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Supporting Teachers in Addressing Challenging Behavior: A Team Approach (a workshop for Directors & Administrators of EC programs)

Supporting Teachers in Addressing Challenging Behavior: A Team Approach (a workshop for Directors & Administrators of EC programs)
Barbara Kaiser, MA
November 21, 2018

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Editor’s note: This text-based course is an edited transcript of the webinar, Supporting Teachers in Addressing Challenging Behavior: A Team Approachpresented by Barbara Kaiser, MA.

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Determine their ability bring the child care staff and families together for a common purpose
  • Discuss how their own attitudes and beliefs about children's behavior influence the way they communicate with families and respond to a child's challenging behavior
  • Recommend ways to support their staff and families to implement effective changes and strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behavior


I appreciate this opportunity to be able to talk to administrators because supporting teachers in addressing challenging behavior is so important. Paula Jorde Bloom (2004) stated it best when she said, "Effective leadership does not involve formulas or quick solutions; it embraces a way of thinking about your role and the vital work that you do every day." This statement is so important to understand when there is a child with challenging behavior at your school or at your center. As states and school districts increasingly prohibit suspension and expulsion of young children, directors and administrators of early childhood programs and principals of schools play a crucial role in making it possible for children with challenging behavior to remain in school and learn. Without your understanding of the importance of this, as well as your ability to support your teachers and your families, it will never happen. We need to believe in this goal and believe that we have the skills to develop and lead a team that supports it. 

As we know, running an early childhood program or a school isn't easy, and it becomes more difficult when there's a child with challenging behavior in the mix. Possessing good leadership skills is just the beginning. Helping children with challenging behavior to succeed requires an entire community of caring where everyone works together. The team may include principals, administrators, directors, and head teachers. All of these team members provide support and leadership when it's needed. What has become evident is that teachers must create an environment where all children and their families are welcome. In addition, the entire staff needs to believe that every child has the capacity to succeed. Furthermore, the educators must understand both why the children behave inappropriately, and why they respond to a child's challenging behavior in a certain way.

Case Example: Andrew

I'm going to begin with a personal story because so much of what I'm going to talk about is a result of my experience as a director of an early childhood program. I had worked in early childhood for over 14 years when this happened many years ago. A two-and-a-half-year-old named "Andrew" entered the center and turned the entire world of that center upside down. The teachers on staff were all experienced and qualified, but Andrew brought out every flaw in the program, and he taxed every skill that we had all developed. It was the first time, even after all those years, that we had lacked the ability to help a child regulate his own behavior. We spent our days putting out fires and consoling children. The teachers were saying, "No" and "Stop" all the time. They knew they weren't helping Andrew, and worse they found themselves liking him less, which we all know is a feeling that teachers are very uncomfortable with. As the year wore on, they began to feel resentful, burned out, inadequate and full of self-doubt.

As Andrew got older, the problems just got bigger. Since he had no diagnosed medical problem or medication, there were no treatment guidelines or extra funds available to support him. The families of the other children were concerned and came to me on a regular basis asking me why Andrew was still there. On Sunday night, I would sit by the phone and worry how many phone calls I would receive from the teachers saying they weren't coming in on Monday. It was a rough time. Because Andrew's facial expressions and body language seldom reflected his feelings or intentions, one of the other four-year-olds in his class explained it best when they said, "Andrew is like a volcano. He's calm on the outside, but he's ready to explode on the inside."

Some of the staff thought that Andrew shouldn't be there. They felt ill-equipped and unwilling to have him in their group. As an administrator, we are in a tough spot because we are there for the child, but we're also there for our staff, the family of that child, and the family of all the other children. When the staff came to me, it was hard for me to support them and to deal with what I thought was right, because he jeopardized the safety of the other children. His presence compromised the teachers' ability to provide the opportunities that the other children deserved. He consumed so much of everyone's time and energy that all of us almost had nothing left to give to the other children, and even sometimes to the families.

Children would go home to their families at night and tell stories about what Andrew had done, sometimes even sporting bruises that he had inflicted. The irate parents didn't understand why I was so committed to keeping Andrew at the center. If we did ask him to leave our preschool, where would he go? What kind of a beginning is that to a child's education? I felt a true sense of responsibility to Andrew, and I wasn't ready to give up.

I brought in experts to advise the staff, however, one of the mistakes I made, and that I have seen other administrators make, was waiting too long. I was hoping the staff would figure it out. I was hoping my support would be enough. By the time I realized that an expert consultant was needed to help figure out what we should be doing next, the staff was so stressed and defensive that it was hard for them to listen. Their staff's response to the consultant was, "That's easy. She can walk in here, she can give us good ideas, she can tell us what to do, but then she leaves and she doesn't have to try and implement them." Even though her suggestions might have sounded good, there were many reasons why the staff felt they couldn't follow through with it. We continued, we worked, and we did the best we could. Unfortunately, by the time Andrew went off to kindergarten, we all felt that we had failed him. That's why this topic of challenging behavior is so important to address because the administrator plays a huge role in guiding the staff and in working with the families.

