September is back-to-school month, and here’s some food for thought: If your school-age child is very aggressive and defiant, chances are this behaviour started much earlier.
“These problems did not develop overnight,” says Dr. Raymond Baillargeon, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, who is conducting a long-term study of children’s behaviour. “We spend a lot of resources on children who have behavioural problems at school, but it’s a bit late. We can see these problems coming way before.”
As part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development, Baillargeon is following 2,000 children who were born in 1998. He has found that the same problems that are apparent at 17 months are still there at 29 months and 41 months. “It is almost certain these problems are still there at 53 months, when the child is entering school.” Troubling behaviours include biting, kicking, attacking, being defiant, being restless, hyperactivity and not feeling guilty after misbehaving — especially if the child exhibits these on a frequent basis. Part of the study is to ask parents if children have certain behaviours either never, sometimes or often.
About five per cent of boys are physically aggressive, versus only one per cent of girls, says Baillargeon. Oppositional defiance (where punishment doesn’t change behaviour) occurs equally between genders — 10 per cent of girls and boys. “These problems will have a whole range of negative impacts — on the school, and on relationships with parents, with friends and with teachers. It will snowball from there. This behaviour is chronic over time.”
These behaviour problems are often brought to light when children are disruptive in the school system, says Baillargeon. That’s when they are first diagnosed and treated. But the harbingers arrive much earlier. If your toddler is frequently attacking other children or is out of control, you should get help because otherwise this aggressive behaviour is very likely to continue into school age. “What they are doing before two years has a long-lasting impact on how they act afterward,” says Baillargeon. “The steering wheel is moving in one direction or another.”
He suggests parents of regularly aggressive or defiant toddlers mention the behaviour to their paediatrician. “With the proper help, these problems can definintely be prevented,” says Baillargeon. “We should do whatever is in our means to prevent that from happening when children start school.”