Caregivers and teachers often have concerns about dealing with childrens challenging behaviors in early childcare and education (ECCE) settings. Challenging behaviors are those that interfere with the childs learning, harm the child or others, and may lead to future problems such as school failure. These behaviors can range from acts of aggression to difficulty following directions or paying attention and social withdrawal.
Children who display problem behaviors often have poor social and emotional skills. Self-regulation is one of most important social and emotional tasks that children learn in early childhood. Self-regulation is the ability to control impulses and is needed for getting along with others.
The ability to pay attention also is part of self-regulation. Children with challenging behaviors may be difficult to teach, and often these children receive less positive feedback from adults. Playmates may reject children who do not have good social skills. Children who are rejected and receive negative feedback usually do not like school, and this can have a negative impact on learning and social processes.
Daily environments can have a positive effect on childrens functioning, especially in the area of social and emotional development, and in learning self-regulation. Environments that are created to help children practice these skills assist children in thinking ahead, planning their activities, and using problem-solving skills.
The ECCE environment is made up of the physical space plus all the personal or social interactions that occur during the day. Well-organized space, appropriate schedules, rules and routines, and positive relationships are keys to preventing problem behaviors from occurring.
It may be easier to change the physical environment than to change behavior, and the way a room is arranged can promote either problem behavior or appropriate behavior.
- Provide an appropriate adult-to-child ratio.
- Provide open space to prevent children from being crowded together but not so much that it invites running and chasing.
- Use low bookcases or shelving to divide the space into centers for different activities, but be sure that you are able to properly observe and supervise what children are doing.
- Limit the number of children in a center at any given time.
- Make sure that materials and activities are appropriate to the childrens developmental levels. Activities that are too easy or too hard can increase challenging behavior. Group materials and activities by function, and children will learn about organization in the process.
- Keep toys, games and puzzles within childrens reach so that they are not tempted to climb on chairs or shelves to obtain desired items. Eliminating opportunities for mishaps can mean there is less need for reminders and directions from adults.
Do not force children to fit into the program, but design the program to fit the interests, abilities, cultures, and temperaments of the children. Offer choices as often as possible. The freedom to choose open-ended activities can lead to better social interaction and behavior.
Structured time should be included to introduce new skills and concepts, but too much structured time may increase a childs need to assert his power or independence. Allow enough time for each activity so that children can feel a sense of satisfaction.
Be aware of the amount of stimulation that is present at any given time. Some children can be overwhelmed by too much sensory input. Loud noise levels, bright lighting, room temperatures that are too hot or cold, or too much color can distract children and contribute to an increase in challenging behavior.
Alternating quiet and more active play will give sensitive children the opportunity to settle themselves during the day. Make sure the environment has a quiet, lower-stimulation area for children to go to when needed.
Structure and Spontaneity
Adult caregivers need to strike a balance between structured time and spontaneity for children. Too much freedom can lead to aggressive behavior. Observe how long play can continue constructively, and try to increase the time gradually. This helps children learn coping skills.
Children will let you know when they are bored and it is time to end the activity and offer new options. Some children need more guidance and structure during free play than others. Children with limited play skills need help to extend their play so help them choose an activity or playmate.
Daily schedules should be predictable and consistent, yet include variety that is interesting. Younger children, infants, and toddlers need routines rather than rules. Of course, preschoolers need rules; but too many rules and restrictions can lead to frustration.
Help children learn and understand the rules in small steps. Help them learn the daily schedule so they know what to expect. Post pictures of the schedule to help children remember, and use verbal or auditory cues such as a song or a bell to signal when it is almost time to change from one activity to another. This warning time may help children mentally prepare for transitions.
Positive relationships are essential to childrens social and emotional development. Warm, caring adults who nurture children can make a big difference in childrens lives. Time and attention with behavior change strategies can help reduce many challenging behaviors. Relationship building can increase the influence a caregiver has with children. Children will seek to pay attention and follow directions if it brings them positive attention from the adults in their lives.
Get to know the children and understand each childs interests, abilities, and culture. Communicate respect in all interactions. It may be difficult to build relationships with some children with challenging behavior. However, these children may need positive relationships the most. The investment of time and attention in getting to know children will be worth it when you notice the positive benefits that result.
Preventing challenging behaviors in children is an ongoing process. Observe and evaluate your practices, and learn what works for you and the other adults in your program. Make sure to involve parents and families in the process. When you feel you have tried everything you can to help a child, but challenging behavior persists, it is time to enlist the help of experts.
Dianne Burdette, RN, BSN, CPN, Childcare Health Consultant, The Childrens Home Society of New Jersey
Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning, Childrens Research Center; 51 Gerty Dr.; Champaign, IL 61820; 217-333-4123; csefel.uiuc.edu
Division for Early Childhood (DEC) of the Council for Exceptional Children, 634 Eddy, Misoula, MT 59812-6696; 406-243-5898; www.dec-sped.org
Center for Evidence Based Practice: Young Children with Challenging Behavior, challengingbehavior.fmhi.usf.ed
Early Childhood Behavior Project, education.umn.edu/ceed/projects/preschoolbehavior