Does Your Two or Three-Year-Old Hit? Some Montessori Advice

Photo of a young Lisa Nolan wearing a white sweater while standing in a petting zoo and feeding a goat

I was a Montessori teacher for over twenty years, and I started blogging in 2008! Over that period, I have received a lot of questions about young children and hitting, especially two- and three-year-olds. 

What to do? How can you handle it when your two or three-year-old hits?

Let's start with toddlers and time-outs: I don't think time-outs are very effective for toddlers at home or in a school or daycare setting. (We did not use them at our preschool.) Instead, the toddler needs help to use her words and express her feelings.

But what about at home? At home, timeouts can be a way of dealing with extreme behavior, like hitting, but there are better methods you can try that are age-appropriate. When your child hits, direct her to an activity that she can hit, like a special pillow, some playdough, or a toy hammer activity, and say, "We can hit the pillow or the play dough..." Also tell her "Hitting hurts, it makes me feel sad."

You can also try to help her express her feelings when she hits, "Are you feeling mad because mommy is talking to daddy?"

Another common tactic for hitting is to say to the child "Please use your words", but you can take that a step further by giving your toddler words to use, like "Please say my turn."

And The sooner you deal with hitting behavior, the better, as the hitting will persist, and three- and four-year-olds hit harder, scream louder, and run faster! So tackle it now!

The terrible twos are not a myth! I thought I would escape them with my son! Ha!

What about three-year-olds? Here are some frequent questions that might sound familiar to you:

"My three-year-old son is going through a hitting phase, especially with his six-year-old sister. He now walks by and smacks her or hits her out of the blue while playing..."

Three-year-olds want to be more social. This is typical as they begin a new stage of development which is to make friends--the drive is VERY STRONG. But, they might not have the "social skills" necessary for success!

Whenever your child hits a sibling or another child you need to reenact it but with words (he goes back to the other child, but this time you will help him use words).

You also have to play detective. What is it your child is trying to express? Does he want to play? Does he want to stop playing? Does he want to play a certain activity? Figure out what he wants and help him say it with a few simple words! Then, each time he hits, go back and reenact it but with words.

"I feel like a broken record of telling him how hitting hurts and giving him examples of gentleness and kindness."

A three-year-old is no longer a toddler so he has more self-control, and he understands being gentle (and he's heard it over and over as you stated!). What he needs now is to be told, "Use your words." But also he needs help finding the words and expressing them to others. (This is not uncommon for young boys!)

"I am wondering if you have any tips on how to manage this new behavior."

I suggest reading the book Hands are not for Hitting to your child.  If you have pets: Tails are Not for Pulling. And if you have a biter: Teeth are Not for Biting. They are all written by the same author, Martine Agassi.

Storytelling: In our preschool, we gave puppet shows every day at story time, and we acted out the issue of the day with the puppets. If a child was hitting instead of using words that day, we would reenact it using the puppets! And the children often did their own puppet show and copied the teacher! There is a wonderful book about using stories for challenging behavior called Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour. It is a great indirect way to deal with issues in the home and in the classroom! ~Lisa Nolan

Want to read more Montessori toddler blog posts, click here!

Top photo of Lisa Nolan in 1967

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