Understanding and Managing Challenging Behavior
Turning Challenges into Learning Opportunities
Mrs. Gonzales is welcoming her class of three year olds, helping them to hang up their coats and hats. She greets each child by name, and asks their parents about how the recent four day weekend went. Knowing children have had some time away, she reminds them that the day starts with center time, and invites them to find a place to play.
The busy holiday season is winding down for many of us. By now, you probably know most of the children in your classroom well. You may be returning to your normal routine, as children return from school breaks or travels. At this point in the year, it’s likely that children are settled in with you and with each other. Even so, you may find that you suddenly have an increase in challenging behaviors on your hands. The changes in routine and increase in excitement associated with the holidays can cause stress for many children and families—even if these changes are seen as positive. As a teacher, it’s important to understand why children may act out or experience regression in times of stress, and how you can handle these behaviors in ways that support emotional development.
Self-regulation—the ability to adapt or control behavior, emotions, and thinking—is a developmental skill that emerges during early childhood. Babies and toddlers cannot self-regulate on their own. They depend on caregivers to help them co-regulate when strong emotions overtake them. When you help children manage these big feelings, you support the development of skills that will one day help them do it on their own.
It takes a wide range of social problem solving skills to deal with inevitable conflicts that arise in social settings. Children must learn to control their emotional and physical impulses, finding ways to use appropriate words and actions instead of lashing out physically or verbally. They must learn to tolerate frustration when their efforts to play don’t work the way they had hoped. They have to learn to delay gratification—there is so much waiting involved in everyday life, and it’s hard for children and adults alike! Even further, children must learn to make and implement plans to get what they want, a highly sophisticated skill. This is a lot for young children to manage, and they often can’t do it without the help of supportive adults.
As Mrs. Gonzales finishes tidying up the cubby area, she hears loud voices from the construction center. Michael and Jasmine are pulling on either side of a toy truck, wailing. Mrs. Gonzales rushes over, saying, “Hold on! I’m coming to help!”
There are strategies you can implement in your classroom to help children practice these skills. Help children notice when they are beginning to lose control, intervening before a situation escalates and talking about what you see happening. You might say, “Wow, your face tells me you that waiting is very hard! I know how that feels—would you like sit in my lap for a moment while we take some deep breaths together?” Get close to children when they are upset, kneeling down to their level and offering gentle touch to help them calm down. When you see children trying out social problem solving skills, like making plans or trying to share, scaffold their attempts. Experiencing success helps prepare them for the next time, when they might be ready to do it on their own.
As she reaches the construction center, Mrs. Gonzales drops to her knees and places her hand on each child’s shoulder. “Wow!” she says, “You both really want to play with that truck! You sound very frustrated! I wonder what we can do so you both can get a turn?”
Michael says, “I had it first and she took it!” Jasmine bursts into tears, wailing, “But it’s MINE!” Mrs. Gonzales says to Jasmine, “It’s hard to wait when you really want something. I can help you get a turn with this truck, or you can play with a different truck. Which do you choose?” Jasmine says, “A turn with this truck.” To Michael, Mrs. Gonzales says, “Right now it’s your turn, and in five minutes, it will be Jasmine’s turn.” She then helps Jasmine find something else to do while she waits, so she doesn’t hover over Michael while he finishes his turn. She also sets a timer on her watch to remind herself to follow through with Jasmine in five minutes and make sure she gets a turn with the truck.
Children need lots of practice to develop social problem solving skills. Find ways to include opportunities to do so in your curriculum. Teach children the language to express their emotions, labeling and exploring feelings in the classroom. Use books, songs, dance, and dramatic play to investigate how emotions feel and ways to deal with them. You can encourage children to practice waiting (delaying gratification) by including turn-taking games in your classroom—something as simple as rolling a ball back and forth with babies, or as complex as playing board games with older children. Games like “Simon Says” and “Red Light, Green Light” can help children practice controlling impulses, increasing their chances of success in less structured play.
Plan-making is another strategy that can be included in your curriculum. Using a white board to document children’s plans and help them follow through is a great literacy activity, and it shows children that you are paying attention to what matters to them. When they trust that you will help them get what they want if they can wait and make a plan, they are more likely to be able to do it. Just be sure to take whatever measures you need to remember the plans you made, so children can trust the process.
