Behavior Management Series: Hitting and Kicking

Community Member

Children who have ADHD and children who are on the Autism Spectrum can often engage in behaviors which can cause great disruption and chaos in their home and school environments.   I am going to be discussing many of these behaviors and give you some ideas about what you can do to decrease their frequency.

If you were to prioritize which behaviors you wish to get rid of and fast I am guessing that hitting and kicking might be right there at the top of your list.   Hitting and kicking others will not fly in any environment.   These behaviors will not increase your child's popularity with other kids.   And it just may get them kicked out of class or worse yet, retaliation from kids who don't appreciate being kicked or hit.   This is one behavior that you cannot ignore or hope it goes away.   You have to deal with it head on.

There can be many reasons why a child may engage in these behaviors.   My son had some hitting issues because he was not able to understand the differences in social cues.   I will explain.   He watched and learned how to play the game "TAG" and in this game as you probably well know, kids smack each other on the back and yell "TAG you're IT."   My son began to generalize that if he wanted to play with someone he would just smack them on the back.   We had to teach him that this behavior was not to be used outside of the Tag game and that he needed to use other methods to gain someone's attention such as through verbal communication or a gentle tap on the shoulder.

There may be many other reasons for your child to want to hit or kick and these may include:

  • They are angry or frustrated and kicking or hitting is an outlet.
  • Someone has invaded their personal space and this is their way of protecting this space.
  • They are hyperactive and silly and their movements are not so intentional but they end up hitting or kicking people in the process.
  • They like the reaction it causes in people and they want to get that reaction again.
  • They may not understand that their actions can actually hurt someone.

These are but some reasons.   I am sure you all could easily add to the list.   Okay so what can one do about this?

  • Some children may not understand the difference between a gentle touch and actions which could hurt someone. You may need to model how to be gentle as in how to give someone a gentle tap on the shoulder in order to gain their attention. My son had to learn how to pet our dog, for example, instead of being rough. For some kids, you have to teach this directly.

  • My rule of thumb is whatever behavior you wish to decrease, you must find a compatible behavior to increase. In other words, you have to find a replacement behavior. If your child is hitting then you must give them something else they can do. You can replace hitting with a tap on the shoulder or a high five. If they want to kick you can say, "You cannot kick me or other people but you can kick this ball." It is good to figure out if you can, the purpose of the behavior.

If they are angry when they hit or kick how else can they express their anger without resorting to physically hurting others?   If they are doing it for attention then what are other ways they can get attention without kicking or hitting?   If they are simply hyperactive what are some ways you can help them to expend that energy without knocking into other people?   The trick is to fill that need by teaching them appropriate behaviors.

  • You want to reinforce appropriate behaviors which replace the hitting and kicking. Give verbal praise such as "I like the way you asked your friend to play" or "I like the way you tapped that person's shoulder to get their attention." It is best to try to prevent the kicking or hitting from happening in the first place but if it does happen you want a clear consequence which does not reward the behavior. Try not to emotionally over react because some children are reinforced by that sort of attention.

  • Sometimes visuals can help to define the rules. I love the web site called Do To Learn as it has many teaching aids including icons to use to communicate behavioral expectations. Here is one for "no kicking" and here is one for "no hitting".  

  • If you have younger children there are two books specifically written about these behaviors. The first is called "Feet Are Not for Kicking" by Elizabeth Verdick. The second one is called "Hands Are Not for Hitting" by Martine Agassi.

  • Another strategy is to use what is known as a "social story." Carol Gray invented the use of social stories for children who learn more from a visual presentation than through other methods. Here is a link to information about social stories for more information.

Basically, social stories are like a cartoon strip or series of drawings to show what to do in social situations.   For example, if your child has trouble when other's invade his or her personal space you could draw a series of pictures to show this type of circumstance and what he or she should do instead of hitting or kicking.   Children who do not process language very well may remember better what to do if they are shown instead of being told.

I do hope these strategies were helpful to someone out there.   I know how it is to have a child who doesn't always understand or obey the rules most kids are able to discern on their own.   Our children just need a little guidance, support, and direct teaching to steer them in the right direction.   If you have any suggestions about how to deal with hitting or kicking behaviors please do comment here.   The more ideas we have to choose from the better. We always enjoy hearing from you.