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  • Writer's pictureRaelene Ostberg, M.Ed.

Working with Challenging Behaviors: WHY address the WHY

Updated: Jan 30

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 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.

Then, become a detective. Why is Johnny doing this behavior? Our brain wants to rush to judgement and quick solutions, “He is so fidgety! He just needs to sit down and keep his hands to himself!” or blame, “If his mom would just (or would not do) _______, he wouldn’t do this!” But, neither of these will help us find the solution Johnny needs to quickly calm and re-engage.

What do you see, hear, and feel from Johnny that gives clues to what he is experiencing? What do you think is triggering the behavior based on your past knowledge of Johnny and his unique temperament traits, his typical responses/triggers to different situations, knowledge of what is happening in his family and the stressors he might be experiencing? If we can correctly identify the reason, it will be easier to choose the most helpful response and find which tool that will help him ease back toward acceptable behavior. We want him to start listening and be actively engaged and really learn with us. But first it is important to help him experience understanding after his potentially stressful morning. Just use the information you gather to make your best guess as to why he is doing this negative behavior.

Next, identify and try the strategy that matches. This simple idea can be quite complex, especially in group settings where it is educators must balance the needs of so many children. However, it will be essential to diminish these and other negative behaviors. When your reaction addresses the trigger driving the behavior, it will help Johnny behave well which will lead to more satisfaction in your work! It takes practice to actively search for the reasons behind the behavior and choose the tool that will work best.

Try it! Match the cause with the solution that will help put put out the fire!

Which strategy will help Johnny behave well and recoup some of his self-regulation skills? That is the method that is most likely to work.

Beware of the Mismatch.

"But, it didn't work!" If the strategy you use does not help Johnny, you may have a mismatch? Truthfully, a great strategy might be used but, if it does not match, it will not work to stop the troubling behavior. Often, this is simply because it does not address the driver of the behavior. Imagine if Johnny's disruptive behavior is the result of being hungry. He has not had breakfast and is feeling a bit hangry. To address the behavior, the well-meaning caregiver gives him provides calming break to reset. This would likely not be an effective tool and it is doubtful it would resolve the issue. Conversely, providing a quick healthy snack, will likely quell the GRRRR in Johnny’s “hanger” and help him fully attend to the learning activity. Conversely, if Johnny is exhausted and just needs time to rest, a snack would not help Johnny. However, some time in a cozy calm down space might be the little break he needs to recuperate and successfully rejoin the group.

Finding the Best Method.

Let’s say you know Johnny and have observed that he thrives with a lot of movement. You have learned about children with active temperament traits and decide, based on what you are seeing/hearing/feeling that he might just need to move. Since his mother was running late, you imagine he may have woken up, sat in his highchair eating, sat in the carseat to get to your center, and he hasn't had a chance to move yet. In this case, it is likely that adding a movement opportunity to your reading time, such as children shaping their bodies into shapes for an alphabet book, acting out the animal behaviors, or providing a fidget to squeeze, as you read the book might reengage your young mover and add the fun and interest needed to stop the behavior.

It is Not Always Easy.

Many of these examples are simple. But other puzzle pieces may be much more complicated to discern or adults may not know about one of the pieces. It was not until my oldest turned six years that I learned about different stress responses and its impact on behavior! This turned out to be a HUGE piece! If Johnny’s mother is feeling significant strain, he is stressed too. This is because stress is "catchy". When somebody is experiencing elevated stress hormone, it can also transfer to others who are present. So, if he's doing this behavior because he has stress hormone pumping through his veins, what can you do? Well, this will depend on what you have learned about Johnny’s typical stress response and what soothes and calms Johnny. For some, it will be a hug or back rub. For others, a break or validation will suffice.

And there's more... subscribe today to get a notification when our new blog on stress and trauma that will come out soon. You may thing this topic does not apply for your kiddos. But, did you know approximately one in four children under four have experienced traumatic events? Look for the blog soon to delve more into what to do it the "WHY?" is related to past trauma..

Adults will be able to reduce negative behaviors and redirect challenging behaviors successfully when they are able to use a strategy that addresses the feelings and needs behind the issue. If you can figure out what is driving that behavior, you be able to utilize the solution that is really going to work. For more learning opportunities, check out In Part 1, we go deeper into the "Why" and what to do about it!

When you take the time to support a child who is struggling to behave well, search to pinpoint the needs and feelings, and use the strategy that matches, you not only help that child through that difficult moment but you also build a relationship with the child, and a strong bond that leads them to want to behave well for you. So, you will be making a difference not only for the child, but for your early childhood environment. Thankfully, they will also start to feel like they're accepted, loved, and understood which has positive results well into the future. When you show them, that they are loved just the way that they are, they feel better. And when kids feel better, they do better.

As always, you know, remind yourself daily, what you do, makes a difference. Thank you so much for everything that you do to support these young children. You are building the brain pathways, that trust and that connection with adults that helps them be successful, not only today, right now, when they're having this difficulty in this moment, but throughout life. Throughout life. They need one supportive, trusting, loving, consistent adult, you can be that one.

Thank you for reading this blog! We truly are more together!

Raelene Ostberg, MEd.

Early Childhood Specialist and Lifelong Learner

To view a list of currently offered live webinars and self-paced learning opportunities with Raelene, visit

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