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Working with Challenging Behaviors: WHY address the WHY

Updated: 7 days ago

For over twenty years, early childhood educators have asked me, How can I get this child to LISTEN!? What can I do to STOP these negative behaviors!? So, of course, our Online Challenging Behavior Series is packed full of the answers. In the upcoming Working with Challenging Behaviors in Children 3-8 years, we start off with the importance of becoming a scientist and figuring out the feelings and needs that are providing fuel for the fire.

Some educators ask, “Why? Can’t you just give me the tool that will work right now!? I don’t have time to think about it, I just need the answer! I just need this child to listen!"

Well, if I try to put my new Ikea furniture together with a Phillips screwdriver, it's not going to work. I can get frustrated, try to use it anyway, blame Ikea, and/or just give up. Or, I can search for the right tool - the Allen wrench. With this hexagonal gadget, I will handily be able to put that dresser together with little stress and much success (at least be more likely too, anyway.) In order to reduce challenging behaviors and address ongoing challenges successfully, it will be critical to identify which method will match the reason driving the behavior. What's more, when we choose the method that matches, it helps the child learn while building an important connection that will benefit all.

In this blog, you will find

The reality is, each child is a unique human, with an individual set of puzzle pieces that, when put together, help show us the big picture. Each piece gives us critical insight into what is driving the behavior and can lead us to helpful strategies that will help redirect negative behaviors. Why does one stable and effective classroom routine work year after year and then, it fails one child who just can't settle, keeps crying and will not cooperate even after weeks of trying numerous strategies? Why did a staple transition cue, blinking the lights to signify a transition is coming, suddenly set one young child off into a major snot-flying meltdown? Why is it the circle time curriculum, that wowed children for years, this year resulting in three students who refuse to participate and insist on interrogating each other!? There are many reasons it could be. To fully understand why this is happening and successfully address these challenging behaviors, it will be important to pinpoint what is fueling these flames.

There is Something Driving the Challenging Behavior. What is it?

So here I am, it's my 9am multiage circle-time, and we're going to read this great book called “Manner’s Time” by Elizabeth Verdick. (I know this great way to engage children and teach the desired behaviors when children are come and engaged in the learning.) I begin reading…

“Manners, start here with a smile!” I ask, “Can you smile?” and encourage participation as most children brim with grins. Then, I point out: “Oh, that feels good. When you smile at me, it makes me feel so happy!” to reinforce the pro-social behavior and help the child realize their impact to positively influence others. (Grins breakout into joyful smiles). I continue reading, “Hello, is how you greet someone, do a little wave.” And excitedly wave at the children, “Hello, hello, hello.” and embolden others to join. I compliment, “Oh, those are such good manners!”

Suddenly, in rushes Johnny and his mother. And his mother says, “Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry. I was running so behind this morning. I didn't even have chance to get him dressed, and now I'm running late for work. I have to go, here you go. I am SO SORRY!” And leaves.

Oh dear. Now there is this young child just dropped right into circle time without warning. Not ideal. I acknowledge his presence with “Johnny, welcome to story time! We are reading about manners.” And read on…

“You can also show good manners when leaving… ‘Look the person in the eye and say… Good-bye!’”

By page 3, Johnny gets antsy and starts poking his friend. But, WHY is Johnny poking his friend? What might be going on with Johnny?

Participants in my online live webinar series jump in…

  • He is probably hungry as he may have missed breakfast.

  • Maybe he is still tired?

  • He might feel antsy and need to get his wiggles out.

  • Maybe he is not interested in the book?

  • What if he is sick or feels uneasy?

  • He could be stressed. I mean, his mother sure was!

  • I bet he wants your attention….

Their insight illustrates some of the many reasons why he might be getting antsy and poking his friend. The first step to find out is to take a moment to consider the child’s world. This will give us a roadmap to finding the strategy that will work best.

Which Strategy Should You Use?

If you can figure out the driver of the behavior, you can utilize the method that's really going to work to help the child behave well. There is a strategy that will be successful with this individual child and get him to stop disrupting circle time. But what is it?

When faced with a challenging behavior from a child, it helps to:

First, acknowledge to yourself that Johnny is experiencing something that is making it difficult for him to behave well. Truly, when I am hungry, tired, or stressed I do not behave perfectly either! He is likely not trying to be difficult and is doing the best he can. It helps me to remain calm and patient, as I decide on the optimal response, if I imagine the child holding up a “help!” sign.