As young children work to build language and self management skills such as problem solving, flexibility, resilience and practice self-calming techniques they may display challenging behaviors including defiance and aggression. During the past 30 years, child guidance practice has moved away from reactive, negative approaches to proactive, positive ones.
When educators practice positive child guidance, they act as a coach to help children solve a problem. The goal of positive behavior support is not to “fix” the child with behavioral challenges, it’s to “fix” the parts of the learning environment that contribute to the problem behavior. Fixing the environment usually means focusing on prevention and adult intervention skills rather than reacting after behavioral problems have occurred. A reactive approach that implements negative consequences does not work.
First Circle’s child guidance policy concentrates on prevention and skill-building rather than punishment and is designed to help children develop socially acceptable ways of expressing their needs and feelings. We help them:
The best way to address challenging behavior in young children is to decrease the likelihood it will occur.
Learn about the individual child and their family to better understand how the child reacts and responds to situations, people, stimuli, and cues.
Developmentally appropriate practice is especially important in behavior management. Have realistic expectations for a child based on their developmental level. If children knew better, they would do better. Requests should be connected to what children can do (not just what you want them to do).
If the children in a classroom are engaged with interesting activities, they will be less likely to present challenging behaviors.
Setting and reviewing predictable schedules, rules, and routines give children a sense of control. They predict what is coming next, which reduces anxiety and encourages positive behavior.
Children will not learn to follow the rules if you are not consistent in implementing them. When children exhibit unacceptable behavior, consistent consequences should follow so children know what to expect and are less likely to be upset by occasional surprises.
The following steps will help avoid challenging behavior before it begins:
Design play and learning areas with boundaries that teachers can see and children understand. Have organized and plentiful materials in good working condition. Set the classroom up for success by following principles of universal design.
Even when we think they aren’t paying attention, children are watching us carefully. If you interact with respect and courtesy, children will too. If children see their teachers sitting on furniture or eating outside mealtime, they won’t understand why they aren’t allowed to.
Encourage children’s participation in play by being nearby and available.
Reinforce positive behavior by recognizing children’s positive actions, or “catch children being good.” There are 5 major principles for using positive feedback:
When rules or limits are broken, address the behavior using these guidelines:
Working with children is rewarding, but it can be stressful, especially when dealing with their behavior. Remain in control of your feelings, especially frustration or anger. Losing your self-control, yelling at children, using threats, etc., will negatively impact your relationship with the children and could also jeopardize your job.
Step away if you need to maintain your composure. It’s important to model for children to remain calm and in control of yourself, to give them a positive example of how to deal with anger or frustration. Remain calm, evaluate the situation, and proceed with caution.
All behavior has a reason. Children aren’t mature enough to tell us their needs in words. Without the words and self-control to communicate with them, they act out to get their needs met. By dismissing the child or giving in to their demands without analyzing the behavior, we’re not acknowledging their feelings, and not helping them to get their needs met.
Children deserve respect. Use words that demonstrate your respect, such as please, thank you, and I’m sorry. Tell children what to do, not what not to do. Using the word ‘instead’ to rephrase helps. The focus should be on what we want to happen.
Children need frequent reminders of what is expected (remember the ratio of 5 positives to 1 negative). Choose your words and tone carefully and use empathy! As much as possible, educators must offer these reminders in a helpful tone, and avoid:
Describe what you see or the problem (“When you ran through the block area, you knocked down Anna’s tower.”).
For example, “Remember our rule that we only run when we’re outside,” “Are you remembering to use your inside feet?”
Children’s brains are still forming. They need to hear, process, and respond to requests and guidance.
Recognize and respect children’s feelings when discussing their behavior (“I see you’re very frustrated.”). Encourage children to express their feelings in words and resolve problems peacefully.
See if the child can come up with their own positive solution. If not, direct the child toward positive activity and away from potential problems:
Simply giving children choices can reduce problem behavior. Although children will naturally choose things that are reinforcing to them, research shows behavior improves even when both choices are not preferred or when the assignment is not preferred but the child gets to choose aspects of it, such as the sequence of tasks (“Do you want to clean up the toys first or hang up your coat?”).
Helping children learn about natural consequences fosters learning because they appeal to their sense of logic and desire for control: “When I do this, this is what happens.”
Imposing negative consequences for undesirable behavior works to control behavior for about 80 to 90 percent of children. But using punitive measures doesn’t help children develop personal responsibility or life skills. Furthermore, they do not work for children at risk for or those who already have chronic behavioral challenges. Therefore, use consequences carefully.
When possible, instill natural consequences for behaviors. When you use consequences, think ahead. Don’t warn a child of the consequences ahead of time as this becomes a threat. Instead, have a plan in mind for what you will do in a certain situation. Some negative behaviors and their natural consequences may include:
Because a “time-out” doesn’t address behavior or teach a child to redirect their behavior to more positive channels, we don’t use time outs at First Circle. However, children may need to be removed from a situation if they are having difficulty. You can help children develop their own coping skills by guiding them to “take a break,” and “pick another activity.”
Include a brief explanation and a dose of empathy as you remove the child or implement a consequence. Be as consistent as possible and use similar wording each time to redirect. Keep the following guidelines in mind:
Offer two options matter-of-factly which result in the desired outcome. For example, “You can pick an empty sink, or I will pick it for you.” Make sure you don’t use a threatening tone.
When children are at odds with each other, encourage appropriate peer feedback. For example, one child takes a toy from a second child – help the second child express themselves by asking, “How does that make you feel?” Then help the child give feedback to the first one, such as “I don’t like that!” or “I want you to give that back to me.”
Children can and should be involved in solutions to problems or conflicts, especially when behavior is aggressive or destructive, involving them in repairing any damage. Some examples are:
Sometimes it is better to ignore behavior clearly intended to attract attention. This strategy should only be used when a child displays minor inappropriate behavior and when you’re confident the child will stop on their own. This strategy is more appropriate for children at least 4 years old. Things to know about planned ignoring:
Reflecting on children’s challenging behavior is an essential part of an early childhood educator’s role. Here are ways you can reflect on and address challenging behavior in young children [see 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Consider the following modifications to help a child with challenging behaviors:
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:
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.
If challenging behavior persists, we may need to seek additional support from mental health professionals, behavior specialists, or other experts.
Occasionally, children may not make enough progress in learning to control their behavior despite the educator’s best efforts. The child’s behavior may make it difficult for the child and other children to learn and grow in the program. If the behavior is so severe that 1) it is likely that the child will be isolated and ostracized by the other children if it continues, 2) there is a serious possibility of harm to the child, the other children, or staff, and/or 3) it consumes an excessive amount of the educators’ time and energy, a Behavior Support Plan will be created. When creating a Behavior Support Plan:
Remember that each child is unique, and what works for one doesn’t work for all. The behavior support plan must be tailored to the child’s individual needs, and may require adjustments as the child develops. No matter what the behavior exhibited, we will treat the child and their family with the same respect, support, and care that we do any other child or family.
Like EEC, we at First Circle believe that behavioral control is neither logical nor appropriate for children. No form of punishment or physical restraint will be used to discipline a child. We strictly prohibit all the following practices:
Guidance should not be thought of as a weak alternative to traditional discipline—it’s being a good coach who doesn’t give up on any member of the team. Your efforts at guidance don’t have to be perfect, but if you persist and reflect, you will get good results. We learn even as we teach. Do these things and you will feel positively about yourself as a teacher—and that will help with the inner calm you need to guide children toward healthy emotional and social skills.