I have had the good fortune to not be insulted (verbally) very much in my adult life. However, once (while I was 10 million years pregnant and the size of a whale that ate another whale), I cut off a biker and he let me have it. It was a tricky intersection, but I probably had a case of preggo-brain and made a mistake. Unfortunately, there was a red-light right up ahead, so the biker had ample opportunity to, ahem, share his feelings with me. Let’s say that those feelings began with, “You daft” and ended with “cow” and there were a few other unprintable phrases in-between. It also seems that he mistook my swelling belly for evidence of my general excess and piggery and missed the fact that I was a sacred vessel carrying a blessed miracle. It was kind of fun being yelled at by a British guy, but only because it had never happened before.
In preschools, I get the rare privilege of hearing (directly or during a huffy conference with a teacher when she tells me what my client has done that day) some of the most creative and fabulous insults that the kiddles hurl at one another. It is a totally normal (and HILARIOUS) developmental phase, and most kids are intrigued by words they know to be taboo or in lurve with the reactions that they or their buddies get when they let one of these doozies fly. In the past WEEK, I have heard the following (I’ll start with the poop ones, as they are the most prevalent) and I shall affix an asterisk to the ones that made me laugh so hard that I had to leave the room):
• Poop-headband* (she really was acting like a poop-headband—it just wasn’t polite to say so)
• Redhand Monster
• Sister Pee
• Farty Chicken* (classic insult formulation—bodily function + animal or body part)
• Lemon Sticky Bad* (sounds like something I used to order at the Chinese restaurant on 10th street and 2nd Avenue)
• Stupid Dumb Cousin (not addressed to a cousin)
The range of reactions from the preschool teachers ranges from TOTAL NUCLEAR MELTDOWN to complete ignoring. What is tricky about doing consult in a classroom is that the recommended interventions for one kiddo may not be appropriate for another kiddo. But, I can typically break down the strategies that work for individuals if the teachers have done careful observations of what happens before and after the behavior (which helps to determine function, etc.).
The most important first step is to note whether the name-calling is a child echoing something that he or she has JUST heard. In that case, the best response is to ignore it, as that is a very typical thing for a preschooler to do. They have an amazing ability to sniff out the words that are “banned” and a calm, ho-hum, breezing by approach is the best. Many kids respond to the tone or energy of an adult’s response to something, and a BIG reaction can really make something stick out as “worthy of repeating.” Also, asking a kid to “use nice words” when they are clearly delighted with the way they just put those amazing words together is not really fair.
If a kiddo is picking on one specific child by calling names, then it is probably appropriate to intervene and have the name-caller do a major restoration (not a “forced apology”) to try and re-build the relationship between the two parties.
If a child is the type of kid (MY FAVORITE, BTW) who, when sensing the reaction of those around him to a particular word or name, will re-double his efforts to FREAK EVERYONE OUT and say the “bad word” over and over. This kiddo needs a slightly different approach. You can try to ignore it—but that means really ignore it, even as it gets louder or grosser or more public (escalation). If you say, “STOP IT” after 15 rounds of “Poopyfacehead,” the expectation is there that, in order to get the reaction that the child is seeking, he will really have to put on a show and will go right to the BIG behavior to get it.
Another strategy, if it is really important that they stop saying these words/calling names, is to do what is known as a DRO (Differential Reinforcement of Omission of Behavior—also called Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior). A DRO helps you to identify the interval of time during which a behavior is likely to occur and to reinforce at smaller intervals, thereby preventing the behavior. For example, if it were observed that little Johnny (Mr. Poop-Headband himself) called someone a name every 20 minutes, you would start making sure to offer reinforcement every 10 minutes, slowly working your way up to a much longer interval. These can be tricky to get right, and it is worth doing some reading or getting some consultation to help. This strategy is really the best for the kids who have less control of their impulses then their age-matched peers. It helps to build up their skills and prevents them from having to “get in trouble.”
A Response Cost is another strategy that can work well with kids—especially if they have something they are REALLY looking forward to. Using this strategy, you would draw a box with 10 squares in it and a picture of the “thing” that the child wants on top. You would explain that you really want him to be able to go get ice cream with his class later (P to the S: DON’T USE THIS STRATEGY IF YOU HAVE NO WAY OR NO DESIRE TO REALLY TAKE SOMETHING AWAY. Thank you. Sorry I had to yell, there) but you are worried about the bad language. He has 10 chances (this is an estimate—if you were really to put this procedure in place, you would have consulted with a behavior analyst or at least read this, right?) to exhibit the behavior before he gets “fined” (loses the ice cream). For kids who like stuff and have relatively good impulse control this can be a FAST and effective way of shutting all of that down.
If you have any specific questions about a situation in your classroom or home, you can reach us at www.clovermcgrath.com. As I say each time, if you are worried, talk to your pediatrician or consult a board certified behavior analyst to help you out, you big poop-nose. -Liz Schwandt