Challenging Behavior Defined

In order to put this into perspective, I would like you to identify what challenging behavior means to you? What does it mean to your staff? What does it mean for families? "Challenging behavior" has become such a ubiquitous term. If you Google "challenging behavior" you get hundreds of results. Each of us has a unique way of looking at it. Each of us come to work, and throughout our day, we all have personal and professional boundaries. We all draw the line at different places. Everyone has different button-pushers and levels of tolerance. What might be acceptable for one teacher may be considered totally inappropriate by another teacher. Behaviors that are unacceptable at school may be acceptable at home, or they have become so routine that parents no longer even see them or recognize them as problem behaviors. 

In 1998, when we first started our work with challenging behavior, my co-author and I developed this definition that has been used by many. It's not about children who occasionally behave inappropriately; it's about children who come to rely on inappropriate behavior to meet their needs and are heading down a very slippery path. It is important to note that in addition to aggressive and disruptive behavior, timid and withdrawn behaviors also qualify as challenging.

Challenging behavior:

  • Interferes with children's learning, development, and success at play, affecting not only the disruptive child but also the other children.
  • Is harmful to and threatens the safety of the child, and the other children and even the adults.
  • Interferes with teachers' ability to teach and all of the children's opportunities to learn.
  • Puts children at high risk for later social problems or school failure.

The majority of children who engage in extremely aggressive behavior at the age of five do not graduate from high school. You might ask, "Why would aggressive behavior mean that children don't graduate from high school?" If you stop and look at it, as children with challenging and/or aggressive behavior get older and enter school, the teacher doesn't have time to deal with them. There are 25 or more children in the classroom. If you can't sit and listen, you can go into the hall or to the principal's office. That student falls further and further behind and they start to feel that they don't belong and that they're not wanted. When they do return to class, they might not know how to read as well as their peers. As they get older, they don't know how to solve those math problems because they never learned that particular way of doing things. These children learn at an early age that the best way for them to save face is to behave inappropriately so the teacher asks them to leave again. That way, no one has to know that they have fallen so far behind in school. As a result, by the time they're in grade nine or ten, they often drop out.

It's important to remember that "challenging behavior" is not a diagnostic term. Most of us are not in a position to be diagnosticians. As such, when talking about the child with the staff and the family, we need to be careful not to make a diagnosis or to label the child. Although this behavior is challenging to a child's teacher and to their family, I believe that the person to whom it is most challenging is the child themselves. I honestly do not believe the children wake up in the morning thinking, "How can I ruin everyone's day? How can I be sure that Barbara and everyone else has a horrible, miserable day?" They wake up looking forward to something, but for some children, as the day progresses, things start to fall apart. It might happen when they're four years old. If Dad put out the green T-shirt and they wanted to wear the blue T-shirt, that can be enough to trigger some children. Maybe cereal fell on the floor and if Mom is late for her job one more time she'll be fired, so there's no breakfast. Maybe there was a huge traffic jam, and now families are worried they're going to be late to school and work. There's a lot of tension, even before the child arrives. 

Building a Team and Working Together

When Andrew went to kindergarten, we vowed that we would never let this happen again. We attended workshops, read about challenging behavior and devoted a portion of each staff meeting to discuss the research-based strategies that we were learning. Everyone searched out new ideas, trying to understand more. I was very lucky because for seven years we had absolutely no turnover. The staff developed a sense of teamwork, and they knew if one person attended a training session, they would bring back the information for everyone else.

However, even with all of that training and teamwork, it wasn't entirely smooth sailing. All the teachers didn't have the same goals and the same ideas. They didn't all see things the same way. Some were eager to try everything, while others were still convinced that children with challenging behavior didn't belong in regular schools. Their emphatic responses reflected their diverse personalities, their life experiences, their cultures, their philosophies, and attitudes towards children. Teaching isn't simply what one does; it is also about who we are. As the director, it's important to pay attention to what everyone feels, even the reluctant "eye-rollers" (those of you who've been in that position know exactly what I mean). Take it slowly and together look for solutions that feel comfortable for every staff member. Once the teachers recognize that their job is to teach, not to police or punish, they will be on the right track.

Create SMART Goals

We needed to develop goals. I say "we" because when you create goals with your staff, they are much more effective. They have ownership of those goals. The more you can work together with the staff, the more effective your decisions will be and the easier it will be for them to implement.

In order for goals to be effective, they should follow the SMART rule. They should be:

  • Specific: Define the goals clearly with clear language that indicates who is doing what and when.
  • Measurable: Track progress -- is this working?
  • Achievable: Is this goal realistic and attainable?
  • Relevant: Is the goal worthwhile and consistent with long-term plans? 
  • Timely: The goal should include a time limit so that you can decide if there needs to be additional support.

Building a team requires you to create specific, clearly defined goals that work in all settings. In this case, they need to work in the home as well as in school. We need to use a common language. They also need to be measurable, so that you can determine whether or not they're working. For example, if Andrew is hitting six times one week, and three weeks later he's only hitting twice, you're on the right track. Look at the supports and challenges built into your organization: are they achievable and realistic? I think the big question that we always have is where to begin? We can start by asking some questions to get everyone on the same page.

