If there is one topic I have talked a lot about during my early childhood career it is that of challenging behavior. I have learned over the years that the more information that is known about the child, the family and the behavior, the more successful adults are in figuring out what supports to provide. There are many considerations to be mindful of when deciding how to handle challenging behavior. Understanding the causes behind behavior as identified by The Program for Infant and Toddler Care (PITC) can give insight on how to support children.
Children are naturally curious and at each stage of development they work to master new skills as they realize the new things that their bodies are able to do. This can be seen when a child climbs onto a low table, gets into cabinets or tosses a toy across the floor. Offer children a chance to practice these skills in safe and appropriate ways. If a child is climbing on furniture, bring a climber into the classroom. If children are throwing blocks, offer them soft toys and balls that are safe to throw. It is also important to verbally explain what the expectations are: “Blocks are too hard to throw. You can throw this ball.” Children are in the process of learning and mastering various skills and adults need to remember, “This too shall pass.”
Each child in your program brings something special and unique to the classroom. Just because children are the same age does not mean all children act the same. Understand and identify a child’s temperament to get insight on how to help support them. Be flexible and find ways to individualize expectations based on the children that are currently in your care. If a child feels comfortable wearing a jacket in the classroom, allow them to wear it until they are ready to take it off.
It is important to bridge the gap between the home setting and the child care setting. Children will better understand what is expected of them and feel confident in their surroundings. Build relationships with families and share information back and forth. Any sudden changes at home are more likely to be communicated which can be helpful when children show signs of distress or challenging behavior. It is also appropriate to constantly reflect on expectations that caregivers/teachers have to make sure that they are developmentally appropriate and set children up for success.
Does not know but ready to learn
Consider a child who is new to a preschool classroom and hasn’t had access to many of the tools and materials that are available. They see a pair of scissors in the art area, pick them up and begin cutting on their shirt. The child knows that the scissors are for cutting but they may not know what is appropriate to cut. With the guidance of adults, children can learn what the expectations for using scissors. It is important to remember that children often times need reminders of those expectations. Stay calm, model appropriate behavior, explain what the expectations are and give reasons why the expectations have been put into place. Is it to keep them safe or to keep the materials safe? Whatever the reason trust that a child can learn to understand them and be a valuable member of the classroom community.
Unmet emotional need
This is a rare cause for challenging behavior and can be the most challenging. It may mean that additional support is needed for the adult and/or the child. PITC suggests “actively respond through deeds not words, [be] giving not withholding, [offer] support not punishment.” When a child is behaving to try to get a need met, it is even more important to meet the child’s needs with “quiet firmness and patience.”
These five causes of behavior can help adults decide how to plan and support children’s behavior. When adults observe, ask questions, build relationships and use responsive caregiving they in turn find ways to support children in their development. Children are able to learn from their mistakes, make corrections, problem solve and through this build their self-confidence.