The University Record, September 8, 1992

Aggressive behavior patterns can be set in preschool

By Laurie Fenlason
Office of University Relations

Sandbox bullies, even as young as ages four and five, are likely to suffer long-term peer rejection and carry undeserved reputations as troublemakers if parents and teachers fail to act quickly, a U-M study suggests. The critical window for reversing anti-social behavior, according to the researcher, occurs during the first few months of preschool.

“When children first enter preschool, it is normal for them to show some signs of emotional distress, such as acting out,” explains assistant professor of psychology Sheryl L. Olson. “However, if a teacher reports continuing problems with peers after the first month or so, these signs should be taken seriously.”

In the past, Olson notes, the problems of young children were minimized or dismissed as “transient phases they would outgrow.”

“But recent research, including my own, has shown that this is not true, especially in the case of impulsive and aggressive behavior,” she says. Studies have shown that 50 percent of children labeled aggressive in early childhood continue to behave disruptively into adolescence and adulthood, often leading to failure in school, criminal behavior and substance abuse.

In a study to appear in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Olson videotaped 60 four- and five-year-olds at play at the beginning, middle and end of their first preschool year. She then rated each interaction between children on a continuum from social conversation (“Can I play with your spaceship?”) and cooperative play (sharing toys) to verbal and physical aggression (insults, taunts, shoving, grabbing toys). At the beginning and end of the year, Olson also asked teachers to rate each child’s conduct, and asked the children to identify the classmates with whom they most (and least) liked to play.

Children identified as aggressive and rejected at the outset of school, Olson found, were highly likely to carry the same reputation at the end of the year—even if the number of conflicts they had initiated had decreased—and were often unfairly perceived as more disruptive than they actually were.

“At first,” Olson explains, “these children caused their own problems by initiating difficult interactions with their classmates, who were likely to just pull away.

“But as time passed, the other children began to actively victimize the disrupters and most of the aggression on the part of the victims became reactive in nature, setting off a stable pattern of abuse and rejection.”

Olson advises parents of preschoolers to stay in close contact with their child’s teacher in the first months of school, asking specifically how well the child is getting along with classmates. If possible, parents should arrange to observe their child at play from behind a one-way mirror.

In addition, parents should observe their child’s behavior at home, noting whether the child throws tantrums, picks on siblings, playmates or pets, talks back or frequently refuses to cooperate with reasonable requests. If these behaviors persist over a period of months, Olson believes it is important to seek a professional evaluation.

“A four-year-old child should be able to share with other children, tolerate some frustration and delay immediate gratification,” she says.

Intervening at an early stage is critical, Olson says. “My research suggests that once children develop stable reputations as aggressive and annoying, peers increasingly provoke them, creating a cycle of rejection.”

Olson discourages responding with counter-aggression, such as verbal put-downs or spanking, “which only reinforces the use of aggression to solve social problems.”