Addressing Challenging Behaviors

How to address challenging behaviors.

In their resource “Reducing Challenging Behaviors during Transitions: Strategies for Early Childhood Educators to Share with Parents,” NAEYC provides information and strategies on how to help children work through changes in activities or routines. While this resource was written for educators, it includes helpful strategies that you can put into practice with your children.

What is challenging behavior?

The Center on Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) defines “challenging behaviors” as:

    • any repeated pattern of behavior that interferes with learning or engagement in pro-social interactions with other children and adults,
    • behaviors that are not responsive to the use of developmentally appropriate guidance procedures, and
    • prolonged tantrums, physical and verbal aggression, disruptive vocal and motor behavior (e.g. screaming), property destruction, self-injury, noncompliance, and withdrawal.

These behaviors can manifest under a number of circumstances, especially when your child is hungry, tired, confused, unsure, or not ready to end an activity. Communication delays, limited social and emotional skills, and intellectual disabilities may also shape a child’s response to a difficult transition. Individualized support that suits your child’s needs should be provided.

Why are transitions difficult?

Imagine a time where your everyday routine was off. Maybe you accidentally woke up later than usual, your coffee machine broke, or you find your car snowed in. Think about how you felt in those moments. When routines are interrupted or thrown off, it is easy to have an emotional response. You may feel angry, overwhelmed, sad, or uneasy. And those emotions may impact your day or communications with other people. Just as you feel those emotions, children feel the same things when their usual routine is disrupted.

Transitioning to a new activity, environment, or experience is difficult. Imagine what it felt like when you first started your job or back to when you first started school. Those times are filled with uncertainty and require you to learn new things, make new relationships, meet new expectations, and adjust to a new schedule. However, as an adult, you have had the time and experience to build social, emotional, and coping skills to get through those transitions. Children, on the other hand, are still in the process of building and practicing those skills.

That is why it is crucial to support your child as they navigate these shifts in their lives. Your actions and support act as a guide for your child, and the skills they learn (or do not learn) in early childhood will shape the way they cope with transitions throughout the rest of their life.

How can you address challenging behaviors?

    • Look at your family schedule and see if there are any transitions that are not necessary or that could be changed. Having a consistent schedule makes it easier for your child to predict what their day will look like and prepare.
    • Use visual cues such as mini-schedules posted on a table or wall to help give them a clear picture of their day. Review it together in the morning and throughout the day.
    • Add playfulness into your transitions by using music, singing songs, or making predictable notices to signal transitions.
    • Consider what skills your child needs to make a transition. For example, if they need to brush their teeth before bed, can they complete that task independently, or do they need assistance from a trusted adult? If your child has not mastered that skill, find ways to practice it together and offer support.
    • Teach your child a wide range of emotion words to help them accurately express how they are feeling. Validate their feelings and let them feel them freely.
    • Practice mindfulness strategies together (such as belly breathing) regularly. Do not wait until a transition happens or until a difficult emotion is expressed to teach them. Practicing them in a calm state of body and mind is equally important as practicing them in a difficult moment.

Learn More

To learn more about addressing challenging behaviors, view this resource from NAEYC.


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The Developmentally Appropriate Parenting Series highlights several early childhood topics to support parents and caregivers who are caring for young children. Use the list below to navigate through each series topic:

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Picture: A young baby looks up at the camera.
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