Do your teachers feel that they have more than one child with challenging behavior in the group? 

I'm always amazed at how many teachers feel that they have more than one challenging child in their group. It's important to narrow this down. Ask your staff to think about the child who, when absent, changes the atmosphere in the classroom, and there are few (if any) incidents of challenging behavior on that day. That is the child that you and the staff need to focus on. When you can make it work for that child, everyone has a better day. There may be other children with borderline challenging behavior. For instance, if there's an Andrew in the group, the behavior of the borderline child might provoke Andrew's behavior; or, they may join in on Andrew's behavior. But when Andrew is not present, the borderline child can focus more on themselves and more on trying to behave appropriately.

Do you think that this child should remain in the center?

Because you need to first understand how you honestly feel, your core values serve as a moral compass for making daily decisions. Do you honestly believe that this is the best place for that child to learn the skills he needs to behave appropriately? Do you honestly believe that the child can learn those skills, and on top of that, do you believe that you can get the staff and family on board? Your attitude will not only form your decisions and actions, but it will also influence how the staff approaches the task. As parents come to you, if you believe he should be there, it will be easier for you to support that idea and to help the parents understand why you think he should be there.

Do you know how your teachers and paraprofessionals feel about having a child with challenging behavior in their class?

They're not all going to feel the same, but every person's feelings are valid. You need to talk about it with them and listen to what they have to say. It's not easy to get the staff to talk openly about this. The first thing you need to do is to create a climate of trust, so the staff believes that you'll listen to these concerns without judging them and that you'll take it seriously. 

Things that I've heard teachers say include:

  • “This child does not belong here!”
  • “I do not have the training to deal with him.” 
  • “Nothing I do works!”
  • “I can never complete an activity.”
  • “I have no time to give the other children the attention they deserve.”
  • “I worry about what the other children are learning!”
  • “I worry about the safety of the other children!”
  • “He never shows remorse.”
  • “I can’t predict what he will do next; his behavior comes out of nowhere.”
  • “He’s only four years old. I think we are expecting too much of him.”

As compared to years gone by, I do think our expectations of preschoolers have become developmentally inappropriate. When we expect too much of very young children, it's often hard for them to meet those expectations. In fact, a lot of challenging behavior begins with anxiety. When a child acts out, what you are seeing is that anxiety. Take a minute and sit with the child and say, "Hey, was it a rough morning? Do you want to talk? Do you need a hug?" You might discover that all of a sudden, that challenging behavior won't occur that day because he felt you cared about him, he calmed down, and he was no longer feeling anxious. 

Why should s/he stay?

Even though there are numerous reasons why sometimes we feel expulsion or suspension would be the easiest thing for us to do, it's important for us to remember that it's a moral obligation not to give up on that child. When teachers have the tools to work with these children, we can make a big difference in their lives. It's important for you, as the administrator, to try and find training and ways for teachers to have those tools.

A child with challenging behavior will make you aware of what you and the other teachers can do better. When I'm called in as a consultant to work with a child with challenging behavior, sometimes I'll observe a classroom and wonder not why is that child behaving inappropriately, but why are all the other children sitting here so politely? Perhaps the challenging child can't see the pictures in the book. There may be too many words in the book, or perhaps circle time has gone on for 25 minutes. How long does she expect them to sit? I think the message that child will give you is, "I'm not going to sit here and listen to a story if I can't see the pictures. If this is getting too long and too boring, I'm not going to stay here anymore." Then, the child decides that the best way to leave is to engage in challenging behavior. They think, "If I hit or pinch or kick another child, the teacher will let me leave the circle and go to the drawing or puzzle table." Let this child guide the teachers into becoming better teachers. Instead of being resentful of their presence, it is important to help teachers understand how having a child with challenging behavior in their class changes their attitude and/or behavior.

Case Example: Joshua

I'd like to show you a video of a boy named Joshua. Joshua is a little guy that hurts and kicks other children. He disrupts activities. He's the child that you wish sometimes would be absent more often. I'd like you to watch this incident and see how the teacher feels about that child, and how perhaps those feelings interfered with the response that Josh received.

Disruptive child video

Figure 1.  Video of Joshua (used with permission from the Devereux Center for Resilient Children). 

Transcript of the video:

[Joshua] Uh oh!

[Teacher] Uh oh.

[Joshua] I want some more.

[Teacher] We don't have some more.

[Teacher] He's had two.

[Teacher 2] Don't forget you left those spoons out there, don't put them in the trashcan.

[Joshua] I want that.

[Teacher] I don't have any more peaches. Sit down.

[Joshua] I want--

[Teacher]  No no no, these are dirty, I don't have any more peaches, would you like some banana?

[Joshua] No.

[Teacher] Zachary, Briana and Wiley, go wash your hands.

[Joshua] No.

 [Teacher] I'm sorry Joshua, I didn't throw them on the floor.

Did you hear what she said? She said, "I'm sorry Josh, I didn't throw them on the floor." Did Josh throw them on the floor? Not really, they fell on the floor.  In looking at the video, we can see that he accidentally knocked them onto the floor with his elbow. Because of Josh's past history, it's easy for the teacher to blame the child.