One of the biggest challenges for early childhood teachers is managing aggression. When children hurt each other, it is upsetting to everyone! It’s important to understand that managing anger and aggression is a developmental skill, related to self-regulation. For most children, some aggression is normal as they learn to navigate the social world. Physical aggression usually peaks at around age 2, and then tapers off as children gain greater emotional control and more sophisticated language skills. The way that you respond to aggression in your classroom can influence whether children hang on to these behaviors, or swap them for ones that work better.
On the playground later that day, Logan builds a tall pile of snow. He begins adding leaves and stones to decorate it. Jaycee comes over with a handful of pine needles and throws them on top of his creation. Logan yells, “No!!” Jaycee angrily kicks his snow pile, and Logan pushes her to the ground. The two children both begin crying.
One simple way you can support emotional development when aggression arises is to give children—both the victim and the aggressor—time to calm down before addressing the issue. Children (and adults, for that matter) often struggle to think of alternative solutions when feelings are still strong. Avoid insisting that children apologize when they are not sorry. Instead, explore ways that they might make amends, like rubbing a friend’s back or drawing a picture. With the children involved, or with a larger group, discuss ways to manage angry feelings without hurting each other. You might be surprised at some of the creative solutions children come up with on their own!
When unacceptable behaviors arise in your classroom, one helpful strategy for teachers (originating from play therapy) is this three-step technique for setting limits, known as A.C.T.
A—Acknowledge the feeling. (“You are very mad.”)
C—Communicate the limit. (“You may not hit other children.”)
T—Target an acceptable alternative. (“I can get you a pillow to hit.”)
This strategy supports emotional development because it recognizes that all behavior is driven by emotion. When the way a child feels is acknowledged, he is more likely to feel understood and be able to choose a different response in a similar situation in the future. Remember that children experience emotions with an intensity that is not as common in adults—they may need to do something to release the feelings. Help them find ways to appropriately express how they feel, hitting a pillow, jumping up and down, taking deep breaths, or taking a break in a cozy corner are all things children can do to manage strong feelings. Some children may feel embarrassed, and not want others to see them immediately following an incident. A pop-up tent or a beanbag behind a bookshelf can provide a needed escape for a child to calm down.
Mrs. Gonzales rushes over to Logan and Jaycee. She helps Jaycee to her feet and hugs her. Once Jaycee has stopped crying, Mrs. Gonzales says, “I think you wanted to help decorate and it didn’t work. You look disappointed. You may not kick your friends’ creations. You could ask Logan next time or you may build your own snow pile to decorate or kick instead.”
To Logan she says, “You are very angry that Jaycee kicked your snow pile! You can tell her ‘Don’t kick my snow pile!’ Pushing is not safe. If you are still angry, you may throw snowballs at the wall to get your angry feelings out.”
Later on, she asks Jaycee if she would like to help Logan rebuild his snow pile, and suggests to Logan that he might help Jaycee find decorations for her own structure. After a while, the children are able to play together again.
Finally, remember that when the outside world is busy and routines are shaken up, children may not be able to cope as well. Consider ways you can help reduce stress for children by keeping your classroom predictable, offering calming activities like sensory experiences and stretching, and providing lots of time for unstructured play. Trust that as things return to normal in children’s lives, their problem-solving skills will also return and flourish.
After a busy day, Mrs. Gonzales helps children prepare for their parent’s arrival. She takes an extra minute to check in with children who have experienced a conflict or big upset that day, being sure to end the day on a positive note. After the last child leaves, she takes a moment to look over her calendar for the next day, and decides to remove a craft project from the day’s plan. Instead, she will extend play time in the centers, since many children seemed to really enjoy reconnecting with each other that day, but didn’t have as much time as they wanted. She refills the lotion bottle and the sand tray, and chooses a new CD of nature sounds to include in the science center. As she turns off the light, she also takes a moment for a deep breath of her own, refocusing her thoughts for her evening, knowing she is prepared for the next morning.
Jennifer Fiechtner and Kay Albrecht
is an editor, writer, and parent, with a background in education and early childhood development. Her most recent editing project was Social Emotional Tools for Life by Michelle M. Forrester and Kay M. Albrecht.
Kay Albrecht, Ph.D.,
is president of Innovations in Early Childhood Education in Houston, TX. Teaching in some capacity has been the bulk of Kay’s life work, beginning as a preschool teacher and continuing as a program director and a teacher educator. The author of The Right Fit: Recruiting, Selecting, and Orienting Staff, co-author of the Innovations series of curriculum and training materials, and Social Emotional Tools for Life: An Early Childhood Teacher’s Guide.