challenging-behaviorsIt never failed, when I was a teacher I always got at least one student with extremely challenging behavior. I remember my first student with a challenging behavior like it was yesterday. He was only 3 years old. He’s 12 now! He was developmentally behind in his speech, so he would make up words or grunt when he wanted something. He would walk around singing “ba ba ba” from McDonalds. That was his way of saying he wanted McDonalds to eat. He became frustrated easily which led to kicking, swearing, licking people, and running away.

Every year after that it seemed like the challenging student was worse than the one before. By the end of each year, the challenging student ended up being my favorite. I know we aren’t suppose to have favorites. I’m no expert in handling these types of students, but I have learned a thing or two over the years. Today I’m going to share with you my tips for handling these challenging kids in and out of the classroom.

Build a Connection to Beat Challenging Behavior

Let’s just stop right here and linger for a while. This will be the longest step in the process, but the most crucial. You will NOT get any where with these kids unless you have a connection with them. Take a deep breath, put the behavior to the side, get on the floor, and play with them. Find out what they are interested in and use that to connect with the child.

A child will not change his behavior if he doesn’t trust you. You must take the time, however long it may be, to build a connection and trust. Just talk, play, and enjoy the child. I know that it can be hard to put your differences aside for a bit, but trust me it will make the process so much easier.

Find a Reason for the Challenging Behavior

Stop and truly ask yourself why the child is acting this way. Does he want attention? Is he lacking a connection? How is his home life? Does he need love? It could be as simple as he’s tired or hungry. Once you have built the connection and trust, he may start opening up, especially if it’s a home issue. Listen to him and try to figure out what the underlying cause is.

A child will not act out just to be defiant. There is always a reason behind the behavior. On the flip side, do not hound the child with questions. Try to figure this our through normal conversations, interactions, and observations.

Teach the Right Behaviors

Clear Expectations

Make sure your expectations are clear. When I taught preschool, I created cards with expected behaviors. We chose one card a day to discuss. We practiced both the right and wrong way to handle a situation. For example, if we chose the card for sharing we would practice sharing the right way and not sharing. Some times the behavior is caused by something as simple as the kid not knowing what you expect. Be consistent! Your expectations should not change from child to child or day-to-day. By knowing what you expect, a child can “plan” his move.

Positive Talk

Be positive when talking to a child, especially a child who isn’t behaving. Tell them what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do. If he isn’t sharing say something like “We share our toys by taking turns.” Kids tend to hear the meat of the sentence and not focus on the small words like don’t. So when you say “Don’t throw toys” they are actually hearing “Throw toys.” When you speak positively and tell them what you want them to do, there is less chance of miscommunication.

Provide Visuals

Toddlers and preschoolers learn better through visual learning. They are still learning vocabulary and communication skills. By having visual pictures at hand, you can show the picture while using your words to express what you want them to do. Keep the pictures in your pocket or in a file folder with Velcro, so they are easily accessible.

Conflict Resolution

Teach kids conflict resolution. Preschoolers can solve their own problems with your guidance. When you see a problem, sit the students down together and help them talk it out. Practice using feeling words. Let one student at a time tell what happened and how it made them feel. Then have them think of solutions by asking “How can we fix this?” Let them decide how they want to handle the situation, within reason. Their ideas may not be what you had in mind, but if they all agree then don’t step on their feet. Once you do this enough, they will start using conflict resolution on their own.

Social Stories

I LOVE social stories! These are short stories you create to solve problems that happen within your home or classroom. For example, if little Johnny has a hard time sharing you would create a story that uses Johnny in the problem. The story should talk about the problem and how to fix it for next time. At first, read the story every morning. Eventually, you can just read the story when the problem occurs.

I Messages

Make sure you are telling the child how the behavior makes you feel by using I messages. For example, when Johnny doesn’t share tell him “I get upset when you don’t share.” Teach and encourage each kid to use I messages when talking to each other. They help develop empathy, communication, social skills, and understanding of one’s own feelings.