[Teacher] They're dirty.

[Joshua] I want that.

[Teacher] Josh, they're dirty.

[Child 2] Can I have a banana first?

[Teacher] No, you eat your peaches.

[Teacher] It's okay, Brittney. Joshua, would you like to get up and have a banana? 

[Teacher] Joshua, do you want to get up and have a banana or do you want to go back to the classroom?

[Joshua] Shut-up.

[Teacher] Okay, we're going back to the classroom.

I talk to teachers all the time about having to offer children choices. They say, "I offer him a choice and it doesn't work." The teacher in the video asked Joshua if he wanted a banana, and he said no. Then she asked him again, "Do you want a banana or do you want to go out of the classroom?" What kind of a choice was that? That's not really a choice. He didn't want a banana and he didn't want to go out of the classroom. Then, she picked him up. When you pick up a child, you are completely disempowering them.

Teachers need our ongoing support, even though they may have years of experience. Often, they're brought to their knees when a child with challenging behavior joins the class, and they can't seem to let go of their feelings about that child. With Andrew, even though he was rarely absent, he was occasionally late. I noticed that if he hadn't arrived by nine o'clock, all of the teachers' shoulders became more relaxed, smiles started to appear on their face, and they were much more involved and engaged with the other children. As I stayed in the classroom, I also noticed that at 9:15 when Andrew's little face popped through the door, everyone's smiles evaporated. Their shoulders went up, and the feeling in the room changed, and I'm sure Andrew felt that too. When children feel they don't belong, they stop trying to belong. People, including children, don't really care unless they think you care.

Think for a minute about the teacher's response to the fallen peaches. If you remember, the peaches fell on the floor, but the bowl landed upward, so there was actually a peach that stayed in the bowl that Josh noticed. If this had been a child that engaged in activities, that was never involved in challenging behavior, the teacher might have responded differently by saying, "Wow Josh, aren't you lucky! The bowl landed upward, and there's still one clean peach in here! I'm going to have to take this dirty one because it did fall on the floor, but you can have this peach." That positive response could have completely changed the situation. So many times, if teachers had the opportunity to look at themselves objectively, they might notice that in some ways, they contribute to the child's challenging behaviors because of their expectations of that child. It's also important for teachers to realize that when they are engaging with a challenging child, all the other children are watching. The message that the other children are getting is that my teacher might not care; my teacher is not listening to me. We need to help teachers see how that child is impacting and affecting their reactions to that child's behavior, as well as to other children's behavior.

Team Building with the Family

Building relationships with the family is key. Before you step in, it is usually best for the child's teacher to begin the discussion. As the administrator, don't always feel that you need to be the person to meet with the families right away. It's important for the teachers to feel a sense of ownership, and also a sense that they are respected, that they are the ones who are there in the classroom. Sometimes, it's intimidating for families if the administration begins the conversation. Many early childhood educators and a lot of teachers are terrific with children but they're not that comfortable talking to parents. If they feel they want you to be there, you should be. Or, perhaps just talk to the teachers first so they have an idea of how to approach the parents most effectively.

Parents want their communication with you and the teachers to be frequent, open, honest and non-judgmental. However, these discussions should not occur at the beginning of the day when they're rushing off to work, or at the end of the day when they are rushing to get home. Communication should also not occur by telephone. It is best if conversations with parents can be in person. They want you to regard your work as more than just a job. They want their efforts, their point of view and their contributions on behalf of their child to be acknowledged and also to be validated. They don't want to feel that you're judging them, any more than their child wants to feel that way. Parents want you to make things happen for their child. If you don't know the answer to something, let parents know that you're willing to learn and you're going to find out more. Trust is very important for parents. It means doing what you say you will do, ensuring that their child is treated with dignity and protected from being hurt, and keeping personal information confidential. Most of all, families want teachers to show respect, by valuing their child as a person and respecting their suggestions and point of view, even when it might not be the same as theirs.

Promote a Philosophy of Staff and Family Ownership

How do we create and foster this team approach? We have to take it step by step. The first piece is to promote a philosophy of staff and family ownership of the solution as well as the problem. I think that everyone is so focused on how hard this is that people forget to see how much they're doing and how things are improving. Every staff member and every family brings something special. As the administrator, your job is to recognize it, utilize it, and create what I like to call a vital tapestry that highlights each color and contribution. You need to be present. In order to do that, you need to know what's going on and spend time on the floor with the children in the classroom, so that when you're there, the behavior of the teacher, as well as the children, doesn't change. One way to do this is to find something to do in the classroom, such as helping with snack time or putting things away. Maybe every day you would read the children a story. That way, you would get to know the children more intimately and have an opportunity to see where the problems might lie. When you're in the classroom regularly, no one is going to think that it's unusual for you to be there, and children will act as they normally do. I know that administrators have an enormous amount of work to do. There's so much paperwork these days. However, it's important to set aside these 15 minutes per day, because if you don't, it's going to take a lot more time working with the child, working with the staff, and working with all the other families.

