top of page

What is causing this storm!? One Major Hidden Driver Behind Challenging Behaviors.

Updated: Feb 28

Think of a recent time you were extremely frustrated, stressed, and had your buttons pushed –AGAIN! Which actions did you take? Did you behave in ways you later regretted? Upon reflection, what was the reason for your behavior? Can you pinpoint the fuel contributing to the fire you felt? What need, feeling, or other actions from yourself or others drove you toward that behavior?

Realistically, when tired, stressed, hungry, overwhelmed, or just plain fed up, it is typical to become gruff, short with others, yell, complain, or even send a regretful email or text. It is no different for young children. The reality for adults and children is, the trigger to these unfortunate events may be obvious. But sometimes, the driver remains hidden. If we are able to detect the fuel starting the fire, we can identify the corresponding strategy that will help reduce the behaviors. To learn about “Why address the why?”, visit our blog on this topic. To join us for the live webinar on more methods to reduce challenging behaviors, sign up for the live webinar today. To discover one covert reason you may not have realized (and three helpful strategies to address it)... read on. To access valuable resources on this topic, skip to HERE

The Consult

As staff coordinator of an early childhood program in Minnesota, I was called into assess what might be happening with “David” and how our team could help him succeed. David was extremely aggressive, disruptive, exhibited anxious behaviors, and struggled socially. In an instant, this 3-year-old would randomly react with violent behavior and let out ear-splitting shrieks. The skilled teachers had “tried everything” and were running out of ideas, patience, and energy. They were also concerned for the other children who were being subjected to unexpected aggressive acts and disturbing meltdowns. Something needed to happen soon to restore calm and provide David and his classmates with a safe and supportive learning environment.

The goal of the consult? In order to put together David's "puzzle" and identify the reasons behind these outbursts and what would help him most, it was important to keenly observe the series of events that precipitated this youngster’s outbursts. We needed to understand why he might be doing these behaviors and label which adult responses seemed to help or hamper the situation. The observation would help identify the potential reasons driving the behavior and identify the matching concrete strategies to help our little buddy thrive. Gathering information about what might be triggering his behavior will be paramount if we are to reduce his challenging behaviors.

In a short time, I became largely invisible as I sat conveniently and quietly in the corner and minimized my interactions with the children. In this bubble, focused and tuned into what might be happening with David. Over the next hour, I observed several relevant events that would help solve the mystery. It was evident David was having trouble as he tried to navigate a buzzing room full of children, a lot of free-play choices, objects he desired to play with that the other children already had, and classroom staff who attempted to redirect him numerous times. I appreciated that he had a supportive environment with a wonderful collection of great routines and transitions that resulted in the other children succeeding. But, it is evident little David is struggling to fit in here and he is causing disruptions.

Two major clues gave insight into what might be happening here:

  • When the adults move toward David to supportively coach him during difficult moments, he instantly lashes out, throws his arms up over his head, and then quickly retreats. They are trying to be helpful. But he continues to reject assistance, push them away, or reel back with a fearful grimace as they approach. He seems ambivalent and to even dread the presence of these adult “helpers”. Unfortunately, it becomes evident, in this child's short life, he has likely learned he cannot rely on his adult caregivers to help him when needed. I suspect, adults may have even hurt him. I watch as David continues to experience the extreme stress responses of fight, freeze, or flight to deal with difficulties rather than risk having to experience potentially hurtful actions of others.

  • His adult caregivers know that he has a pattern of aggression, and it is impacting their response to him. In one defining moment, David’s face brightens when he finally lands his favorite toy: The coveted shopping cart! This little guy delights in pushing it carefully a foot or two and then chooses a prized stuffed bear to ride along.

As he continues forward, a classmate who is well known for her cooperative nature, sees the bear in the cart and proceeds to adopt it for herself. He shrieks and instantly dives forward to forcibly retrieve it from her. As they get stuck in a tug-of-war, a nearby adult moves quickly to assist and promptly…Guess what they do? Yes. The caregiver takes the stuffed animal out of his hands and gives it to the young lady. It is understandably difficult for teachers to discern the who lit this fire and assume it was him. After all, they are working so hard to balance the needs and manage a classroom full of youngsters! But David is also understandably devastated and flails at her in protest, scowling with angst, screeching once again. For yet another time in his life, he has discovered he cannot trust adults (or other children). His survival instinct kicks in and he knows he must fight to make it.

During these moments, I was reminded of one heartbreaking lesson in graduate school at the University of Minnesota detailing one major reason some children exhibit reactions such as David’s. It just might be the covert reason some children are reactive, aggressive, and explosive: They have past experiences with trauma and/or toxic stress.


In this resource blog, we explore the impact of early stress and trauma on behavior and the developing brain. You will gather helpful information including:

  • Why is it important to learn about trauma?

  • The prevalence (the stats will surprise you!)

  • The impact of early trauma on behavior

  • What can you do in order to support children who have been through it

  • Excellent resources to learn more

One thing will remain very clear, what you do matters.

If you have not cared for someone as explosive as David, you may be thinking,But, I don’t serve ‘those kids.’” But the symptoms of trauma vary. According to an article by NAEYC that summarizes the research on the prevalence:

  • Roughly 26 percent of children in the United States witness or experience a trauma before the age of 4 (Briggs-Gowan et al. 2010).

  • More than half of all victims (63.8 percent) were between birth and 8 years old.

  • More than one quarter (27.7 percent) were younger than 3 years old, 18.6 percent were between the ages of 3 and 5, and another 17.5 percent were between the ages of 6 and 8.

So, sadly, the odds are that you do care for, or will at some point care for, a child who has been through a traumatic experience. For many, this driver of challenging behaviors remains hidden (and, consequently, the personalized caregiving strategies that will help the children bounce back from these experiences).

Children who have experienced trauma need our help.

The reality is, young child exhibiting challenging behaviors might just be telling you, “I have been hurt. I am not feelings safe. I need to trust you before I can calm. I need to know you won’t hurt me.”


The impact of early trauma on behavior

It might be difficult to understand why a 3 y/old would reject an empathetic and supportive adult response unless you, yourself, have experienced abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to care for you. Imagine a home environment where the adults aren't always consistently helpful or maybe even intentionally hurt you. As a toddler exploring your environment and "get into things", some days your parent laughs, others yells "No!", but today gives you a hard slap that comes our of nowhere. Over time, the brain becomes hyper-vigilant and the child, unsettled, wonders, “What am I going to get today? Am I safe? Can I relax and learn? Or, do I need to fight or run and hide?” O