Hi I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.
In this week’s episode we dive into an issue that all early childhood professionals will encounter in their career – young children with challenging behavior. We discuss how to understand the behavior, preventative strategies, and responding effectively to challenging behavior when it happens in your preschool. Our guest, Barbara Kaiser, is the co-author of Challenging Behavior in Young Children, published by Pearson and available through the National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Her writings are based on research, as well as her own personal experiences applying strategies in the classroom as an Early Childhood Educator.
If you’re looking for practical information about how to understand prevent and respond to challenging behavior in your preschool or child care programs. Then stay tuned for this week’s episode of the preschool podcast.
Barbara welcome to the preschool podcast. Great to have you on the show.
So I started to research this like what can we do to help this child. And even though he was with us for three years because I was convinced no matter how many times people asked me to ask him to leave the center that I was not going to do that. I was I felt it was the best place for him to be because we had such a good staff and a good team. But when he actually left we really hadn’t taught him what he needed to learn and we continued to work on the topic. What do you do when you encounter a child with challenging behaviour and everything that worked with all the other kids suddenly doesn’t work at all and over another period of about three or four years. We kept working on this and I think we got so good at preventing the behavior that it took a while for the next child with challenging behavior to come to the center and it was so interesting because when he arrived we felt equipped and because we were confident because we sort of had tools in our tool box and we knew that was what we wanted to do was to teach him and not to punish him.
We actually made a huge difference in his life and I think it was that difference that inspired me to join up with my friend who is a writer and a researcher and worked together on writing the books that we’ve written on challenge and behavior because she took all of the work that I had done and she found really reliable effective research that backed up what we did. And then I became more and more confident that this was something that I could share with others. Because when you know what to do when you understand yourself when you understand the child you can make a big difference in every child’s life especially a child with challenging behavior. So I’m passionate about it.
So is it safe to say that at first it was almost like a learning by doing. So you had an actual situation with a child with challenging behaviour and so you did the research yourself and then applied what you were reading in the classroom.
Absolutely. What was really happening was that I was working on another project actually for Health Canada and they were sending me all over the country in order to do some workshops on a completely different topic. And while I was there I kept asking people if they had children with challenging behaviour at their centers and almost everyone did and I asked them, well what do you do? And some of them I said oh gosh you know we pull our hair out on a daily basis.
And others said well you know we use second step which is a social skills program or we do functional assessment and positive behavior support or we do. Some came up with potential solutions. One of the solutions was actually a program a strategy that was developed in Manitoba called WEVAS which is working effectively with violence and aggressive states. And so I put all this information together brought it back to my staff researched it and we worked on it. We had workshops. We asked these people to come to us and teach us how to do those things. And it really made a big difference.
You said one of the first things that you really need to do as an educator or maybe an administrator of a child care program is to decide OK we’re not going to kick this child out of our program we’re going to invest the time resources the effort to help them what. What is the main thing that really gets you over that hurdle to say hey we’re going to do this no matter how challenging it is.
That’s a really good question. I think a lot of it just has to do with your sense of commitment to all children. Not everybody can make that choice. I don’t blame people that feel they have to ask the child to leave because they’re afraid they’re going to hurt themselves or hurt others. I have to confess that on Fridays when we had that first child at the center I would go home and I would just take a deep breath and be so grateful that everybody was safe all week and everyone was OK. It’s very stressful. It’s very hard but I think the reason my staff and I stuck with it is because we found tools we found things we could do. We were just helpless like nothing I do works. So I can’t do anything so we’re going to have to ask him to leave. We kept looking.
So I think that if the director especially because it is a top down decision if the director really believes that if he can support that child and support the family and support the educators that it will make a difference and she can find the research and she can find the tools and the strategies that you can make it work but it’s extra work. But bottom line is I truly believe it makes every teacher a better teacher.
