"Gimme that, I wannit!" shouted Robbie as he ran after Sammy, who had picked up a block from a large pile in the area of Robbie's play.
"We need a big block for our space-shuttle launch," Sammy tried to explain. "You've got lot's of 'em, Robbie. We just need one."
"It's mine, it's mine, I was using it," Robbie bellowed as he careened into his classmates' play structure and began pushing and hitting Sammy to get the block.
"Stop it, stop it!" Sammy cried as Robbie yanked the block from his arms. Hearing the commotion, Leslie, the children's teacher, quickly intervened, taking the two boys aside for a talk.
"What's the trouble?" Leslie asked.
"Robbie hit me for no reason," Sammy blurted out. "We need one block. Robbie has lots. He didn't share. Then he ruined our rocket tower!"
Robbie frowned, dropped the block, turned around, and tried to leave, but Leslie caught him by putting her arm gently around his waist and easing him close to her.
"Sammy and Robbie," Leslie said. "What could you have done to solve your problem? Robbie, what do you think?"
A long silence followed. Then Leslie prompted, "What could you have said to Sammy?"
"Give it to me," Robbie murmured, looking away.
"You could have said, 'Please, can I have it?'" Sammy chimed in. "Or 'When you're finished, bring it back.'"
As early as the preschool years, some children have great difficulty getting along with agemates. In Leslie's classroom, Robbie was one of them. Usually, no one wanted to play with him. When his classmates let him into their play, the activity quickly turned aggressive, with Robbie bossing others, refusing to listen to their requests, and emitting verbal insults, karate chops, flying kicks, and the motions and sound effects of machine-gun blasts in obvious imitation of events he had seen on TV.
"I can't control him, he's impossible," complained Nadine, Robbie's mother, to Leslie one day. When Leslie asked what might be going on at home that made Robbie so hard to handle, she discovered that his parents fought constantly. Their conflict led to high levels of family stress and a "spillover" of hostile communication into child rearing.
One evening, after an argument with her husband, Garth, Nadine asked Robbie to pick up his toys. Robbie ignored her. Nadine persisted, raising her voice, "Robbie, get over there and put your toys away NOW!" As Robbie ran in the other direction, Nadine chased him.
When she caught him, Robbie turned around and hit, yelling, "No, no, no, lemme go, lemme go!" Nadine quickly lost control. "You bad, bad boy," she exclaimed, spanking him. Screaming and crying, Robbie wriggled away and ran to his room. In anger, he turned over his toy box, dumping its contents on the floor, and began stomping on his books and stuffed animals, repeating over and over, "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you . . . ."
Exhausted, Nadine gave up trying to get Robbie to clean up. She lay down on the living-room sofa with tears rolling down her cheeks. A short time later, Robbie wandered into the room and turned on the TV. A violent gun battle flashed on the screen. "Robbie, you're too young to watch that show," Nadine said feebly.
"I can if I want to," Robbie countered. He sat quietly, glued to the set. Nadine did nothing to intervene; she couldn't face another struggle. Over the next two hours, Robbie watched several prime-time evening shows, until his fell asleep on the floor and Nadine transferred him to his bed.
Aware that Robbie needed help soon to prevent his impulsive, hostile behavior from spiraling into major problems, Leslie drew Nadine aside the following week and suggested that his parents contact a family therapist. The therapist observed their inept practices, demonstrated alternatives, and had Nadine and Garth practice them. Over time, they learned not to give in to Robbie, to pair commands with reasons, to replace verbal insults and spankings with more effective punishments (such as time out and withdrawal of privileges), and to limit Robbie's access to TV with violent content. The therapist also encouraged Robbie's parents to be warmer and more supportive and to give him attention and approval for prosocial acts. And she worked with the couple on their marital problems. This, in addition to an improved ability to manage Robbie's behavior, greatly reduced tension and conflict in the household.
At the same time, Leslie began teaching Robbie more successful ways of relating to peers at preschool. As opportunities arose, she encouraged Robbie to talk about a playmate's feelings and express his own. Soon he showed greater willingness to share and cooperate. Robbie also participated in social problem-solving training. Over several months, he met with Leslie and a small group of preschoolers. The children used puppets to act out common conflicts, discussed effective and ineffective ways of resolving them, and tried out successful strategies.
Finally, Leslie encouraged Robbie to engage in sociodramatic play with his classmates while monitoring and redirecting his play themes. For example, one day she placed a set of toy dinosaurs in the sand table. Immediately, Robbie's play became fraught with acted-out violence. For example, he picked up a stegosaurus and crashed it into another child's sand structure, exclaiming, "You're dead, Steg gobbled you up. The city's destroyed!" While a few children were drawn into Robbie's negative play, others were apprehensive. Leslie asked Robbie, "What else can you do with the dinosaurs besides making them fight?" She also took Robbie over to the reading corner and introduced him to books about dinosaurs. There, he learned that dinosaurs lived so long ago that they couldn't have eaten people and that some were plant eaters. Then she involved him with other children in making a mural about dinosaurs, creating stories about them, and discussing factual and fictional aspects of dinosaur life.
Soon Robbie's violent play themes declined. Instead, he began to use blocks to create imagined environments in which dinosaurs might have existed. On one occasion, Leslie noticed that Robbie and Sammy were engaged in intense debate over which dinosaur&151;brachiosaurus or brontosaurus&151;had the longer neck. Robbie had begun to talk, not fight, when he disagreed.