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Parents may freak out when their previously adorable, docile child starts slugging other kids. This usually happens on the playground or in preschool. Let me answer a question I received recently to illustrate the problem and the solution.

“My three-and-a-half-year-old daughter has been starting to hit other kids at school. We just moved to a new city and this is of course a new preschool. However I don’t want her to hit other kids. Do you have any suggestions why she does that and what we can do about it?”

First let’s figure out why she hits. Aggression in preschoolers is common. Children this age are very egocentric and think they are the center of the world. They are also developing independence and trying out how far they can go before being reined in. They have not yet developed the patience and restraint adults have (or are supposed to have) so when another child grabs a toy or gets in the way or says something mean they lash out.

Her recent move probably plays a big role in her behavior. Moving is traumatic for little kids. Think of all the things your daughter has to get used to: a new neighborhood, new room new house, new friends, new school, new teacher. Her world was literally turned upside down by the move and nobody even asked her whether she wanted to do it! No wonder she’s ticked off and irritable and swings at other kids sometimes.

So, to start with, I would cut her some slack. Spend extra time with her, walk around the new neighborhood together, talk about the old house and school and about the new fun things you will do together this summer in your new town. Do as many of the “old” things you can. Keep the same bedtime routine, read the old favorites, cook the old familiar foods. Provide lots of cuddling.

On the other hand, you must deal with the behavior. Hitting is one of those non-negotiables. It is always wrong and must always be dealt with. Ask the teacher how they handle this at school. Be sure that your daughter is always told that hitting is wrong at school and that there is always some consequence–removal from the group, time-out, etc..

At home follow the same ALWAYS-APPLY-A-CONSEQUENCE-RULE. If you see her hit another child (or adult or animal, for that matter) immediately remove her from the group. At her age time-out works well. Put her in the time-out chair in a boring but safe spot. Say, “Mary, No hitting! Time-out!” She must stay in time out for three minutes (one minute per year of age). When the timer goes off you say, “Time out is over! The rule is NO HITTING!”

If the teacher tells you that she continues to hit at school you have an additional parenting task. You must make it very clear that this misbehavior at school concerns you, you don’t like it, and you want it to stop.

I am not in favor of punishment at home as well at school because the act was committed too long ago for punishment to be effective. Actually for repeated misbehavior at school I think the carrot approach works best at this age. Make a chart with her help. For every day the teacher reports no hitting award her a star. After a week of stars she gets a little reward. Remember in addition to material rewards there are activity rewards like a trip to the zoo.