When you told us the story about how you became passionate about this in the first place I think that really spoke to the answer to this question too which is it made a huge difference in the specific child’s life. And if you hadn’t been there you hadn’t worked as a team to work with that child. Who knows what the outcome would have been otherwise.
Absolutely. And it also made a big difference in the family’s life because I and when the second child who we did make a difference you know who we really could make a difference with when his mother would come to pick him up in the beginning of the year. For every step forward she took three steps backward, she was in for she knew that most kids with challenging behaviour at child care centres are away from home are often challenging at home as well. So she was a single mom. She had a job she didn’t like she was very bright she was going to school and now she had to pick him up get on a bus and deal with all of these issues once he got home and when his behavior started to change at the childcare center at school his behavior at home also started to change.
Which I think also speaks to the fact that it’s not necessarily for a lack of trying because I’m sure as a parent of course you’re completely devoted to helping your child who has challenging behavior. But I think then it ultimately keeps coming back to this point of not being equipped no matter how much you want that child to improve. If you’re not equipped with the tools and the knowledge it’s going to be very difficult.
Absolutely. And that’s really why relationships are so important not just every teacher’s relationship with every child especially that child but also their relationship with the family so that there’s trust. All too often, there is far too much blame. I mean I work in the field for many many years and I heard all too often teachers saying well what do you expect. Look at his family. And so totally unfair because they’re doing the best they can. And if we can build that relationship and work together as a team because they are their child’s first educator they are the they are the expert on their child. So how do we create that trust between us and the family so we can make a difference in the child’s life. Be consistent. Believe in the child’s ability to succeed.
Which I think again just brings back a point in this podcast that comes up a lot is just the epic responsibility of an early childhood educator. Because that decision of yes I’m going to help this child. Or no I’m not it’s just because their family and so it is what it is. Has a massive impact for the rest of their life. So let’s jump into the situation. I’m an early child educator. I have a child in my class with challenging behaviour. I don’t even know where to start. What do I do Barbara?
Well I think the first thing that if that’s the case and all too often when I do my workshops and I asked the group how many of you have more than three or four children with challenging behaviour in your group you would be surprised at the number of people that raise their hands. And what I try first to do is get them to focus on there is truly that one child that one child who although very rarely absence when absence will make a big difference in the whole culture of that classroom. The whole feeling in the room that day and that’s the child they really need to focus on because when they can make it work for that child then it works for all the other children and it works for the teacher too.
So what they really need to do first is they need to speak to the family they need to find out. Are there any reasons for this behavior or did this child go to a traumatic event. Did the child have sort of biological risk factors before he was even born? That they need to know about. They need to know and understand the child’s temperament. They need to look at issues like attachment which is so key. You know how securely attached is this child because all too often children behave appropriately because they don’t want you to get close to them because they’re pushing you away. And these are the kids that need you the most.
So how do you get through that and build that relationship when this child always seems to be pushing you away. So know the child know family get as you know get to understand them as much as you possibly can and then probably the next step is to try and figure out exactly why is the child behaving that way and what the research has shown is that it’s for three basic reasons. It’s to either avoid or escape a situation or person to obtain an object or attention or to change the level of stimulation. And most of the time when I talk to teachers about this if I’m going in to consult to work with them it’s like oh he always wants attention it’s all about attention. But then when they actually sit down and they observe and record the behavior and they really look closely at what is happening before the behavior and after the behavior sort of maintaining consequence of the behavior they begin to realize that in some case it is just it is attention but sometimes it’s because they want to avoid a situation because the task is too difficult or they don’t like it. And what I say often to teachers is you know having meeting time circle time what’s the best way to get out of circle when you feel you just can’t sit there any longer. If you pinch the kid next to you or yell and scream or slap on the floor. What’s the teacher going to say. Probably Joey if you can’t sit and participate maybe you should go look at a book and guess what he wanted to do in the first place because he couldn’t sit there anymore.
