challenging behavior

The number of children with challenging behaviors is on the rise. Challenging behavior can have complex causes. As educators, we need to increase the number of tools in our intervention toolbox.

It is important to remember that children with behavior challenges often have disabilities that affect their ability to learn coping and problem-solving skills. Saying, “They are just going to have to learn,” without providing increased support would be the same thing as expecting a physically injured person to just teach himself how to walk again without any physical therapy.

Challenging behavior hinders the child, as it can impede their learning and ability to get along well with their peers. It endangers the peers and educators they hurt. The focus in early childhood education is to shift child guidance away from negative consequences, and toward prevention and early intervention.


Challenging behavior is behavior that interferes with children’s learning, development, and success at play. It harms the child, other children, or adults, and puts the child at risk for later social and communication problems. Challenging behavior includes behavior that causes injury (hitting, biting), aggressive behavior (hitting others, screaming, spitting, kicking), defiance (non-compliance), behavior directed at property (throwing objects or purposefully destroying things), or tantrums. Problematic behaviors are dangerous, destructive, seriously disruptive, or cause the child to be seen negatively.


Any child can exhibit challenging behavior. Like teething, walking, talking, and toilet learning, self-management is a skill that develops at a different rate for each child. As they learn to communicate and interact with others, challenging behavior is a young child’s way of letting us know what they feel. For many children, challenging behavior is a way of exerting some control over a world in which they have little.

Even if the child knew what to do instead—and chances are they don’t—their ability to regulate their feelings and actions is just developing. When a young child exhibits challenging behavior, educators must remember that in most cases, it’s not that the child “won’t,” it’s that they “can’t.”


The most effective strategy for dealing with challenging behavior is prevention. Ensure you are following the prevention steps above to avoid challenging behavior before it begins.


When challenging behavior occurs, follow the instructions under Redirect. If the suggested actions aren’t successful, the educator may:

Remove the child

Separate the child from the activity but have the child remain within your immediate and direct supervision until they can regain self-control and rejoin the group. If the activity or behavior could be dangerous to the child or others, you may remove the child from the environment and get help from Administration.

Restraint is not allowed

However, educators can use supportive holding of children only in the following situations:



Tantrums are a normal part of development. Children need support and guidance to learn how to regulate their emotions and behavior. When a child has a tantrum, respond in a calm and supportive way to help the child:

If the child engages in unsafe or disruptive behavior during a tantrum, you may need to implement consequences [see CONSEQUENCES above].

If the child’s tantrums persist or are severe, you may need to seek help from a behavior specialist.


When a young child hits, the teacher needs to respond quickly and consistently to address the behavior, using these guidelines:


Biting is a common behavior in young children, especially in young children still learning to regulate their emotions and communicate effectively. Strategies to handle biting in the classroom:


Spend time after a child has exhibited challenging behavior reflecting on causes and changes you can make.

Observe and record the behavior

Record details, including the time of day, location, what happened before and after the behavior, and any other relevant details. This can help identify patterns, triggers, and causes.

Identify the function

Consider the child’s perspective and try to understand why they are behaving in a certain way. Behavior is rarely simply behavior. The cause is some basic biological or emotional need the child doesn’t know how to express appropriately, such as:


Once the functions of problem behavior are identified, educators need to design an intervention that encourages children to meet that function in a more socially acceptable way.

Make modifications

Consider the following modifications to help a child with challenging behaviors:

Transition helpers

Many children with behavioral challenges have difficulty with transitions. Transition helpers support children by providing structure and predictability, in addition to giving them information about what is going to happen, and time to process it and become ready to handle the change. Some ideas:

Collaborate with the family

Work in partnership with parents to address children’s difficulties at home and at the program to create consistency between home and classroom. Make sure you communicate with parents about a child’s behavior at school and the way you responded. Be specific and honest but tactful with parents about their child’s behavior. Open communication about a child’s strengths and challenges will encourage everyone to work together to overcome obstacles.


Labels are detrimental, so we don’t use them. Be careful to talk about the behavior, not the child. Negative labels can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies. They prevent us from seeing the child’s positive qualities and may even cause us to lower our expectations of them. A child you’ve thought of as stubborn could just as easily be tenacious or persistent, important characteristics for success in school. When you can see a child in a positive light, it helps them to see themselves that way, and to act more positively, too.

Seek additional support

If challenging behavior persists, we may need to seek additional support from mental health professionals, behavior specialists, or other experts.