Hitting is the act of using the hand or arm with an open or closed fist to contact one’s own body or another person. Hitting can vary in terms of the force that is used such that the contact makes a sound or causes injury that can range in severity from a minor injury (e.g. mark) to major injury (e.g. concussion) (Dalphonse, 2020).


Almost all children have displayed hitting behaviour in the early stages of development (up to five years of age). A child may hit a child who has taken their toy, hit a peer who is too close or hit a peer who is making fun of them. When children mature, they develop appropriate ways of communicating their needs, interacting with others, problem-solving, coping with their emotions and controlling their behaviours, which helps them outgrow the hitting behaviour.


Hitting behaviour becomes a concern when the following occur:

  • the frequency (i.e. how often a child exhibits hitting behaviour) becomes excessive,
  • the duration (i.e. how long each incident of the hitting behaviour lasts) becomes excessive,
  • the intensity (i.e. the strength of the hitting behaviour) escalates from minor behaviours into extreme behaviours, and
  • the hitting behaviour negatively impacts the child’s participation in activities, interaction with others, their day-to-day functioning and development.


When hitting becomes persistent and chronic, it can cause negative consequences for the child and everyone else involved. The person who gets hit has a painful experience that can leave them feeling worried that it might happen again, while the parents of the child who was hit can be angry that their child got hurt and be anxious about their child’s safety. The parents of the child who hits may feel annoyed at their child and anxious about how others will treat their child. The child may get labelled as ‘the hitter’ and others may become wary of the child. Parents have to adapt their life to avoid triggering the child and limit the child’s access to the community due to the child’s behaviour.

The climate of the context (e.g. childcare, early childhood, primary and secondary school, disability support and youth services) can also change dramatically. A considerable amount of time and energy can be spent on the child showing the hitting behaviour, which can have a deleterious effect on the quality of the learning experience for all the children. Research consistently shows that managing behaviour is linked to staff experiencing high levels of stress, burnout, and job dissatisfaction.


Ms Jones is having trouble with 14-year-old Jason, a child in her class. He often hits other children in the class in response to what appear to be seemingly minor, everyday inconveniences and stressors. For example, hitting a child who sat in his seat accidentally, someone bumping into him accidentally or someone teasing him. Ms Jones tries to explain why his behaviour is wrong, but Jason feels Ms Jones doesn’t like him so shuts down the conversation. When Ms Jones calls Jason’s parents into the classroom to discuss his behaviour, his parents express that they are at a loss as well on how to support him. They explain how they walk on eggshells around him at home and let him do whatever he wants to so that they don’t anger him and he stays calm.

Hence, hitting affects everyone involved and the child who is hitting requires necessary help to learn positive ways of behaving and managing their emotions.


Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) focuses on evidence-based strategies and person-centred supports that address the needs of the individual and the underlying causes of behaviours of concern, to enhance the quality of life for both the individual and those that support them.

PBS recognises that there is no single cause for hitting behaviour. It is a complex behaviour that is a product of the interaction between multiple factors contributing to its development and persistence.

Hitting behaviour is like the tip of the iceberg so it is essential to look beneath the surface to work out the why before we can address the problem.

There are three main setting-related factors which impact the child and their behaviour:

  • environment
  • activity, and
  • interaction

These factors place different demands on the child and when any of these demands outweigh the child’s skills to cope with them, the child engages in hitting behaviour.


Nancy is watching TV. Her brother Edmond comes in and sits next to her. Soon he is talking loudly and playing with their pet dog Leo. Nancy tells her brother to stop talking as she is trying to concentrate and watch TV. Edmond appears to ignore her and keeps playing with Leo using an animated loud voice. Nancy gets up and hits him on his back. Some of the skills needed to cope with this interaction include:

  • Frustration tolerance – Can Nancy cope or get easily frustrated and overwhelmed at seemingly minor, everyday inconveniences and stressors?
  • Emotional regulation – Can Nancy regulate her emotions and stay calm?
  • Impulse control – Can Nancy control her impulse of hitting her brother?
  • Problem-solving – Does Nancy know what other solutions she could try to address the problem?
  • Flexibility – Can Nancy be flexible and think of other rooms in the house that have a TV where she could watch her show?

As Nancy does not have the skills needed to cope, she resorts to hitting her brother, who is likely to leave the room crying.

The example highlights that hitting behaviour is not without purpose. It is never too late to address hitting behaviour, even if it has been occurring for a while.

Developing a comprehensive and individualised PBS plan to address the hitting behaviour involves three stages: Assess-Manage-Prevent.

  • ASSESS: How to identify the reasons for the hitting behaviour,
  • MANAGE: How to respond when hitting behaviour occurs, and
  • PREVENT: How to minimise or eliminate the occurrence of hitting behaviour.


Assess Stage Aims

The Assess stage aims to identity:

  • Activities during which the hitting behaviour occurs,
  • Environments in which the hitting behaviour occurs, and
  • People dealing with the hitting behaviour.

Assess Stage Checklist:

  • Child’s profile – Gather information about the child to create a comprehensive picture of the child, their abilities and needs.
  • Behaviour data collection forms – Record measurable details (e.g. frequency, intensity, duration) about the child’s hitting behaviour.
  • Functional Behaviour Analysis (FBA)- Systematically reflect on an incident by analysing the antecedents (what preceded the hitting behaviour), describing the hitting behaviour, consequences (what happened after the hitting behaviour).
  • Hypothesis – Determine the purpose (function) that the hitting behaviour served.


Manage Stage Aims

The Manage Stage outlines how to effectively respond to the behaviours that occur before the hitting behaviour and after. Appropriate responses can help to safely defuse, redirect, and de-escalate the situation in the least disruptive manner.

Manage Stage Checklist:

  • Escalation stages – Help those supporting the child to recognise the number of stages the child exhibits as their emotion rises (i.e. mild escalation, moderate escalation, extreme escalation and recovery stage).
  • Escalation profile – Help those supporting the child to recognise what non-verbal and/or verbal behaviours are exhibited in the different escalation stages and how long it can last.
  • De-escalation plan – Help those supporting the child with guidelines on how to immediately respond when the behaviour occurs, safely defuse and de-escalate the situation in the least disruptive manner.


Prevent Stage Aims

This stage aims to prevent the occurrence of the hitting behaviours by minimising or avoiding the triggers that cause it and teach the child alternative behaviours.

Prevent Stage plan

The plan details strategies to minimise or avoid the triggers that contribute to the hitting behaviours by providing the child with:

  • Supportive environments – Tailoring environment related aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that set off hitting behaviour.
  • Supportive activities – Tailoring activity related aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that set off hitting behaviour.
  • Supportive interactions – Tailoring interaction aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that set off hitting behaviour, and
  • Teaching the child – Teaching the student positive ways of communicating their messages and managing their emotions and behaviours.


Use the practical tools (checklists, forms, and strategies) in H for Hitting: Positive Behaviour Support guide to develop comprehensive PBS plans that can be used to support children of all ages consistently in all settings.

This invaluable guide is useful for parents, caregivers, educators in childcare, early childhood, primary and secondary schools, disability, mental health, allied health, and supervisory professionals.