child being difficult

How to Understand and Love the “Difficult” Child (With Free Behavior Chart)

When we think of our finest teaching moments, they often include sweet learning experiences where children succeeded in a task that made you proud. 

But what about the child who constantly argues with you? What about the one who challenges EVERYTHING you do and say? What about the child who acts out physically, and what about the one who wakes everyone up at nap time because they’re “bored?” (pause for a moment of silence for all of you who endure that!)  

Well, if you are in it for the long haul, then you must recognize that every child is completely unique. Here are some tips on how to love a difficult child to help you navigate those not so lovable days:

Learn Their Story

Sometimes there is more going on than you know about. Depending on the age of the child, there can be stressors at home that you are unaware of if the child cannot articulate.

Some stressors could be great things like the birth of a new sibling! And some stressors can be negative like a divorce or death in the family. Children respond differently to every situation, and they can’t always “use their words,” but they will often act out. 

If you are having a hard time with a student, chances are that the parents are having a hard time, too. Befriend that parent and get to know what is happening.  Schedule a few conferences and share what you are experiencing. Be empathetic and nonjudgmental in your approach. Finding out what is going on beyond the classroom will help open your eyes and soften your heart toward the child.  

Look Beyond the Behavior and Do a Self-Assessment

This is where the saying “pick and choose your battles” comes in handy.

Seth was a student of mine who at EVERY nap time would make loud explosion noises and roll around near his mat, never staying on it. It drove me bonkers! I would give him warnings, change his spot, take toys away, etc., and it would continue.

Every. Single. Day.

Finally, a coworker who sensed my frustration called me out on it. She said (in a loving way), “is it bothering anyone else or is it just bothering you?” At first, I was offended and got defensive, but then when I thought about it, I realized it really only bothered me! The rest of the kids didn’t seem affected, and so that was the day I learned a valuable lesson: pick and choose my battles!

So, I placed Seth in a spot where he could roll around and make those noises away from me and others, and everyone won! What behaviors get under your skin? What ticks you off? Is it bothering anyone else? If not, then find a way to let it go. If it’s a matter of preference, then find a way to be flexible about it.  

Research

Teachers are often placed in a classroom with age groups that they are familiar with but have not fully researched. It is impossible to know everything about every age from your college textbooks, so when you are placed in a classroom, get as much info as possible on that specific age group. There are shocking differences between an 18-month old and a 24-month old, so it is imperative that you find great articles and books on the exact age of child development.

Be careful not to rely on just popular “mom blogs” for that scientific information. Reputable sources are your friend! When you can learn about how the brain functions at a certain age and what they should be able to do versus what you are expecting them to do, it makes such a difference. What do your state standards show that students in your age group should be mastering? Does it line up with what you are doing? My favorite author, Maya Angelou, once said, “when you know better, you do better.”

Make a Plan

Some children who are “difficult” may need a plan set in place. Some do well with a short-term behavior chart. 

Other times, you need strategies in your “back pocket” for when you can see a behavior about to escalate. Sometimes ignoring a behavior works. Sometimes giving choices often helps de-escalate a behavior for that child who likes to be in control (e.g. ‘would you like to stand on the purple dot or the green dot?’ or ‘would you like to wash your hands in sink 1 or sink 2?’). Sometimes social stories are helpful for specific goals for children with difficulty. (check out https://carolgraysocialstories.com/  to learn more about this!)  It’s so important to be ahead of the behavior and be proactive with strategies in place.

Know Your Limits

Even though you are a super hero as a teacher, you are still human. Even Super Man had to put his cape away and be Clark Kent during the day. You must know your limits, and you must be proactive BEFORE getting to that limit.

For some of you, counting to 10 is all you need. Some of you, though, may need to physically get out of the room and away from that particular child to regain control of your emotions. And THAT. IS. OKAY. Let your director know, be honest with him/her, and have a plan to switch out with someone for a few minutes to become calm again. Every teacher has different limits, so learn yours! Don’t forget to take a “mental health” personal day every once in a while to refocus and re-energize yourself. 

Tip: in the military and yoga, they practice a breathing strategy that helps with calming emotions and stress. Breathe in for 4 counts. Hold your breath for 4 counts. Exhale for 4 counts, and hold the exhale for 4 counts. Repeat this at least 4 times, and many believe it helps control our stress response!


The important thing to remember in all of this is that there is no specific manual to refer to since each child is so special and unique. Each child is such a gift, and it is our job to treat each one as our own with love and kindness. We need to start fresh each day with new mercies and grace extended and do our best to love these children, whether they are “easy” or “difficult.” Just remember, as teachers, we can be pretty difficult too when circumstances arise, so do your best to start each day anew and forgive yourself daily as well. You’ve got this! 

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Missy Knechel

Missy is a professor in the early childhood department at Eastern University and director of Victory Early Learning Academy, a childcare center that she started ten years ago. Prior to that, she taught Kindergarten and second grade for a total of 10 years. She has been married to her best friend, Jason, for 15 years, and together they have four beautiful children ages 5, 7, 9 and 11 in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA. In her spare time, Missy loves to bake, read historical fiction, sing karaoke and travel to Central America on short term missions.

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