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Taming Preschool Bullies

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Updated: 12/08/2003 8:57 am

By age 3, Dylan Schroeder had a 10-page rap sheet. On the list: He bit children until they bled, and hit one with a baseball bat. He tipped over furniture. He was obsessed with the vacuum cleaner. He hoarded food, and preferred eating meals under the table. He was extraordinarily fast and fearless - climbing over stoves and outwitting childproof lids - which is why his bedroom door had an alarm to alert his parents if he opened it at night.

Jump ahead three years. Here is Dylan, just one of the guys at Learn & Grow Child Care Center in Blaine, Minnesota, playing fireman with his pals.

During story hour, he mostly manages to keep the assigned posture - "flat bottom, with pretzel legs" - giving in to his impulse to stand only when the teacher holds up the picture book in his direction.

In many ways Dylan is still not a typical preschooler. But he is not what he could have been - one of a growing number of preschool bullies who are getting themselves kicked out of child-care centers nationwide.

It's a big problem, research indicates. A collection of studies suggests that 10 to 15 percent of preschoolers have behavior problems severe enough to need treatment - something these youngsters won't simply outgrow.

"They get themselves in a spot where they are known as 'the child in trouble,' " said Kathy Elvidge, director of the Learn & Grow center. "Then, no matter what happens, they're the ones everyone points to. And it follows them."

"We're talking about babies 3 and 4 years old who know they don't have any friends," said Connie Abbott, coordinator of a Minnesota program that helped Dylan. "It's so wrong, but it's so set already in their little lives."

Things are getting ugly on playgrounds and nap mats, according to some child-care providers.

In Tampa, Fla., consultant Lise Fox said that when she walked into a preschool there, one boy greeted her by saying, "I'm gonna kill you."

At her child-care center in Montreal, Barbara Kaiser said, one boy threw rocks at other children's heads, kicked teachers and never showed a sign of remorse.

"He turned my world upside down; he was the inspiration for my work now," said Kaiser, whose book "Challenging Behavior in Young Children" was published in October.

Early-childhood experts offer several explanations for the new violence. Some blame environmental problems, including lead paint. Others suspect chaotic or stressful family lives, parenting problems or mental or emotional illnesses in the child.

"These kids can quickly get adults to back off, to let them do what they want," said Fox, a research professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Preschool bullies are different from annoying youngsters who push other kids in the lunch line. They are worrisome because the damage they do is so often a reflection of the emotional devastation inside themselves. They typically carry a chain of diagnoses behind their names: oppositional defiance disorder, emotional behavioral disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or sensory integration dysfunction.

One of Paula Schroeder's clearest memories, when Dylan came to live with her and her husband, Ron, is of his odd self-sufficiency. Just 7 months old, he would let her hold him during feedings only if he could hold the bottle. When he was 2, she found him making microwave popcorn in the middle of the night. He never cried. It seemed that their new adopted son came to them convinced that he could count on no one.

One day a specialist from the Proactive Intervention Program (PIP) of Anoka County, which teaches parents and early-childhood educators how to understand and help difficult children, came to the Schroeders to evaluate a child in Paula's care. Paula remembers her saying, "Now, would you like some help with Dylan?"

That was her introduction to a condition called sensory integration dysfunction (SI dysfunction).With SI dysfunction, a child's reactions get out of proportion, said Susan Axelson, an occupational therapist who treats youngsters, including Dylan. She has seen children who will eat only frozen food, or only sour candies or pancakes or McDonald's French fries. Some children need therapy just to adjust from short- to long-sleeved shirts every fall.

When Dylan first came to live with them, Paula said, if she even touched the skin on his back his whole body would stiffen, and the spot itself would flush red. Still, he craves touch, and the purpose of his therapy is to pour it on, hoping to make up for lost time.

Among the lessons PIP coordinator Connie Abbott said her staff provides are how a brightly painted wall - a joy to most youngsters - can send a hypersensitive child into a frenzy. Also, some children get in trouble because they love the punishment: It actually feels good to them to be physically restrained.

Dylan's special challenges continue. His impulse is still to hit when he's upset. And he's still high-velocity and fearless, locking Paula into high alert. He started a fire in the family's minivan not long ago, for example.

"I'm always processing, 'Can I really keep doing this? Can I keep everyone safe? What happens when he's 12?' " Paula said.

But she also sees much progress. Dylan now asks for hugs. A preschool assessment qualified him for regular kindergarten - no special needs - in the fall. And Paula said she and Ron got a kick out of him before Christmas. He said he needed a "rope" so he could go see Santa.

It took them a few minutes to realize he meant he wanted to dress up with a necktie.

Copyright 2003 Scripps Howard News Service

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