So if you can figure out what it is, is it too chaotic like it cleanup time when the transitions are hard but often the transition to clean up isn’t hard because he doesn’t want to stop or because he wants your attention it’s because it’s so chaotic. So what can you do to reduce all that chaos for that child. How can you help that child cope with some parts of the day that are just so hard for him or her and teach them the skills they need to be able to do that.
So the first piece. There’s three possible situations why you might have this challenging behavior avoidance situation or person to gain attention. And three you said was level of stimulation what does that one mean? I think the first two are pretty obvious.
Yeah. And sometimes it’s not only to gain attention but to get an object you know I want that if I take it it’s mine if I ask you might say no and I don’t know what to do. So but the level of stimulation I’ll give you an example our child who I’ll call Joseph at cleanup time had a terrible terrible time. If he was playing with the Lego he would dump the Lego on the floor for example instead of cleaning it up. I don’t know how many of the people listening have heard Lego get the floor. But it makes a huge noise. And generally speaking when that happens everybody stops what they’re doing and turns around.
So the first thing he did was quiet things down a little bit because if teachers just think about what Clean-Up looks like in their centers it’s chaotic. You sing your little song you flash the lights and then everybody jumps up and does something. And for 99 percent of the kids that was fine. But for this child it was too chaotic. So he would calm things down and then the teacher would generally go over and say OK Joseph I guess your job cleanup today is to put all the Lego in the bucket and put it on the shelf. So now he had a task. Now he knew what it was he needed to do whereas the stimulation in the room was so overwhelming he couldn’t figure it out on his own. And we discovered this at a staff meeting because we all thought it was he was behaving this way because he didn’t want to stop playing. And then we thought he was behaving this way because he wanted our attention because he always got our attention and it was one of our teachers that said you know I don’t have that problem. And what she did and what we did from then on with every child in every group with or without Josef was before we actually flashed the lights and sang our little Clean-Up song.
We went to every child and it took maybe two minutes and told them you know we’re going to clean up soon. And I would like you to put the Lego in the bucket and put it on the shelf. I would like you to get the markers and put it in the jar and put it on the shelf. Every child was given a chore a task, that when it was time to clean up every child knew what to do we didn’t single out any child. We gave that to each other and it made a huge difference.
Interesting says sounds like one of the key takeaways here is don’t assume what the issue is you have to actually I guess almost like to do a test to see if it’s one or the other issue.
But you really have to observe and record the behavior. You have to sort of be aware of what happened just before the behavior and what happened after that behavior because chances are it’s called a maintaining consequence because chances are what’s happening after the behavior is actually making the behavior work for them. So if they want to avoid the inner circle and they pin somebody and you tell them that they should go look at a book the behavior work. They keep doing it. Once you figure it out then you have to stop making it work. Come up with other suggestions or solutions so that when that happens if you can prevent it that your response does not make that behavior work for him anymore and you find appropriate ways of him being able to for example leave circles. So in this case what I would suggest to teachers is make circle a choice and it’s not just the choice right away. You know I’m doing it. Anyone who wants to come can come. That’s choice one. But anyone who wants to leave can leave. And if you want to come back you can come back so that people don’t need to, kids don’t need to rely on their behavior to get what they need.
OK interesting and in so that’s a specific example.
But I suppose generally it becomes a little bit less prescriptive here because it’s very dependent on the actual situation or the challenging behavior of the child right.
It’s actually easier to figure out than one thinks. As soon as somebody is willing and ready to do so you know often you’ll find that there’s not enough stimulating activities you know the kids go outside. All too often when kids go outside people sort of think well this is free play time and this is a time for the teachers to talk to each other. And yes there’s you know there’s a slide and there’s a sandbox and there’s this and there’s that but it’s not necessarily enough or stimulating enough for all kids. So what makes it more stimulating? Challenging behavior.