Getting Parents on Board

Another issue that can be difficult is getting the families on board. One thing to do to try and help this is to get to know all your families before there's a problem. Creating a sense of mutual trust and respect goes a long way. Most children have two sets of behaviors: an at-home behavior and an away-from-home behavior. Children with challenging behavior usually just have one set of behaviors. As such, chances are that families are dealing with many of the same issues and are often afraid that there's something wrong with their child. Help them to find their strengths, competencies, and resources. What are they doing that's working? Avoid judging or blaming the parents. Many of them are already blaming themselves and each other. How can we avoid that blame? We need to be supportive. We need to help them find their strengths.

It's also important to be objective. Check your feelings at the door. When you are describing the behavior, be very careful how you describe it. If you say, "I need to talk to you because Andrew is really aggressive," they're going to put up a wall and they won't hear a word you say after that. However, if you say, "I need to talk to you because today Andrew hit two children who had a truck that he wanted, and kicked me when it was time to go outside," you're going to get their attention. Chances are, they're going to be able to relate to that behavior. If the challenging child has siblings it's likely that one of them had something that the child wanted and when he/she didn't get it the child hit that sibling to get it. Maybe when it was time to stop playing and come in for dinner or time to go to the grocery store there would be a major tantrum at home. Parents are beginning to see and understand that behavior, and they'll be much more willing to try and work it out with you because many of them lack the skills and see you as the expert. Listen to what the family is saying. They will be convinced to work with you and your staff when they see positive changes in their child's behavior. Not every family is just going to leap on board; you need to be able to help them see that there can be differences if you develop skills and work with that child.

Case Example: Justin

Four years after Andrew left us, a little boy named Justin joined us. During those four years, we learned a great deal. Justin's mom was an intelligent, single mom who had a factory job and was getting a graduate degree. When she came to pick up Justin, she was exhausted. One of the challenges with Justin was that he never wanted to go home. Each day, his mom would arrive to get him, and a major battle would ensue. We thought about what we could do to support her. How can we get her on board?

As the director, I made a point of greeting her in the evening when she arrived and telling her something positive that Justin had done throughout the day. Then I suggested to her, "Why don't you sit with him for three or four minutes, and if he's with a friend playing a game, play with him. If he's doing a puzzle, work with him on the puzzle.  Whatever he is doing, join him for a few minutes, and then try to get organized to leave." Something that simple made a huge difference because Justin started to feel like Mom was really listening. Mom was there, Mom cared, Mom met his friend, and they would walk off feeling much happier than before. Then, as things started to change at school, Justin's behavior started to change at home. She came to me one day and said, "I don't know what's happening, but Justin is a different child, and can we talk?" At that point, she was on board and we continued to work together. This was many years ago. Today, our Justin who was heading down that dangerous path is now in medical school. What we do when children are young can make a world of difference. You have a huge job to support your staff to be able to do that. It is worth it, and it's important to work with the family because the family needs to see the good in their child, they need to love their child, and they need to believe in their child's ability to succeed.

Support Your Staff 

Especially in today's world, realize that you are working with teachers who may be young and inexperienced. Also, with the salaries and wages in the education field, especially in early childhood, some teachers may be struggling to make ends meet in their own lives. If they have families of their own, there may be marital issues or problems with their own children. They need you to understand and support them. Like the children, each teacher needs different levels of physical and emotional support. Get to know your staff so that you can provide what they need because one size does not fit all.

Identify each staff member's strengths. If we can find people's strengths, then we can help them deal with their challenges. When looking for solutions, tap into each person's areas of expertise. The best way to make things work is to work together. Letting them know that you believe in them goes a long way in helping them to believe in themselves.

Remember that when you are talking to families or in the classroom working with the children, everyone is watching, so smile -- you are a role model. Respect personal space and remain calm. I have been in schools and watched teachers and administrators for a full day, and sometimes seen no one smile all day. If no one is happy to be there, why should the children feel good about being there? 

We also need to realize that sadly, many teachers will enter the classroom with little or no knowledge about children with challenging behavior. Many of us have preconceptions about why children behave the way they do. Often, these perceptions are not going to guide us to the best solutions. Remember that people don't know what they don't know. If your job is to build a relationship of trust with each educator so that they feel they can openly share their concerns with you, they need to know that you're listening to what they need. Most teachers want an instant fix, but that isn't possible, because no intervention or strategy works with every child, every teacher, or in every setting.

As the director, you need to find out what teachers expect from you. What do they want you to do? Often, they feel that the director doesn't truly understand what goes on in the classroom. You might be in the classroom for 20 minutes, and if you see something happen, maybe you'll intervene. Ultimately, however, you get to leave, but the teachers have to stay there all day. It can be very tense when they're worried about what that child might do next, or will this activity work out? It's important to fully understand what they feel you should be doing. Listen to them and try and meet their needs, much in the same way you want them to meet the children's needs.

Why Do Children Behave Inappropriately?

When I conduct workshops, I ask this question of the attendees: "Why do you think children behave the way they do?" I'm always surprised at the responses I receive. All too often, the first thing they say is, "They're learning it at home; there are no boundaries." This is usually followed by, "They want attention, and they don't care if it's positive or negative." Sometimes I hear, "They don't know what else to do" or "Because they're hungry or tired." The bottom line is that most teachers don't know why.