Provide Resources to Manage Challenging Behavior


Create a first/then chart using a file folder. On one side of the folder write FIRST and the other side write THEN. Using pictures, tell the child what you will do first and what you will do after. For example, “First we will brush our teeth, then we will get dressed.” Using the first/then folder helps the child stay organized and know what to expect. A lot of meltdowns are caused by transitions. If they know a transition is coming up they will know what to expect.

Special Signal

Create a special signal to use between the two of you when a behavior starts to get to a point of no return. Do not wait until after the behavior. You need to pay attention to when the behavior or trigger starts. A special signal could be a thumbs up. This lets the child know to pay attention to his feelings/behaviors. A lot of times a preschooler does not realize he is about to go too far. This special signal will teach him to pay attention to what is going on around him and redirect himself to make good choices.


When a child is worked up, they need strategies to calm down. Teaching them yoga is a good calm down strategies. It’s easy to do in the middle of a tantrum and fun too! Say something like “Lets do some yoga to calm down a bit before we talk.”

Behavior Chart

For behaviors that are consistent a behavior chart might help. Create the chart with the child to help them feel in control and motivated to use it. Talk about the behavior, the goal, and possible rewards. The chart will not be successful if it is not meaningful to the child. The goal needs to be very specific, so everyone knows exactly what to work towards. For example instead of “Johnny will behave” try something like “Johnny will use nice words with his friends and teachers.”

I would start with small intervals at first, so the child feels success. The feeling of success will help motivate them as the time increases. For example, the first week of the chart evaluate behavior every 10 minutes. If they reach the goal, give them the sticker/smile/check mark every 10 minutes. Once they earn the mark, you cannot take it away!

It’s VERY important to make this positive and not negative. If they have issues during the time interval they simply do not earn the mark. Say something like “Johnny, our goal is to use nice words with friends. You yelled at your friend, so you do not earn your smile for this time. Our time starts again now, so lets try using nice words when we are mad.”

Avoid saying things like “I’m taking your smile away” or “You lost your smile.” Keep it positive and always explain why they did not earn the mark and what to do next time. As they are continually successful, increase the time increment until the chart is no longer needed. Re-evaluate prizes on a regular basis to ensure the child is working towards something he really wants. Be consistent. If your goal is to only have two warnings, then make sure you are giving two warnings. No more and no less.

**A little side note about behavior charts. You need to be careful with how you present the chart. Make it clear up front that this chart is to help them learn how to control their behavior and recognize when their behavior is about to get out of control. The ultimate goal is to get rid of the chart and be able to WANT to do the right thing without earning a prize.**


Just like adults, children do not like to be bossed around. Give them reasonable choices that will satisfy both of you. An example would be “What would you like to do first, art or music?” Controlled choices makes the child feel in control and decreases the chance of outbursts. You need to control the choices though and stick to only two choices at a time. Giving them free range could result in misbehavior as well.

Calm Down Corner

Create a cool down corner with books, sensory bottles, and coloring materials. In my opinion, cool down corners are more effective than time outs, but have the same purpose. When a child is not listening or throwing a tantrum, ask them to go to the cool down corner to relax. They can read, color, or look at the sensory bottles. This gives you both a chance to calm down and think before talking. Let the child dictate the amount of time he spends in the cool down corner. If he draws, pay attention to the drawing because it may give you a little insight into the behavior.

Make it Private

Avoid confrontations in front of the whole class. All it does is embarrasses the child and could make the situation worse. Confront them as privately as possible.

Avoid Power Struggles

A power struggle is when you and the child are basically fighting. A power struggle gets you no where. When you see that you are starting to argue with the child, stop and take a deep breath. Say something like “I am frustrated right now. Let’s both go cool off for a few minutes. We can talk in 5 minutes.” Set a timer for 5 minutes, walk away, and relax. When the timer goes off, come back to the child and use I messages and choices to guide the conversation.

You do not need to do all of these things to help a preschooler with behavior issues. Pick one or two and just be consistent. Give each resource time to work. It could take weeks for a resource to really be effective. I hope this helped a bit and gave you some resources. Remember being consistent and building a connection will be your strongest tools against misbehavior.