So it’s a matter of really kind of not only looking at the child but looking at the environment looking at yourself looking at everything that could potentially be influencing that behavior. And to me the best intervention is prevention. You know so what can you do to prevent that from happening. So you know if the child is behaving that way because the environment is not stimulating enough then what can you do to make it more interesting. If it’s overstimulating what can you do to calm it down. And then what do you need to teach all kids. And one of the things that we did that made a huge difference was we created three rules in our group that were all very positive that the kids understood which were basically to respect yourself respect others and respect the environment or be kind be safe be gentle. We worked with them on what those rules meant throughout the day. We sent those rules home so the parents could work on it with them as well. And then we tried really hard to give those kids all kids attention when they were behaving appropriately. Not waiting for those moments when they weren’t.
We tried really hard to tell kids what to do instead of what not to do. When you say to a child with challenging behavior stop running stop running. They don’t know what to do. Should I hop. Should I skip that is to say please walk. It makes a big difference. So it took us a long time to figure out you know how to change our responses to that behavior and guide them in a positive way because often the response is escalating the behavior and pushing our buttons.
It seems super challenging on the surface to deal with a child with challenging behavior. But when you start breaking it down in the way that you’ve described it does seem a little bit more doable.
Well it is challenging. I don’t want to say it’s not and it takes a commitment and it takes effort and it takes the team. You know it’s very hard for one teacher to work alone with a child with challenging behaviour. Yes. But it also takes support. It takes a director so that the teacher can come into the office and say I need a break and I’ve had a really hard time and the regular miraculously. OK you sit there I’ll go in the classroom for 20 minutes it’s OK.
Yeah. Even just the understanding that it is taking a lot of energy to be able to manage the situation. I can see that being very helpful.
Now you said for example one of the things that you did was you set these three rules any other sort of tips or specific situations that you think are really good key studies that people could learn from where people did something specific in a classroom.
There’s a lot. One of the other things that we did was we worked a lot on teaching social emotional skills and one that really really made a difference with learning how to problem solve because so often the behavior is a result of I don’t know what to do I can’t do this I can’t solve this problem. So we did use a proven effective social skills program that was research based. We did not create our own. We we used one called second step by committee for children and it made a huge difference. We started when the kids were two and a half and we taught it to all of the children. And by the time they were five they were amazing they could identify a problem and figure out the solution. They had empathy they could manage their feelings they could self regulate they had really understood it. But you have to teach it.
I think all too often we assume that kids know this or they’ll learn it just by being there but they don’t teach it. And so having a proven effective research based program I think really makes a difference and trying to sort of always reinvent the wheel when you might not even be able to do so effectively. So that made a big difference for us when we did that. And another thing that we would do you know that can make a big difference is meditation and mindfulness you know to you know not to do this at the moment. You know remember when it’s a teachable moment and when it’s not. And when a child is out of control that’s not a teachable moment. But then how can you recognize that it’s about to happen.
One of the things that I always think about is all too often in the morning you know as the kids are coming in and you’re greeting them and now Joseph is coming in and all too often the teacher says this is going to be a hard morning and does nothing other than say that to themselves because they’ve got other parents coming in somebody can’t find his shoes. There’s all kinds of stuff happening. But if a teacher would take five minutes or maybe even less and sit down with him and say Boy you look like you had a hard morning do you want to talk about it or how are you, or do you need a hug that that could make all the difference for the entire day.
You’ve also co-authored a couple of books on the subject of challenging behavior in young children. Can you just tell us a quick summary about what those books are and what the focus.
They came out in February the fourth edition of our book challenging behaviour in young children understanding preventing and responding effectively. And I think what’s so exciting about my work with Judy so I have a co-author is that we don’t have one strategy and this is what will work for every child and every teacher. What we’ve done is we’ve done a real overview, starting off with understanding what challenging behaviour is understanding what being resilient is and how to build resilience in yourself as well as in children and then looking at the importance of developing relationships. Looking at the significance of culture and how it influences the teachers expectations in a child’s behaviors and then how to prevent it how to create a positive social climate.