Understanding the Behavior

The main reason that children behave the way they do is that the behavior is working. Challenging behavior is a form of communication. It's a child's means of solving a problem. It begins at a very early age. Infants and very young children will let you know that they want your attention or an object. They'll also let you know if they don't want to eat certain foods or engage in certain activities. They'll let you know if things are too noisy or maybe they're too quiet or too slow.

The function of the behavior is as important as the behavior itself. The majority of the time, children engage in challenging behaviors for three main purposes: to obtain something, to avoid or escape something, or to change the level of stimulation.

Obtain. Many times preschool-age children will get what they want by using aggressive behavior. If you're on the tricycle and I want it, if I push you off the tricycle, it's mine. Why should I ask nicely? If you say "no," I don't know what to do. 

Avoid. Children will act out if they don't want to do a task, or if they feel they can't do the task. For example, at age five, children should be ready to learn about and cut out geometric shapes. In the classroom when we had Andrew, we drew the shapes on construction paper. We had scissors and glue on the tables and the children were supposed to cut out the shapes and then glue them onto a big piece of paper. Guess what? Andrew's fine motor skills were not as good as the other children. When he saw that, the first thing he did was to pick up the scissors and he throw them at a child's head. Thankfully, he missed, but what do you think the teacher did? She went over to him and said: "Andrew, if you can't use scissors safely, then maybe you have to tear the paper." What if the teachers had been encouraged to set up activities so that all levels of skills could be accommodated? That way, if Andrew wasn't ready to cut with scissors and wanted to save face, he could have just decided to tear the paper and no one would have known any better.

Change stimulation level. Changing the level of stimulation is often the hardest one to figure out. As an example, stop and think about clean up. If you were to use one word to describe it, what would it be? Most people say "chaos." Clean up is very chaotic. You watch these children, you flash the lights, you sing the song and most children do put things away. If our Andrew was playing with the Legos, he would dump the Legos on the floor. Suddenly everything would get quiet. The teacher would go over to Andrew and say, "Guess what Andrew? Your job is to put the Legos in the bucket and put the bucket on the shelf," and he would do it. At staff meetings, we'd talk together and we discovered one teacher didn't have that problem. We found out that she'd given all the other children a specific task at clean up time, including Andrew. Andrew's job was to put the Legos away. When clean up time came, even with the chaos, he could cope.

When working with children, it's important to remember that their behavior is inappropriate, not the function. They need your attention; how they get your attention might not be the right way. If they are afraid to do something or unable to do it, they avoid it with inappropriate behavior. It's important to recognize the difference between changing the behavior and looking at the need or the function of that behavior.

Risk Factors

Why do some children grow to rely on engaging in challenging behaviors and other children are just fine? Part of the reason has to do with risk factors. There are biological risk factors and environmental risk factors. Some of these include:

  • Biological Risk Factors
    • Genes
    • Temperament 
    • Complications of pregnancy and birth
    • Developmental delays
    • Gender
  • Environmental Risk Factors
    • Family factors and parenting style
    • Poverty and the social conditions surrounding it
    • Exposure to violence
    • Violent media
    • Cultural dissonance
    • Child care/school

Risk factors don't add up; they multiply. Children who have more than three risk factors are more likely to have problems with self-regulation, social skills, and often engage in aggressive behavior. For the purposes of today's presentation, I would like to talk briefly about three of these possible risk factors: temperament, gender, and family factors and parenting style.

Temperament. We all have a temperament. According to research that was done in 1956, regardless of whether or not a child has a difficult temperament, if they are with a teacher that works well with them, they're not going to engage in that difficult behavior. Thomas and Chess called this "goodness of fit" (Chess and Thomas, 1991). We need to look at the relationship between the temperament of your educator and the temperament of the child. It's not up to the child to change their temperament to meet the teaching style of the teacher. It's up to the teacher to recognize that if a child has a very active temperament, she needs to keep things moving at a faster pace. If you can make it work for that child, you can make it work for all the children.

Gender. Another risk factor to take into consideration is gender. Until about grade five, education is primarily a female-oriented activity. Boys have a hard time feeling comfortable in identifying their needs. We all need to look at how we can make our classrooms and centers more boy-friendly.

Family factors and parenting style. As I address family factors and parenting style, I want to stress that I'm not criticizing the families. The main issue here is attachment. Attachment theory is all about the relationship between the child and their initial primary caregiver. If that person (usually a parent) is there to meet their needs (e.g., change diapers, provide food and comfort), and all of those needs are met, then the young child begins to feel safe and feels that he can trust adults, that adults can understand the child, and will meet those needs. However, due to various issues (substance abuse, violence) in children's lives that are not necessarily under the control of the family, that child's sense of security can be affected. When a child does not feel securely attached, he does not trust others. These are the children that need us the most, but they will do everything they can to keep you at a distance because they don't trust you. Regardless of the behavior, one has to respond in a caring way that tells the child, "I know that you know that throwing the chair across the room was not the right thing to do, but I know you were angry, so let's figure out what made you angry, let's talk about this, and I'm here for you." Communicate with the child in a caring, genuine manner, instead of punishing him, which perpetuates the cycle of the child believing that no one cares, no one understands. Often, just by showing children that you care about them, they're going to care about you.

