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Developmental Strategies for Young Children With Challenging Behaviors in Early Childhood Classrooms
Ms. Allen’s 4-year-old preschool class is exciting and full of activities. The children are expected to follow the rules and participate, and most of the students are doing well. One child, though, is having trouble sharing with the other children. This child is having temper tantrums and disrupting the class. Ms. Allen isn’t sure why the child is reacting this way. She needs help handling this and related behaviors.
“This is a typical scenario in many early childhood classrooms, where children are learning the rules of social engagement and how to behave appropriately,” says Dr. Nicole Hamilton, a Walden University faculty member who focused her psychology PhD studies on child and adolescent development. “However, when one child is disruptive to the classroom and to peers, then this can impede the learning experience and be frustrating for the early childhood educator or teacher.”
Research shows that learning how to manage challenging behavior is the greatest concern in early childhood classrooms—and is considered the most important training need for early childhood educators, Dr. Hamilton says.1,2 That’s one key reason why teaching professionals head back to school to earn online teaching degrees—like an EdS in Early Childhood Education or MS in Early Childhood Studies.
According to Dr. Hamilton, one-third of early childhood educators have expelled at least one child in a year due to challenging behaviors.3 Young children who exhibit challenging behaviors are more likely to continue to exhibit challenging behaviors into childhood, adolescence, and perhaps even adulthood.2 With challenging behaviors in the preschool years being the single best predictor for long-term delinquent behaviors in adolescence and adulthood, early childhood educators must consider the value of their role in these formative years.4
Dr. Hamilton, a senior contributing and a senior lead faculty member in Walden’s online PhD in Human Services degree program, wrote the article “Developmental Strategies for Young Children with Challenging Behaviors in Early Childhood Classrooms.” In this excerpt, she offers five strategies for early childhood educators, education specialists, and other teaching professionals to use in their classrooms.
Strategies for Early Childhood Educators
Prevention is the best way to address challenging behaviors in order to decrease their occurrence in the classroom.5 However, even when a child enters an early childhood classroom with existing challenging behaviors, many of the preventative strategies can still be used to decrease the negative behaviors and associated outcomes for the child.
Prevention and intervention strategies center on building strong positive relationships, understanding the function of the child’s behavior, creating expectations and predictability for the child, arranging the classroom environment, and employing positive teaching strategies.3,5
Building Positive Relationships
Establishing a strong positive teacher-child relationship is considered the core prevention and intervention strategy.4,6 When there is a strong relationship with the child, and with the child’s family, then an early childhood educator is more likely to understand the child’s behaviors, use appropriate teaching strategies, and adopt modifications to focus on the challenging behaviors.
At times, it can be difficult to form a positive relationship with a child who has ongoing problems in the classroom.7 It is very possible that when an early childhood educator becomes frustrated with a child’s challenging behavior, that frustration can lead to a lack of attention for that child or even inappropriate behaviors on the teacher’s part. This in turn can further increase the child’s challenging behavior. A positive relationship is a measure that should be considered a part of the teaching philosophy of the classroom.
Focusing on the positive qualities of each child is an effective strategy that gives each child more equality in attention and communication. Furthermore, each early childhood educator should effectively engage with each child, on an individual level, to learn the child’s interests and needs. This will promote positive guidance and support in reducing challenging behaviors.
Understanding the Function of Challenging Behavior
This is also at the core of prevention and intervention.8 The educator will need to learn about the history of the child’s behavior, what areas are most prominent, and what related issues might be occurring. Understanding the function of the child’s behavior enables the educator to develop appropriate preventative strategies.
Expectations and Predictability
The predictability of the day-to-day functions in the early childhood classroom is important for all children.7 When a child knows the rules and routines of their day, they are less likely to engage in challenging behaviors. Rules and rituals can easily be implemented by explaining to young children what is expected of them in each activity and the rules in different areas of the classroom, and by using short transitions to move from one activity to the next.
Young children can understand schedules, and with simple daily reminders, challenging behaviors can be reduced. In addition, allowing the child to make choices in their activities will also decrease challenging behaviors and increase the engagement that a child may need.9,5
Arranging the Classroom
In addition to predictability, it is also important to design a classroom environment that is engaging.7,4,5 When a young child walks into an early childhood classroom, the environment should be open, colorful, well-organized, and simulate a learning experience that is appropriate for the child. A young child is more likely to engage in the activities when they are developmentally appropriate, fun, and allow the child to express their learning capacity in a positive manner.
The design of the classroom should take into account both physical and emotional needs. Physically, the classroom should be organized to allow the early childhood educator to see all of the children from any point in the room with accessibility to all activities. The educator should set expectations for engaging with the materials, such as time frame, noise level, and other classroom rules. Even concerns of temperature, light, and time of the day should be carefully considered as part of the emotional environment.