Looking at the environment look at your activities and then look at what you can do in terms of guidance what are the variety of guiding strategies that are out there. Not saying that this is one this is the best one but here’s a bunch of them. I sort of look at it as giving all the readers and when I do my workshops giving all of the participants a lot of different coloured threads and that each one of them is going to weave their own tapestry and every tapestry will look different and some will use more red and some will use more green and then put it in a completely different pattern. But at the end they will have created something that works for them knowing what is available and the options that they have to work with kids with challenging behaviour.
Okay excellent. And if I was interested in purchasing a book because I have a child with challenging behaviour and I want to get more in-depth information about it where would I go to find it.
Amazon has wonderful options. You know I think that our book is very helpful. And there are several others. Dan Gartrell has written some very good books on challenging behavior as well. He looks at it in terms of guidance and I think for me I’m always looking at books that offer lots of options and then to look at you know maybe some of the books about some of the surrounding factors like if you find that culture is something that you’re interested in understanding your own culture and how that impacts your expectations of a child’s behavior. There wonderful books that you can pursue that in as well.
So in your work in terms of co-authoring some books for example is research based. So a couple of questions on that.
One is where is that research coming from generally. And secondly where are we on the curve of understanding how to manage children with challenging behaviour or are we just on the cusp of it or do we have a really good understanding of it. Now what’s your feeling about that?
You know there’s a lot of research out there I think one of the exciting things when you know our publisher asked us to write the fourth edition it was like what are we going to write about. And we discovered there was so much new information we are learning so much about this every single day. I think you know right now what we’re seeing a lot of people are thinking about is something called implicit bias. You know what do we bring into the classroom. Why in the United States is there this very high percentage of African-American four year old boys that are being expelled and suspended from school. Why. You know they are no different. What are we bringing that’s making that happen. And then there are a lot of good to the brain research has just provided enormous amounts of understanding about children’s behavior as well. And Harvard is doing a lot of terrific work there. I think it’s really important.
There’s also so much information out there that there’s also a lot of misinformation. And I think one of the things that my co-author is wonderful at is differentiating between the good research the valid research what makes research really something that you can count on versus research that somebody just wanted to publish a book or a study. So it’s I think the onus is really on everyone who is listening to really try and figure out is this research good research and I think you know going to places like Harvard and Yale and their research is often very helpful and just looking at you know the numbers involved in the piece you know how long this study has taken place in order to be sure it is valid research.
And then I think it’s highly valuable for people like yourself and your co-author to take that research and transform it into practical ways of implementing it in a classroom.
Absolutely. And that’s what we try really hard to do is you know back up our practice our suggested practice with research. This is why you would do this. You know this is why prevention is so important. This is why this particular means of preventing that behavior works you know and understanding things like the impact of trauma on children’s behavior. And now with you know the refugees and so many children that have really been traumatized and toxic stress and what children go through how does that influence their behavior and what can you do in order to make them feel safe.
What excites you most about early childhood education right now?
Well I think the fact that people are trying very hard to professionalize it.
I think one of the hardest jobs on the planet and also one of the least rewarded jobs in terms of salary and things that we look at as a way of recognizing what we do. And I think that people are focusing on this week and trying to make it a profession a valid profession. I also think that you know there is a lot of professional development happening. Teachers really want to do the best job that they can and they’re looking for information. That’s why your podcast exists.
Yes exactly. That’s very exciting.
Cool. And then last but not least if I want to get in touch with you because I want to learn a little bit more about what you do. Where’s the best place to find you online.
Awesome. Barbara thanks so much for coming on the show. I know this is a super important topic and if I’m an early childhood educator with young child in my class or challenging behavior I know that something that’s going to be a real challenge for me in having this session to learn more about dealing with children with a change of behavior will be super valuable to me as well as direct. I mean some of these resources so thank you so much for coming on the show today.