We can't change a child's life, but we can make a difference. The younger they are, the bigger difference we can make. As early child care administrators and directors, you have an important job in guiding your teachers to make that difference.

Prevention is the Best Intervention

As I stated earlier, teachers often want that quick fix. However, prevention is the best intervention. Rather than reacting to a behavior when it happens, it is important to create an environment that prevents challenging behavior from occurring. Effective teachers spend more time promoting appropriate behavior than responding to inappropriate behavior. 

Change the Social Climate 

At the beginning of the year, before problems begin to occur, look at the social climate of your classrooms. Are they friendly? Are they open? Do the children feel positive? Are they learning social skills? Preventative pro-social skills curricula are very important. We assume children will learn those skills just by being together, however, we know that isn't always the case. We need to help them learn those skills. When children can all have a common language, they can show each other they care about each other and demonstrate empathy. They can become good problem solvers. It can make an enormous difference. What else makes a big difference in the climate of the classroom is when you tell children what to do, instead of what not to do. Another thing we can do is to simply smile and exude a friendly attitude.

Change the Physical Environment 

When you look at the physical environment, is it too noisy? Is it too cluttered? I've been in classrooms where you can't even tell what color the room is painted because there's so much stuff on the walls. Some children like that, but for other children, too much clutter is overstimulating. How can you organize the classroom so that it meets the needs of all children, but especially the child with challenging behavior?

Change the Program 

When thinking about the program, what do you need to do? How can you provide choices? This is where you as the administrator are so important. When you work on that schedule with your staff and your teachers, we often introduce new concepts on Mondays. However, Mondays and Fridays are often the hardest days for children, especially those who are coming from families which might be divorced or separated. How can we support children? Why don't we introduce a change on Wednesday when children are now into the routine and feeling more comfortable?

Also, when we think about offering children choices, how about making circle time a choice? How about having an open snack time? How about empowering the children so that they can learn what works for them and gain the skills to self-regulate. That's what kindergarten is looking for. Kindergarten is looking for children that are already ready to learn. Whether or not they know how to count or recite the alphabet isn't necessarily the most important thing. They want children who want to learn what letters sounds like, how to read, how to count to 20, how to add. They want children who can cooperate, who can work together, and who are interested in learning.

Reasons Why Educators Resist Change

Often, teachers will resist change for various reasons. Some of these reasons include:

  • Changes that are sprung on teachers without notice
  • Not knowing enough about the change; not seeing a reason for it
  • Feeling that changes are being done to, rather than done by them
  • Concerns that change will require them to question familiar (and comfortable) routines and habits
  • Change implies that the former way of doing things was wrong
  • Educators question their ability: Can I do it? How will I do it?
  • Change in one area can disrupt other projects or activities, even ones outside of work
  • Change often increases workloads
  • Lack of information

When making changes, it is so important to work with teachers. We need to reassure teachers that making changes doesn't mean that what they were doing before was wrong. Find out what supports the teachers need so they can make a change and not feel overwhelmed by it. Share information in staff meetings. When you attend a workshop or take professional development or read articles, share what you learn with colleagues so they can make that information their own.

Reasons Why Families Resist Change

Families are going to resist change as well. Even though they may know exactly what's happening with their child's behavior, they may not be ready to hear about it from someone else. There are many reasons that families resist change, including:

  • There is no relationship built between teacher/family or director/family
  • They don’t feel you recognize their efforts or understand their lives (e.g., parents have challenging jobs, they work unorthodox hours or travel a lot, parents are divorced/separated, etc.)
  • They feel judged
  • They are afraid there may be something wrong with their child
  • The behavior has not been defined objectively
  • The behavior does not occur at home (e.g., if the child does not have siblings) or the parents don't recognize the behavior as challenging
  • Lack of information

It is critical to provide families with information about what they can do at home with their child, as well as why they can do it, and why that change is important. 

In my experience with Andrew, as he got older and his behavior escalated, we all started to realize how little we knew about understanding, preventing, and responding effectively to challenging behavior. As such, we decided to devote 20 minutes to every staff meeting to learning about what we could do. The problem was that it was always crisis management, and one never makes the best choices under those conditions. We were all concerned about the safety of the children, our own safety, and the parents of the other children who were pressuring me to ask Andrew to leave. This is why it's so important to be one step ahead. Know what to do, have some tools in your toolboxes, understand the behavior, understand yourself, and help the teachers to understand themselves so that they are ready. 

Any challenging behavior that persists over time is working for the child. If the behavior wasn't working, they would find another behavior. Furthermore, any intervention that does not produce a change in behavior is not working for the child or the teacher. It is important to work with your staff so they recognize that punishment will not produce a change; punishment will only stop the behavior. We need to do more to teach children appropriate ways to meet that need.

