Positive Relationships: Behaviour: Ask the expert ... From all angles

Dr Maria Robinson
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Is one child's aggression a problem, or just a stage? Dr Maria Robinson looks at developmental factors.

'A little boy at our nursery is becoming increasingly aggressive when he is approached by adults and while playing with other children. He is two years and ten months old and his language is still very limited. We assume that the behaviour is linked to his lack of language but we are unsure how to respond.'

To answer this question, I would suggest reflecting on this child's behaviour from a variety of angles. The child needs to be seen as a 'whole child' so that his difficulties are understood and his needs met.

There are four possible frameworks that can be used to think about behaviour:

  • brain growth and maturation and the impact of sensory information
  • the broadly time-related emergence of skills and abilities, growth and change
  • the quality of interactions and relationships
  • the impact of the adult's attitude, expectations and interpretations.

We are all born helpless and vulnerable and there is a great deal that we have to learn about our bodies and identity. All this is built on the workings of a brain which is hungry for information but which also 'distills' the information it receives from our relationships and our environment to form patterns that reflect the key aspects of the experiences we have - for good or ill.

The brain doesn't evaluate our experiences, it just deals with them, resulting in the types of behaviour we all demonstrate throughout our day. The crucial point is that in these early years, not only is the brain a 'work in progress', but it is also very immature, especially in the networks which need to be formed in order to inhibit behaviour.

As well as the importance of relationships, which I will come to later, we also have to remember that experience involves many of the senses simultaneously. So, our sensitivity or acceptance of noise, types of touch, different smells and tastes contributes to how we actually experience our world - and, crucially, respond to it. For example, a practitioner may use a particular shampoo and that aroma will be associated with her and become entwined with the quality of her interactions with the children in her care.


These factors bring me to the next potential 'framework', which is thinking about the developmental change that is occurring between the ages of 18 months to nearly three years.

Apart from a growth in vocabulary in many children, a huge number of changes occur, including greater body awareness. This also includes a growing sense of an independent self, with all the accompanying emotional storms, as Margot Sunderland (2006) would describe it.

Children are more able to voluntarily explore their environment and to choose what they want to do. Their desire to exercise their new-found ability to control their environment, however minimally, may lead them to say 'no' much more frequently and become more persistent and insistent when wanting or refusing food, what to wear and so on.

Adults need to recognise this need for choice and a degree of control, but also to provide compassionate and fair boundaries so that the child can use their new-found skills in a supportive context. What is important to recognise is that in such very young children, their need for dependence as well as independence remains as strong as ever.

Between the ages of two and three years there appears to be a natural increase in aggression in both boys and girls, which would tie in with the frustration that may arise in many situations - for example, wanting to do things that the child is not yet physically or cognitively capable of doing, or not being able to manage those 'big feelings' that are so evident at this stage and which can arise in the most seemingly innocent of situations.

Children of this age live very much 'in the moment' and are still at the very early stage of realising that a desired item will still be available at a later opportunity or that they will be able to do something eventually. Their frustration as well as their joy can be overwhelming for them, and they need adults to help them when a situation tips them out of control.


At every step of the way in the earliest part of the child's life journey, the way the adults have responded to the child's needs will add to the tapestry of emotional well-being, which will, in turn, influence the child's attitudes, motivation and behaviour.

Of course, the child's own temperament plays its part. Each of us has a tendency to be more outgoing or to be more withdrawn, which can express itself in the bold, adventurous child or the one who is more timid and anxious - and everything else in between!

Parental influence is crucial too. The adventurous child may have parents who rejoice in their child's capacity to explore while providing strong, safe boundaries. On the other hand, they may be fearful of this characteristic and try to discourage it. But a timid child can be 'stretched beyond their self-imposed limitations' (Karr-Morse& Wiley, 1997) if given time and support to have confidence in new situations.

All these factors indicate that adults need to be flexible in order to respond to the changing developmental needs of a child and to understand the huge changes that occur during this extraordinary growth within the first five years.


The final 'framework' is how adults interpret a child's behaviour. Caregivers must realise that this interpretation will be influenced by their professional training and understanding, but also their own ethos, moral compass, judgements, etc, including their reactions to the differences between boys' and girls' behaviour.

Many children, like this little boy, hate being interrupted in their play. Careful observations could be made as to whether this is a trigger factor for the child and whether he needs ample warning of a change in activity. Has he begun to associate such approaches with only a negative experience, such as a stop to play? What are his experiences of adults approaching him? Do adults make clear their expectations of him?

This is a very young child and he may indeed have language/communication problems. This would bring us back to his developmental levels. The question to be asked is whether he is 'slow' in other areas of his development. If he is at a much earlier stage in his development than his chronological age suggests, this could contribute to his reactions and behaviour.

Maria Robinson is an early years consultant and author of 'From Birth to One' and 'Child Development from Birth to Eight: A journey through the early years' (Open University Press). Her Nursery World series on child development can be accessed online at: www.nurseryworld.co.uk/go/guides

- If you have a behaviour query for Maria Robinson, please e-mail it to: ruth.thomson@haymarket.com, or write to the address on p15


  • Karr-Morse, R, Wiley, MS, (1997) Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the roots of violence. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Sunderland, M, (2006) The Science of Parenting. London, Dorling Kindersley
  • Robinson, M, (2008) Development from Birth to Eight. Maidenhead, Open University Press

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