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
"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
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
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
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
Copyright 2003 Scripps Howard News Service