change. All I know is that some other children have been going to school and were punched with regularity by a classmate. To the tune of 50 times!!! (2 times a week, for about 25 weeks)… How in the world could this be ok?

    And what were the side effects, both for your child, who very likely was avoided by the entire class, or for the children who endured his wrath? I, too, have a child with ADHD, who had a huge difficulty separating from home and heading to school. To have to deal with such a child at school would have been devastating. The issue is, no hitting is a safety rule. It cannot be broken. If your child was truly displaying the behavior you describe, I would have expected teachers to intervene in the moment and in the best case scenario, to be able to foresee frustration, distract and provide the tools to cope in the moment. Truth be told, for a child with ADHD, there is little one can really do at home to manage an impulse problem and build skills at school. Your little chat at the end of the day is good, but not essential. It can enforce habits the school is building but not create new habits. The essential component is proactive action in the classroom, modeling behavior and avoiding a repeat of past mistakes. From your narrative, the school was criminally negligent — both in caring for your child and in caring for the others.

    It strains credulity that a school would have allowed such behavior without intervention, and that a chat at home would create the necessary recall to overcome the heat of the moment for a child with ADHD. If indeed this is what happened, it’s just one more arguments *against* lecturing 6 hours after the fact and for providing immediate and explicit redirection in the moment. It should not take 6 months to stop a child from hitting.

    1. No one was “allowing” him to harm other children. This wasn’t a daily occurrence. The hitting reflex improved into anger and then improved into handling the fact that others sometimes break the rules in a more appropriate way, like telling a teacher. And the school didn’t tolerate it — they had the same behavior modification conversation with him every time as well. When a child has a developmental disorder and many lagging emotional and regulation skills, building those new skills takes time and consistency.

      I’m not condoning hitting, and we didn’t tolerate it. But, you’ve made a lot of gross assumptions outside of what was conveyed in this story. And those assumptions just aren’t accurate.

      Penny
      ADDitude Community Moderator, Parenting ADHD Trainer & Author, Mom to teen w/ ADHD, LDs, and autism

  2. The biggest point to be made here is indeed consistent, positive, explicit guidance. I wholeheartedly agree with you on that point.

    However, the assumptions that I am making are directly taken from the writeup. I reacted to the message that was embedded in the writeup — there was no mention of school intervention, and all credit was pointing to a gentle home intervention at home. That simply is not the entire story.

    The reason I reacted strongly was that I have been in the situation where the school has asked me to work with my child at home on triggers that only occurred at school — triggers that they chose to ignore, because the single child being hurt was mine. As written, the article seems to make the case that with patience and consistency, parents can affect behavior that only exists at school — and that is simply not the case, especially with a child with impulse and emotional control deficiencies.

    Adding a paragraph showing how your work at home meshed with the work at school would drive the point that children need to be supported consistently across *all* environments — a point that schools too often ignore, unless the behavior hits on one of their own trigger points (safety or performance in a standardized test). Since your child seemed to have difficulties on one of those specific areas, I was expecting to hear more about how to manage the school expectations and reactions, because too often, the work done at home ends up being either ignored or undone at school.

    This is why I react strongly to proposed solutions that seem to gloss over the reality that schools need to be 100% implicated in maintaining a consistent home-school approach to learning and behavior modification. When triggers exist at school, it is a shared responsibility to help the student negotiate the issue and work with school and family to bring consistency.

    I do apologize if I sounded harsh in my comments. After years of having this argument, it has become an extremely sore point. It takes a village to raise a child. I do understand and agree with the point about consistency that you are making. I simply believe that the story is a bit bigger than what was written.

  3. Ok, I agree with both of you. Problem is that experts agree that to change a childs behavior, you need immediate, consistent, reinforcement. It does not sound like the school district did this. And while your (penny) work was consistent, it was not immediate…which probably was why it took so long to take effect. In terms of what you did in working with your child….it seemed to always have been “after the fact”. One of the ideas behind books like, “Hands are not for hitting” is that it is read and practiced over and over again. I think that you might have had greater success if you had role played the situations over and over again. You are trying to break a somewhat learned process. That is tough to do if dealt with on a not consistent basis. I am not saying that anything that you did was wrong. Most parents would never had gone to the lengths that you did. I am only saying that you might have been a little more effective.
    And ya, as a retired elementary school principal, I think the school could have been more proactive.

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