A certain amount of pushing, grabbing and even punching is normal when young children get together. Most of the time it's nothing to worry about. Injuries are few; disputes are soon forgotten.
Coping equals aggression
Some toddlers and pre-schoolers, however, get into repeated and escalating tussles. For them, aggression becomes their main approach to coping with almost any situation. They’re not bullies; in fact, they sometimes pick hopeless fights with children who are much larger and older than they are. As toddlers and pre-schoolers, their developing nervous systems do not seem to let them control their impulses as much as their age mates do. With others, it's more a matter of their needing to learn and practise social skills.
When aggression works
In other areas of their lives, aggressiveness is often rewarded. A child who pushes into the queue to go down the slide at the playground will probably get to use that slide the most. The one who acts up in pre-school will probably get extra attention from the teacher. From a child's point of view, the difference between assertiveness and aggression may not be clear.
Spotting the signs
The best way to handle an overly aggressive child is to prevent the behaviour in the first place. Many of these children show a clear pattern to their behaviour. They may be aggressive only at home or only in public. A child may be much more likely to be aggressive in the afternoon when he's tired, or when he’s feeling frustrated. This part of the pattern will help you to be better prepared to intervene.
Also, most aggressive children this age go through a consistent sequence of behaviours before they lash out with a punch or a kick. Some may clench their teeth and stare. Others may rock back and forth.
Helping your child
Once you've determined the most common triggers or timing, and can spot the escalating behaviours, the simplest thing to do is to remove the child from that environment. Greater structure also seems to help these children. With structure comes predictability, which helps them feel more calm and in control. Tempting as it may be at the time, spanking an aggressive child for his behaviour does not work. In fact, it will probably make matters worse since you're modelling the very behaviour that you want him to stop.
Girls vs. boys
While aggressive boys get more attention, girls get into fights too. Their aggression may be more verbal, even at this age. It may also be physical, but less obvious than a boy's punches and kicks. Like boys, aggressive girls need help in learning better social and problem-solving skills.
Could it be depression?
Finally, remember that aggression is sometimes a sign of depression in young children. If your child seems uncharacteristically aggressive and isn't responding to your efforts to change things, talk to your healthcare provider about what's going on. The sooner you take action, the easier it will be for both you and your child.