Positive Teaching Strategies
Lastly, young children do best when early childhood educators are willing to reinforce positive behaviors through acknowledgement, modeling, and adopting and modifying elements in the classroom.8,4 These adoptions can be referred to as positive teaching strategies, as they increase a child’s communication, socio-emotional, and problem-solving skills. Educators use these strategies to best engage and interact with a child and decrease challenging behaviors that may already be occurring.
Early childhood educators should always be modeling the behavior that is expected of the children in the classroom. If an educator raises their voice in frustration, they may then notice that the children are raising their voices at one another or the teacher as well. Modeling promotes expected behavior by allowing a child to observe that behavior.
Another strategy in positive teaching is for the educator to identify at least one behavior each day that the child does well and then praise the child for it. The more a child is praised for positive behaviors, then the more likely the child is to continue those positive behaviors. Furthermore, offering a child exemplary times to show their more positive behaviors and offering feedback and reminders will increase the likelihood that the child will display positive behaviors and further understand the expectations in the classroom for developmentally appropriate preschool behavior.
“Using universal practices of prevention and intervention allows for an early childhood educator to include all young children in the classroom, not just those with challenging behaviors,” Dr. Hamilton says. “Overall, using these strategies will help early childhood educators in early childhood classrooms, just like in Ms. Allen’s class, so that it can continue to be a fun, effective, and engaging environment for young children.”
Earn an Early Childhood Education Degree Online
Earning an EdS in Early Childhood Education or an MS in Early Childhood Studies can equip you with the knowledge and skills you need to help young students find success in the classroom.
An early childhood Education Specialist (Eds) program can help you become a respected educator and child advocate. In Walden’s online EdS degree program in Early Childhood Education, you’ll develop skills you can use in settings such as program design, instruction, policy implementation, and family education. This non-licensure program is designed for teachers, community college instructors, curriculum specialists, and early childhood support professionals.
Walden’s MS in Early Childhood Studies online degree program is aligned with professional guidelines from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. In this master’s in early childhood education degree program you’ll find up-to-date coursework on topics like the developing brain, family and community partnerships, engaging environments, and more.
When you choose an EdS or MS program at Walden, you’ll find the flexibility to earn a degree while continuing to work and enjoy your life. Walden’s flexible online learning platform lets you engage in your studies on your own schedule, wherever you have an internet connection.
An early childhood studies degree can help you create positive learning experiences for the youngest students and help all children strive for success.
Dr. Nicole Hamilton has been with Walden University since 2015 and currently serves as a senior contributing and senior lead faculty member in the Human Services PhD program. She holds a PhD in general psychology with a specialization in child and adolescent development, a master’s in counseling psychology, and a master’s in early childhood studies with a specialization in administration, management, and leadership. Her primary areas of research include divorce, suicide prevention, addiction, and sibling relationships.
Walden University is an accredited institution offering EdS in Early Childhood Education and MS in Early Childhood Studies online degree programs. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.
1Source: Carter, D., Norman, R., & Tredwell, C. (2011). Program-wide positive behavior support in preschool: Lessons for getting started. Early Childhood Education, 38(5), 349-355. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-010-0406-0
2Source: Fronapfel, B., Dunlap, G., Flagtvedt, K., Strain, P., & Lee, J. (2018). Prevent-teach-reinforce for young children: A program description and demonstration of implementation in an early childhood setting. Education and Treatment of Children, 41(2), 233-248. https://doi.org/10.1353/etc.2018.0010
3Source: Fox, L., Phillip, S.S., & Dunlap, G. (2021). Preventing the use of preschool suspension and expulsion: Implementing the pyramid model. Preventing School Failure, 65(4), 312-322. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1045988X.2021.1937026
4Source: Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children. (2017). Position statement on challenging behavior and young children. Zero to Three, 38(2), 33-42. https://challengingbehavior.org/docs/DEC_PositionStatement_ChallengingBehavior.pdfhttps://challengingbehavior.org/docs/DEC_PositionStatement_ChallengingBehavior.pdf
5Source: Sobeck, E.E., & Reister, M. (2020). Preventing challenging behavior: 10 behavior management strategies every teacher should know. Preventing School Failure, 65(1), 70-78. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1045988X.2020.1821347
6Source: Blair, K.C., Fox, L., & Rochelle, L. (2010). Use of positive behavior support to address the challenging behavior of young children within a community early childhood program. Topic in Early Childhood Special Education, 30(2), 68-79. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0271121410372676
7Source: Butler, A.M., & Ostrosky, M.M. (2018). Reducing challenging behaviors during transitions. Young Children, 73(4), 12-18. www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/sep2018/reducing-challenging-behaviors-during-transitions
8Source: Aksoy, P. (2020). The challenging behaviors faced by the preschool teachers in their classrooms, and the strategies and discipline approaches used against these behaviors: The sample of United States. Participatory Educational Research (PER), 7(3), 79-104. https://doi.org/10.17275/per.188.8.131.52
9Source: Glasser, W. (1998). Choice theory: A new psychology of personal freedom. Collins Books.
Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, www.hlcommission.org.
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