Working with challenging children

Effective strategies for supporting children with behavior challenges in the early childhood classroom.

All teachers sometimes have children in their classrooms who are challenging.

All teachers sometimes have children in their classrooms who are challenging.

“He hit me!” “She took my toy!” “He pushed me!” Before you turn your head, you know who it probably was. You take a deep breath and step in to problem-solve, again. All teachers sometimes have children in their classrooms who are challenging. They challenge adults and children alike, disrupt routine and order and struggle to control themselves. Sometimes it feels like the whole classroom can end up revolving around the mood of “that child.” What can you do to help? How do you support the challenging child and maintain order in the classroom?

Use a daily routine to structure for success

Predictable daily routines help children feel secure in their environment. They know what to expect will happen next. Use these routines to help children transition from one activity to the next, reminding them of what will happen and when it will happen. When a child doesn’t want to leave an activity, this is the tool that enables you to say, “You really want to stay at the block area. We are going outside now, but then we come back in and have centers. You can come back to blocks then.” When you will have to deviate from that routine, be sure to warn children in advance. A visual photo schedule is helpful for children to be able to refer to as they move through their day.

Take turns handling challenging behavior

Challenging children require extra help and supports, often intervening in high stress moments to redirect or stop aggressive actions. This can be very draining and requires a lot of patience. Take turns with other staff being the person who intervenes. Ask for help when you know you are nearing the limits of your patience. Be mindful of your attitude toward the challenging child and know when it’s time for a break and self-care.

Take a team approach

Talk with all the teachers in your classroom about the strategies you use to manage behavior challenges, particularly when you have one child who is struggling to stay in control. Record your observations and interactions, discuss them at meetings. Use similar strategies and language.

Follow conflict resolution steps

Teach all children in your classroom the same steps to conflict resolution. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning offers strategies you could implement with free, printable resources. When working with your challenging child, remind them of the steps and walk them through the steps. When children are very upset, they will typically need help and support to calm down before being able to problem-solve.

Allow for a fresh start every day

For many children with challenging behaviors, school isn’t a fun place to be. Research tells us that children who have poor impulse control and exhibit challenging behaviors are less likely to be successful in school. This isn’t very surprising when school consists of mostly punitive interactions! Support your challenging children in feeling that they are cared for, loved and welcomed at school every day. Send them home with a hug and kind words and welcome them back every morning, just as you welcome the other children. Expect the best every day.

Involve the child’s parents

Keep the child’s parents involved in problem-solving classroom behaviors. Sending home a negative report at the end of the day can leave parents feeling helpless and frustrated. Involve parents in finding solutions and working on strategies to support self-control in all environments. Seek feedback from parents on what is working, or doesn’t work, in other settings. Parents are highly motivated to help their children succeed, but might lack the education or resources to support the challenging behavior. Be a partner to parents in working on these skills. Furthermore, it is helpful for children to have the consistency of parents and teachers taking similar approaches to behavior management.

Early childhood educators are in a critical position in the lives of all children, but particularly for challenging children. When children can learn to stay in control, navigate problems with their peers and self-regulate, they are more likely to do well in school. In fact, research has proven that children’s social and emotional skills are a greater predictor of their success in first grade than their cognitive skills and their family background! Maintain a classroom focus on teaching social and emotional skills. Be a good role model, highlight caring behaviors in other children and be empathetic. Teach friendship skills. With focus and hard work, many young children will gain the skills needed for long-term success. There is little that is more rewarding than watching the previously challenging child sitting and playing nicely with friends, once they have learned to self-regulate.

For more information about helping children succeed in school, visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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