Challenging behavior: is it the kids or the grown-ups?

 I often get questions from teachers about how to handle behavior challenges in the classroom. And, sometimes I hear from parents who think their child may be the victim of unchecked implicit bias either in regards to race or special needs. Looking for data? This is an article I assign my ECE students regularly: I also appreciate this talk from Dr. Rosemarie Allen on suspension as an adult behavior:

Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

I see systems as one ingredient to protecting our children against this kind of unintentional but extremely harmful teacher behavior. I recently posted the overview of a system that I used at the height of my teaching practice on the NAEYC forum and thought it would be worth sharing here, too. (The issue I was responding to was in regards to other children’s parents complaining of a child’s behavior). If you are a teacher you could use it to hold yourself and your colleagues accountable. If you are a parent you could use it to ask your child’s center staff about their policies and social-emotional child development support practices, or hold them accountable to delivering the education and care that your child deserves.

Parents who complain about another child:
1. Make sure to have a description of the way you and your team handle challenging behaviors and support children’s social emotional development. I always let the other parents know, “I am not allowed to talk with you about another child’s development, but let me tell you about how we handle challenging behaviors in our classroom and support children’s social emotional development, in general…” I always ended with, “when we don’t feel we have the expertise to support a child’s development whether it’s for challenging behaviors or other developmental needs we reach out to community professionals.” I also was sure to include that when challenging behaviors arise we always stay in communication with that child’s parents. It seems there is always a parent who is ready to vilify a child who is not theirs (and that child’s parents(s)). It is our job to protect our students and their families from this. *It is never the child’s responsibility to make the adults comfortable.* When challenging behaviors are presented it means that our student needs more from us or something different than we are offering.

2. Then I remind them that we will continue to be in communication with them about their own child’s development, thanking them for reaching out with concerns. 

Parent of the child who exhibits challenging behaviors: 
1. I want teachers to remember that while parents are the experts on their own child, you are the expert on classroom dynamics. So be careful not to “dump” the problem on the parents. Build partnership by telling them objectively what happened that was challenging, and remember to include anecdotes about the other times of the day when the child was successful. You’ll need to be aware of and able to communicate about the child’s strengths in the classroom and at home in order to develop strategies for coaching them towards pro-social behaviors.

2. First communicate with your director or teacher support person to develop strategies to support the child with challenging behaviors. With your team identify how the behavior interferes with the child’s ability to access basic needs, relationships, and/or curriculum (all parents and teachers want these three things for students). Then meet with parents to:

  • Share what’s going well for the child
  • Share your observations of the behaviors
  • Share your thoughts on access to basic needs, relationships, and/or curriculum
  • Find out how things are going at home (do they see similar behaviors? What is going well?)
  • Describe the strategies you are trying with your team
  • Find out what strategies they are trying and/or work at home
  • Make a plan to circle back in a couple of weeks

3. If behaviors don’t reduce then you may need extra support. Let the parents know that you want to be the best teacher you can for their child but you’re not sure how to do that. You’ll need the expertise of a specialist in order to understand more about how their child learns and what their developmental needs are. Then share resources that you and your director have identified. This can be heavy for parents. Give them some time to think about it and make a plan to follow up.

Addressing Challenging Behavior with the child:
1. Shadowing (when you move through the classroom with the child so that you can intervene right away if something is about to happen). While you are shadowing make it very productive by:

  • Building a positive relationship with the child – play with them when things are going great! Find out what topics they love, who is important to them, what classroom materials they enjoy, how they connect with others. Take them on special trips to the copier, to ask the director a question or to help set up snack, etc.
  • Note: what happened right before the child was triggered? What was the volume? How many children were in the space right around the child? How might the child have been feeling emotionally? Did the child make an attempt to communicate verbally before acting physically? Is there a pattern?
  • Reduce expectations – help this child more than you normally do if they will accept it to reduce the occurrences of challenging behavior. This will let the brain take a break from strengthening the neural pathways that lead to challenging behaviors. If you help them now it doesn’t mean they will always need your help.
  • Take every opportunity to slow social situations down: narrate what you see happening for all involved, validate emotions of all involved, model calmness, curiosity, and problem solving. ALL children will benefit from this, not just the child you’re shadowing.
  • Stop asking the child to check-in with someone they hurt. They may intellectually know that they aren’t supposed to behave that way but there is something that is preventing them from regulating. Unless the child genuinely expresses remorse an obligatory apology will teach the child to lie and/or compound any shame that is already built up from adult reactions to many unsuccessful interactions.  Children will not learn empathy through forced apologies (empathy development will be covered in a different post!)

2. Ask your director or teacher support person to observe you interacting with the child. Then meet with your team and your director/teacher support person to brainstorm what skills you think the child has not developed, what the barriers might be to developing these skills, and what community resources might help you understand the child’s development and needs better.

Addressing Challenging Behavior with other children:

  • We need to support a child when they’ve been hurt or harmed, or their safety has been threatened. We can support them through their emotions without requiring them to check in with the child who hurt or scared them. We can be the person that helps them access coping strategies that will help them feel better – not the other child. When we force apologies it sends the message that the person who hurt you still holds the power over your emotions – it’s as if you can’t feel better until the other child apologizes. Instead we want the hurt child to develop a sense of agency about their emotional state and to be able to take action in emotion processing and self-care regardless of what the other child is doing.
  • Also, I stress with all children that we are all learning and working on something. I give an example of something I am working on, and something they are each working on. We can appreciate that we are all working on different things. I also make a point to make a big deal (in a positive way) whenever the child with challenging behaviors does something helpful so the children may see that the child is more than “bad behavior”. 

For yourself:

This can be emotionally taxing work! Make sure you have proactive self-care routines in place, like actually taking your break rather than working through it, switch out with your teammate when you’re starting to feel tired of shadowing, make sure your spiritual cup is full.

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