Defining Roles

Directors and Administrators

When the teachers have a problem with behavior, what do they expect you, as the director/administrator, to do? At my school, I made it clear to my staff that they were not to send children to my office if they behaved inappropriately. I was more than happy to go to the classroom and work with the other children (although not with the child who had engaged in challenging behavior, because I did not want to interfere with the relationship between that child and the teacher). But I was certainly happy to work with the other children so that we could move forward, and that the focus of attention wasn't always on that child. 

When Andrew was four years old, I hired an extra person to work with him, and she did a fabulous job. Andrew loved her, the other children loved her, and he started to make friends. It made a huge difference. I thought the teachers would say, "Oh thank you, thank you, we're so glad you did that." Instead, their attitude was, "If all I had to do was watch Andrew, I could do that too." As I stated earlier, I had waited too long. Learn from my experience, and when the lion roars, take action.


With the teachers, develop roles and procedures that will encourage that positive behavior and discourage inappropriate behavior. You need to observe and record and find out why the child is behaving that way. Is it to obtain attention or an object? Is it to avoid a task or a person? Is it to change the level of stimulation? Figure out how you can observe and record that behavior. This might be a role that you can play because it's often hard for teachers to do this while in the classroom. Or, perhaps someone else can come in to observe and record, although they would need to be there regularly in order to see and understand the behavior, figure out why it's occurring, and what triggered the behavior. Sometimes it's the consequence, which is often called a maintaining consequence. This lets you know why the behavior worked for the child. For example, with Andrew and the scissors, when the teacher took the scissors away and told him he could tear the paper, that was a maintaining consequence, because his behavior was working for him. You need to work with the teachers to observe and record. The teachers need to trust that when you are doing that, you're not judging them and that you're not observing them as much as you are observing the child, the behavior, and how their response to the behavior might be encouraging it to continue.

What Makes a Strategy Work?

There are many things that make a strategy work, including:

  • A positive, responsive teacher-child relationship
  • Remaining calm
  • Relaxed and non-confrontational body language (85% of our message is not what we say, it's how we say it)
  • Remaining a carefully calculated distance from the child
  • Addressing the behavior, not the child; it's the behavior that you want to change, not the child
  • Figuring out the message the behavior was communicating (to obtain, avoid, or change the level of stimulation) 
  • Talking with the child privately; it shows respect and caring, as opposed to addressing the child in front of everyone
  • Being patient and flexible (administrators and teachers alike)
  • Recognizing close approximation of desired behavior (if the child made a good but not perfect effort, recognize the positive behavior; don't focus on the negative behavior)
  • Starting fresh every day with the opportunity to succeed (don't carry grudges about previous actions or behaviors)

What Should a Strategy Do?

We need to remember that punishment is not an effective response to challenging behavior. An effective strategy or intervention should achieve the following:

  • Help to strengthen the teacher’s relationship with the child
  • Address the function or feelings behind the behavior
  • Help the child learn how to control his/her emotions
  • Help the child to become a problem solver, thereby becoming less anxious and frustrated
  • Help make long-term changes in the child’s behavior

I realize that this is not an easy thing to accomplish. An effective response to challenging behavior is a process, not an event. It takes time to provide opportunities for children to develop the skills and the attitudes they need to meet their needs appropriately. It takes time to get the staff to develop the skills and attitudes they need to meet their needs appropriately. I appreciate the efforts that you've made. Thank you so much for participating in this course. I hope that this will be somewhat of an introduction as to how you can support teachers and families in addressing challenging behavior. If you would like more information or have any questions, please visit my website:



Bloom, P.J. (2004).  Leadership as a way of thinking.  Zero to Three, 25(2), 21-26.

Chess, S., & Thomas, A. (1991). Temperament and the concept of goodness of fit. In: Strelau J., Angleitner A. (eds) Explorations in Temperament. Perspectives on Individual Differences. Boston, MA: Springer.

Kaiser, B. & Rasminsky, J.S. (2016). Challenging behavior in young children: Understanding, preventing and responding effectively. New York: Pearson Education.



Kaiser, B. (2018). Supporting teachers in addressing challenging behavior: A team approach. – Early Childhood Education, Article 22814. Retrieved from


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barbara kaiser

Barbara Kaiser, MA

A graduate of McGill University’s Master's Program in Educational Administration, Barbara Kaiser, MA has been working with early childhood educators, children, and their families for over 35 years. She is the co-author of Challenging Behavior in Young Children: Understanding, Preventing and Responding Effectively, 4th Edition (2017), and is presently working on a new text, The Administrator’s Role in Supporting Staff, Children, and Families When Challenging Behavior Occurs, (NAEYC), which is expected to be available early winter 2021. She has taught part-time in the Faculty of Education at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec and Acadia University in Nova Scotia.

In addition to presenting workshops and keynote speeches on the topic of challenging behavior and related issues in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland, and Mauritius, Barbara was the chief consultant for Addressing Youth Violence: An Intersectoral, Integrated Approach for Western Nova Scotia, and designed a webinar series and guide to help teachers and administrators reduce and respond to bullying behavior for the Nova Scotia Department of Education. She also helped to develop teacher training video programs focused on managing children’s challenging behavior, Challenging Behaviors: Where do we begin? with Family Communications Inc. and Facing the Challenge, with Devereux Center for Resilient Children, (DCRC). 

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