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Resources to Address Challenging Behaviors

In this lesson, you will learn about addressing children’s challenging behavior. The resources include ways to understand challenging behavior, document behavior to understand patterns that may be taking place, unique situations that may affect the behavior of children of military personnel, and the importance of community-based resources that assist providers and families in addressing challenging behavior.

  • Describe children’s challenging behaviors.
  • Learn ways to document and minimize children’s challenging behaviors.
  • Describe unique situations that children in military families may encounter that could result in challenging behavior.
  • Create a resource guide of community and installation resources that assist providers and families with children’s challenging behaviors.



Children’s Challenging Behaviors

All children engage in challenging behaviors from time to time. As adults, we can help children learn new and better ways to communicate their wants and needs instead of using challenging behavior.

What is challenging behavior? The Center for the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) describes it as:

  • Any repeated pattern of behavior that interferes with learning or engagement in prosocial interactions with peers and adults.
  • Behaviors that are not responsive to the use of developmentally appropriate guidance procedures.
  • Prolonged tantrums, verbal aggression, disruptive vocal and motor behavior (e.g., screaming, constant repetition), property destruction, self-injury, noncompliance, and withdrawal.

These can vary depending on who is encountering the behavior. To a parent, whining may be viewed as a challenging behavior, but to a child care provider, the whining indicates that the child is communicating a want or need. The provider may see other behaviors as challenging (such as hitting), but easily tolerates whining.

Challenging behavior can be exhausting for both children and adults. Preventing the challenging behavior from occurring is ideal. In Lesson Three, you learned how daily schedules and predictable routines can promote positive guidance. You also learned that understanding various stages of child development helps you know which behaviors are age-appropriate and which behaviors are not.

Example: Kendall, 18 months old with limited language skills, had a tantrum when he did not have a turn using the red racing car during play time. This tantrum would be seen as developmentally appropriate and understandable given his age and limited language skills. When he is calm and ready to play, Kendall needs a parent or provider to teach him how to ask for a turn with the red racing car.

In contrast, Lily, 7 years old with excellent language skills, has a tantrum if she doesn’t get to choose the after school-snack at the family child care home she attends. Lily’s tantrum would not be age-appropriate and would be viewed as challenging behavior by her provider and parents. Lily needs to be shown other tools for managing disappointment and problem-solving other solutions. Her provider and parents should work together to make a plan for how they will address Lily’s challenging behavior.

Think about your own experiences with children—what behaviors are challenging to you?

Children’s behavior is a form of communication. Adults have to think about what a child may be trying to communicate by engaging in a challenging behavior. The adult must think about what may be behind the child’s behavior and take the time to understand how to help the child learn better forms of communicating to determine what the need is. Parents must be involved in helping you change children’s challenging behavior. It is not something a child care provider can do without parent input. Changing challenging behaviors can be difficult if a child has learned to obtain adult or peers’ attention or preferred items (e.g., toys, candy, etc.) by using these behaviors.

Documenting and Minimizing Challenging Behavior

To understand what a child is communicating, it is important to write down information about when the challenging behaviors occur. Keep a notebook or an index card handy so you can jot down what happened before, during, and after the challenging behaviors. In the Explore section of this lesson, there is a helpful tool to help you detail the behaviors you observe. You may be able to see a pattern that tells you what triggers the behaviors. Having written documentation over time can help you share specifics with parents and work with them to find ways to decrease a child’s challenging behavior.

The Illinois Early Learning Project tip sheet, Helping the Often-Angry Child, describes actions that a provider can take to help children learn how to manage their emotions and minimize challenging behavior:

  • Observe to understand and write down incidences of when the behavior occurs.

    What triggers the child’s anger and aggression? Does the child get upset during transitions from one activity to the next, when the mother leaves in the morning, when the child is tired or hungry, or when there is a lot of noise and commotion? The better you can pinpoint what happens before, during, and after the behavior occurs, the better you will have an idea of what may be triggering the behavior.

  • Minimize the triggers.

    If morning drop-off time is difficult, be available to spend a few extra minutes with the child to help ease her or him into the day. If transitions are hard, quietly give the child notice that the activity will be ending soon and explain what comes next.

  • State any rules clearly, consistently, and matter-of-factly.

