The awareness of challenging behaviors in early childhood is increasing. According to the article A Program-Wide Model of Positive Behavior Support in Early Childhood Settings , 21% of preschoolers meet the criteria of a diagnosable disorder. Another study the article referenced stated that 10% of kindergarteners who enter the school system have challenging behavior. Early childhood centres are pivotal for addressing those behaviors. What does that mean for the Early Childhood Practitioner? We are the ones that discover, document and are active participants in the intervention of a child’s challenging behavior. Please consider the following:
“Although it is tempting to attribute (almost exclusively) the many long-term negative outcomes of challenging behavior to the children themselves, challenging behavior does not occur in a social vacuum. … macro level variables of poverty, community violence, and maternal depression can all play a large role in the genesis and stability of challenging behavior. For example, at the more micro school level, we know that students with severe challenging behaviors (a) are seldom praised for appropriate behavior, (b) are seldom afforded effective academic instruction, and (c) are often subject to ineffective, reactive, and punitive interventions from teachers.”
– From Prevention and Intervention with Young Children’s Challenging Behavior: Perspectives Regarding Current Knowledge 
What are challenging behaviors?
Challenging behaviors are things like:
- Property destruction
- Injurious behavior to self or others
- Pica (eating inedible things)
- Stereotypy (Repetitive behavior)
There are other behaviors but not limited to: tantrums, flopping, nail-baiting, eating quickly, running away and screaming. While these above mentioned behaviors “challenging” they are considered more problematic. The best way to discern is by asking yourself: “does a typical developing child do this behavior?” If the answer is “yes” then you are likely dealing with a problem behavior, and not a challenging behavior.
I assure you, most of these behaviors happen and come from somewhere. I am trying to keep it simple, even though in the moment when trying to cope with a child or children with challenging behaviors, your patience will be tested a LOT. Don’t give up though, the child needs all the support they can get.
Remember that behavior does not occur in a vacuum. Usually challenging behaviors are driven by two particular reasons: either get something or get away from something.
Use your ABC’s: Antecedent + Behavior = Consequence.
In other words: The antecedent is something that happens to trigger the behavior, which the child responds to with a particular behavior. These two actions yield a consequence: getting something or getting away from something.
Knowing this model is only the beginning. To learn more, read this article on applied behavior analysis fundamentals.
What can I do to change these behaviors?
The best part is that as the educator in the classroom, you have the ability to increase or decrease those behaviors. In the article Early Intervention, Positive Behavior Support, and Transition to School  the authors emphasize the need to support the family, since services and interventions are determined on case by case basis. There is no one-size-fits all solution to a specific child’s challenging behavior. Every child’s situation is unique as is their family situation.
Some things that you should do:
- Communicate with your classroom team:
- Let them know what you have been observing/experiencing, did they come across this too?
- Agree to do anecdotal, running and photographic observations on the behavior.
- Why? To show others and to describe it to others. You also get a measure of how often the behavior occurs and who it happens with.
- Record observations on challenging behavior for a week or two. This should get you a good sample size of the behavior.
- Start an observation book or digital journal.
- Communicate with your centre leader:
- Describe the problem in the classroom
- Tell them that child is under observation and to document the observed behavior.
- Ask the parents about the observed behavior:
- Does it happen at home? If so when, and how often.
- Get as much detail as possible.
Communication and preparation goes hand in hand. Everybody should know what’s going on so everyone can be there to support the child and clarify their roles and responsibilities.
Great stuff, now you can document and observe the challenging behavior for a week or two.
With observations done, ask yourself “what does it look like?” Is the behavior severe enough to require agency support? That’s why they exist. Present your observations to your centre leader and they should be able to put a call through to an early intervention agency. This is when you and your team’s observations come in handy to support the need for the agency to send an early intervention specialist.
Don’t forget to let the parent know what is going on! They are on the team as well!
Functional Assessment: finding out what they want, to get them what they need!
This is the fun part! At least, I think it’s fun.
This is where you get specific in your observation of the challenging behavior. Here, you determine the triggers and figure out why they do what they do. I find, it’s always for those two lovely reasons: either they want to get something or to get away from something.
You should observe and functionally assess for at least 2 days.
Click here for a functional assessment sheet.
The whole idea is that you have narrowed down the antecedent variables and the consequences. This way you will put together the Positive behavior plan.
Making a Positive Behavior Plan
Disclaimer: If you do not have the training, experience and certification, please leave this to the pros.
These plans have many different names, but I like this one the most. This is what you want right? To start changing that challenging behavior. The big idea with the plan is to reinforce the desired behavior by showing the child how much more effective it is at getting what he or she wants.
What is generally in a Positive Behavior plan:
- Define the behavior that you are targeting.
- Define the new behavior that you want.
- Define how you are going to reinforce the child when they do desired behavior.
- Define how you are going to avoid reinforcing the behavior you are trying to stop.
- Explain in steps how you are going to conduct the intervention.
- Define how long this plan will be in place.
- Define the observable, measurable criteria for success.
- List who all is implementing this plan.
- Even a sign off from centre leader and parents (they are on your team).
Some other notes to be successful:
- Be consistent, everyone on the team (including the parents) should follow the plan.
- Reinforce desired behavior immediately with high energy praise.
- Follow through, no matter what!
- Check in with other team members often, make sure all is going according to the plan.
- RECORD or document your results. Have a clipboard or tablet and be as specific as possible.
- Reinforce desired behavior using preferred toys or an activity.
- Do NOT use food or water as a reward!
Short term wins for long-term success
Here’s what success looks like: You and your team did it or are doing it. The challenging behavior is reduced or completely extinguished. You should be aware that your child will be moving on, make sure that they will be okay in the next place they are going to. You need to prep them for the transition and make sure that you either completely phase out (fade) your Positive Behavior Plan or pass the Plan to the new teaching team. That’s why you were documenting everything!
In the article Integrating Frameworks from Early Childhood Intervention and School Psychology to Accelerate Growth for All Young Children  the big idea is to record the child’s challenging behavior. Remember, with the onset of continued research into best practices, intervention agencies have a clearer picture of how to best support you, the family and the child.
And that’s it! The long term benefits to addressing challenging behaviors at an early age of a child’s life leads to a better, more inclusive life as a young adult. Focusing on supporting the family and having family members part of the intervention team empowers family members in knowledge and life-long strategies to support their child. Educators gain knowledge, experience and strategies to promote positive behavior in the classroom. Challenging behaviors are, well, challenging. The behavior does not define the child and they need all the support and care they can get.
- Dealing With Challenging Toddler Behavior in the Classroom
- How to Document Challenging Behavior at Preschool
- How To Address Challenging Behavior Taught by Parents
- A Preschool Teacher’s Guide to Understanding and Ending Biting
- How to Understand and Love the “Difficult” Child (With Free Behavior Chart)
- Dunlap, G., Strain, P. S., Fox, L., Carta, J. J., Conroy, M., Smith, B. J., … & Sailor, W. (2006). Prevention and intervention with young children’s challenging behavior: Perspectives regarding current knowledge. Behavioral Disorders, 29-45.
- Hemmeter, M. L., Fox, L., Jack, S., & Broyles, L. (2007). A program-wide model of positive behavior support in early childhood settings. Journal of Early Intervention, 29(4), 337-355.
- Fox, L., Dunlap, G., & Cushing, L. (2002). Early intervention, positive behavior support, and transition to school. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 10(3), 149-157.
- VanDerHeyden, A. M., & Snyder, P. (2006). Integrating frameworks from early childhood intervention and school psychology to accelerate growth for all young children. School Psychology Review, 35(4), 519.