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How to Address Challenging Preschool Behavior

Child having a tantrum

Figuring out how to deal with challenging behavior in preschool-aged children can certainly be a daunting task for any parent, caregiver or educator. The preschool years can be, more often than not, a tough time to get through (for both children and adults), chalk full of tantrums, troublesome habits, anxiety, and fibbing. Truthfully… that’s merely the tip of the toddler-sized behavioral-issue-iceberg. Nonetheless, these little people need our encouragement and support while they try to understand, process and navigate the sometimes hard to decipher world around them. Let’s help guide them, shall we?

What Exactly IS Considered to be a Challenging Behavior?

Typically, challenging behavior is considered be repeated patterns of behavior that often interferes with a child’s learning or interaction in social settings. This may include an obvious unresponsiveness to developmentally appropriate guidance, as well as reactions such as prolonged tantrums, disruptive vocal and motor behavior, both verbal and physical aggression, destruction of property, noncompliance, withdrawal, and self-injury.

One very important point for parents, educators, and guardians to consider is that challenging behaviors during preschool years is often one of the strongest indicators of more serious problematic behaviors later on, such as delinquency, antisocial behavior, aggression, and substance abuse.

Interestingly, research shows that participation in a high-quality preschool education, one which takes into consideration an emphasis on children’s social development, may reduce challenging behavioral rates. Therefore, a good, solid, well-established preschool program can indeed serve as a long-term protective factor for children deemed at risk for developing challenging behaviors.

The Importance of Responding Positively to Negative Triggers

Once a child’s challenging behavior triggers are identified, then that information can be used to respond in a more positive manner to the child’s needs. Consider these tips on how to get started:

1) Sometimes, a simple change in setting makes a big difference:

Guide the child to another (play or class) room, change the class activity, have them seek out different friends…whatever it takes to refocus their energy. If they’re feeling overstimulated, help them take their negative energy level down a notch or two by suggesting activities that are more relaxing, like painting and listening to music. Or, (and here’s my personal favorite) get into nature. Why not take everybody’s energy outside with some good ‘ol fashioned outdoor playtime? Redirecting energy into physical activity can solve a myriad of behavioral problem situations.

2) If you keep it calm, chances are, they will, too:

Respond to their challenging behavior calmly. Yes, it’s harder than it sounds, of course. But, do keep in mind that if a child’s behavior has made you (the adult in charge) angry, taking a quick step back and a few minutes to calm down is a must. Before deciding how to respond to the troubling situation, this mini-mental break will help you keep your cool and figure out how to deal with it all.

3) Explain and clarify what appropriate behavior is:

Perhaps a child simply has a hard time understanding what is considered to be a socially acceptable behavior. In this case, you may need to talk them through more suitable ways of expressing themselves and their desires. If a child continually argues about sharing toys with classmates or siblings, then teach him how to ask to trade or borrow.

4) Take notice of any positive changes in behaviors:

When a positive behavior presents itself, always provide kids with genuine praise for their effort. Hey, they worked very hard to get to this point. So, verbally acknowledging their new positive approach lets them know that you respect them and their efforts.

5) And, most importantly…be consistent and avoid surprises:

Consistent and predictable routines give kids with challenging behaviors cues on follow-through. As the adult in charge, be consistent in what you ask them to do and follow through on what you say. Anxiety sets in when there is a change in routine or schedule, setting the stage for tantrums and meltdowns, so prepare a child ahead of time if something different is going to happen. A clear explanation will minimize behavioral outbursts and stress.

You Can Never Get Too Many High-Five’s and Pats on the Back

Encouraging a child to alter their challenging behavior, from negative to positive, can be one tricky tightrope walk. But, when children get plenty of praise, genuine encouragement and even sometimes a few rewards for behaving well in a normally cringe-worthy situation, then they’re more likely to want to keep behaving well.