    Let the child know what you want her or him to do and don’t want her or him to do. “I don’t want you to hit. I don’t want anyone to hit you either. Tell Amber you would like a turn on the tricycle, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll talk about other things to try.”

  • Anticipate problems that are likely to arise.

    Position yourself near the child so you can provide quiet reminders about how to behave before tempers arise. If Ben often argues with Jamal over building block structures, follow Ben to the blocks and whisper, “Remember to use words with Jamal. Ask him if you can help build the tower with him.”

  • Break the cycle of attention for misbehavior.

    Focus on a child’s interests and abilities. If Sharon is interested in drawing or playing ball, plan time to join her in these activities a little each day before any misbehavior occurs. Comment on the child’s interest and effort, “Your drawings include a lot of detail!”

  • Notice and acknowledge progress.

    Let the child know when he or she is having success. “I heard you use your words with Josh in the sandbox today. You asked him to make room for your sand castle and he did!” An additional hug, smile, or pat on the back can reinforce the good feeling that comes with hard work and success.

Providing Feedback on Children’s Behavior

In your daily interactions with children you should strive to provide them with specific feedback about their behaviors. Cases of positive feedback should outnumber cases of negative or corrective feedback. Educational researchers recommend a ratio of five positives to every one negative comment or correction (Walker, Ramsey, & Gresham, 2004). The table below provides examples of nonspecific and specific feedback.

Examples of non-specific feedback:

Instead, you can say:

Good job.

You worked hard on building that structure.

That’s not right.

Can you try it a different way? Let’s look at this other puzzle that you did.

I like your drawing.

You used red, blue, green, and purple. It’s so colorful!

You’re so smart.

You stuck with that problem and figured it out.

I like the way you’re listening.

Joni has her eyes on me and her hands in her lap.

Notice in the examples above, there is also an emphasis on describing what the child is doing and on his or her efforts rather than ability (e.g., being smart). Messages like these help children persist in challenging tasks or situations and help children derive internal satisfaction from their work or good deeds, rather than continually seeking outside approval. Continue to build positive relationships with each child. Showing interest and care about the students will help provide them with positive moments during their time with you.


When a child engages in a challenging behavior, you must be responsive and prepared to provide the child with acceptable alternatives.

Redirection means providing an acceptable alternative to problematic behaviors. Consider these examples:

Instead of saying:


Stop hitting.

Use gentle hands like this.

Here, you can hit this pillow.

Stop splashing water out of the water table.

Please keep the water in the table.

Don’t yell.

Use an inside voice please.

Quit fighting.

How can you solve this problem?

Don’t talk over me.

Listen please.

What you have to say is important. I want you to hear my idea too.

Helping Children Learn to Resolve Conflicts

Another way to minimize challenging behavior is to teach conflict-resolution skills. Adults can teach preschool and school age children to resolve their differences in calm, peaceful ways. Children who can solve problems and resolve conflicts peaceably have more friends and are more likely to be chosen by their peers. Children can learn how to negotiate without hurting others—a skill that will help them throughout their lives.

As a family child care provider, you will need to support children as they learn the conflict-resolution process. For younger children, you will have to be their voice to help explain what they want to an older child. You will serve as a facilitator, and your presence during the conflict-resolution process will help children feel safe and secure as they learn to mediate their own problems.

When children have decided on a plan to resolve a conflict, you will still need to be there to support them in following their agreed-upon plan. You can help them write down the plan and refer to it if they forget their decision. Reading stories that involve characters who solve conflicts peaceably can help children learn problem solving skills that will serve them both at your home and in other settings.


The following video shows how a child care provider teaches children how to resolve a conflict.

Conflict Resolution

Watch this video to see how family child care providers teach children to resolve conflicts.

Unique Situations in Military Families that May Impact Children’s Behavior

Children in military families may encounter many more life transitions, moves, and separations from parents. Children may engage in challenging behavior when these types of unique transitions occur. It is important to provide children with loving, responsive care during these difficult times.

Unfortunately, children in military families may also experience death of a parent or significant adult. Be sure you have resources available to you, the child, and the family to help a child cope with mourning. Learn about installation and community resources (e.g., programs for grief counseling, school-based social workers and counselors, etc.) so you can be prepared to support a child who may be experiencing stress, anxiety, and fear due to loss or separation from a loved one.


Communicating with Families about Challenging Behavior

It can be difficult to start conversations with families about their child’s challenging behavior. Some parents may truly never see their child behave the way you describe him or her because children may act very differently in different settings. To be able to have difficult conversations, you must first build a trusting relationship with the family. Jodi Whiteman of Zero to Three describes three practices that help with those difficult conversations:

  1. Ask Questions and Wondering: Ask thoughtful questions and wonder together with families. Acknowledge the parent’s knowledge about their child.

    Example: “I notice that Camille has difficulty finding an activity and joining the other children when she arrives each morning. I wonder if you have noticed her do this in other settings?” Listen to Camille’s mother’s response and then ask follow-up questions: “How did you handle it?” “Is there something I can do to help her with this morning transition?”

  2. Active Listening: Listen carefully to what the parent is telling you and state back to her or him what you understood. This includes being attuned to body language and facial expressions.

    Example: “You do have a lot to do in the morning to get Camille and her two brothers fed, dressed, and out the door for school and child care. I can see you must miss your husband’s help now that he is deployed. You wish you could spend more time cuddling with Camille when she wakes up, but right now there no time to do this in the morning.”

  3. Empathizing: Express your understanding and acceptance of the parent’s experiences and feelings.

    Example: “It must be difficult for you to get three children ready for child care and school each morning while your husband has been deployed. It sounds like you are exhausted by the time you get everyone out the door. I am happy to talk with you about some strategies we can try to help Camille transition more easily.”

Building relationships with families takes time and attention. Having a family’s trust makes it easier to work together when addressing children’s challenging behavior. Solving a child’s challenging behavior takes a team effort (family child care provider and parents). Online resources can be helpful in learning strategies to try with a particular child. The Kids Included Together (KIT) program can also be a valuable resource for ideas and techniques to address challenging behaviors.

Sometimes, finding solutions extends to collaborating with professional personnel from community agencies and schools. As a family child care provider, you can create and share a resource list of local and installation services that may be helpful to families in addressing children’s challenging behavior. Your careful attention to addressing children’s challenging behavior will leave a lasting impact as each child in your care grows and develops into a caring, emotionally secure individual.


Using what you have learned in this course, download Documenting Children’s Behavior and observe the children in your family child care program. Taking time to reflect on when and where behaviors occur can help you understand what children are communicating through their behavior. Reflect on your observations and share your thoughts with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.

If you are a CDA candidate, use the CDA Competency Statement III  handout to reflect on how you support children’s social and emotional development and provide positive guidance. This is a required item for the CDA Professional Portfolio. 


Take a moment to review the Online Resources for Addressing Challenging Behavior attachment which contains a list of websites and online resources available to help parents and providers with addressing children’s challenging behavior. You may want to share your favorite resources with families who ask for information about addressing children’s challenging behavior and supporting emotional development.

The second resource, Conflict Resolution Steps, was adapted from content from HighScope. By teaching children to resolve conflicts themselves you may add to their social and emotional development by providing them with the skills to negotiate with others. In addition to these steps, consider how children’s books and stories can be used to teach conflict resolution and problem-solving skills. Children’s books are a wonderful way to start discussions among you and the children about ways to solve problems.


Behavior that is positive, helpful, and intended to promote respectful interactions and friendship.


Which of the following would be an appropriate strategy for addressing children’s challenging behaviors?
True or False? Ongoing challenging behavior can impact a young child’s ability to form and maintain secure relationships.
Recently, three-year-old Charlotte has been unusually irritable. She only wants to play with you and clings to your side. When other children try to play with her she quickly becomes frustrated and angry. How do you respond?
References & Resources

Center for the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL).

Dodge, D. T., Rudick, S., & Colker, L. J. (2009). The creative curriculum for family child care (2nd ed.). Teaching Strategies, Inc.

Extension Foundation. (2021). Ways child care providers can teach young children to resolve conflicts.

Extension Foundation. (2015). Helping children in child care handle anger.

HighScope Educational Research Foundation. (2016). Social development.

Illinois Early Learning Project.

National Center for Quality After School Programs.

Whiteman, J. (2013). Connecting with families: Tips for those difficult conversations. Young Children, 68(1), 94-95.