Secondary tabs

    • Define challenging behavior.
    • Review common childhood behavior.
    • Understand developmentally appropriate behavior.
    • Describe observation, reflection, and reappraisal.




    Defining Challenging Behavior

    Professional caregiving is a rewarding yet demanding job, and responding to challenging behavior is one of the demands you will face. Individuals’ knowledge of child development, culture, and beliefs all affect how one defines challenging behavior. While there are a few behaviors nearly all people agree are challenging (e.g., destroying property, injuring self and others, bullying, problematic sexual behavior), most behaviors are not clearly either challenging or not challenging. Smith and Fox define challenging behavior as, “any repeated pattern of behavior….that interferes with or is at risk of interfering with the child’s optimal learning or engagement in pro-social interactions with peers and adults” (2003). Notice that this definition is broad and open to interpretation, not a list of specific behaviors such as biting or hitting. To explore this, let’s begin by thinking more closely about pro-social behavior.

    Pro-social behavior begins long before children are able to share toys or say “please” and “thank you.” Think of pro-social behavior as positive, relationship-building interactions, or more generally as behavior that helps children flourish into emotionally intelligent beings. Important interactions begin at birth and children need nurturing and responsive relationships to learn pro-social behavior. You will learn more about nurturing and responsive relationships in Lesson Two of this course and can also refer to the Social & Emotional Development and Positive Guidance courses.

    Pro-social behavior and relationship-building interactions do not have universal definitions; their meaning is not clear-cut. Think about the different family and cultural norms of the children you care for and how this affects children’s understanding of relationships. For example, when some families spend time together they interact by having heated debates, talking over one another, and playing “devil’s advocate” to each other’s ideas. This is how they engage in each other’s lives. In this type of family culture, too much agreement or going with the flow of others’ ideas is viewed as a lack of interest and care. Children from families where this is the norm may interact with other children and staff in this same manner while in your program because this is what they experience at home. If this is not your cultural or familial experience, you may interpret this behavior as hostile or disrespectful and you may think of this as challenging behavior. If this is more similar to your experience, you may more fully understand how this type of interaction strengthens relationships within this cultural context.

    Common Childhood Behavior

    You likely have firsthand familiarity with the “terrible two” phase, demanding preschoolers, and rude back talk from tweens. While these behaviors may be challenging for some caregivers, they are typical for children and best addressed through positive guidance and relationship-based support. Behaviors communicate messages about what children think and feel and are a reflection of their environments. Keep in mind that people, practices, activities, cultures, biases, physical design, and routines all make-up the environment.

    You should expect for children to engage in some “difficult” behavior, and you can think of this as developmental progress or children learning new skills. For example, during the transition from infancy to toddlerhood, most children are no longer satisfied with only playing with the toys and objects within their immediate reach. Instead toddlers are busy beings who explore their environments and show their independence by “testing” limits and often resisting help. This can be particularly challenging for some caregivers. Understand that this type of behavior, while it may feel challenging, is necessary for children to learn to problem-solve and develop secure attachments. Review other examples of developmentally appropriate behaviors in the chart below, and think about the skills or understanding children gain from each.

    Age Group

    Developmentally Appropriate Behavior

    Pre-mobile infants

    • Crying to communicate needs
    • Cluster feedings or occasional increase in the need to eat

    Mobile infants​

    • Taking toys from others
    • Mouthing toys
    • Climbing or crawling on others
    • Knocking things down (block structures, etc.)
    • Stranger anxiety or refusing to go to unfamiliar adults


    • Biting
    • Saying “No”
    • Getting into everything
    • High levels of activity; rarely sit still
    • Insisting on doing things independently (“I can do it by myself”)
    • Whining or crying
    • Claiming “Mine!” even when an item does not belong to them


    • Fears and vivid imaginations (fear of the dark, fear of monsters, etc.)
    • Telling others what to do
    • “Tattling” or telling on others

    Young school-age

    • Overly concerned with fairness
    • Uses sex differences as the basis for play decisions or excluding others from play (“No boys allowed”)
    • Lying or stretching the truth
    • “Tattling” or telling on others
    • “Cheating” at games or getting upset and not wanting to play

    Older school-age

    • Avoiding adults and preferring peers
    • Talking back
    • Experimenting with swear words and “adult” behaviors
    • Wanting to appear “cool” to peers

    Developmentally Appropriate Behavior: More than Milestones

    The chart above describes common examples of developmentally appropriate behavior, however; it is impossible to list the entire wide-range of typical behaviors that are the result of children’s diverse experiences. You can find developmental milestone information throughout the Virtual Lab School, but developmentally appropriate behavior is more than the milestones children typically achieve at specific ages. While milestones are important to know, children’s abilities, disabilities, social identities (race, ethnicity, and gender, among others), cultural and familial experiences, interests, and languages all affect their behavior. If you think about these factors, every child in your program has a unique profile; therefore, developmentally appropriate behavior is specific to each child (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2019). This means that behavior that is developmentally appropriate for one child may not be for all children.

    Factors that contribute to Children's Behavior: Interests, Disabilities, Cultural and familial experiences, language, social identity, abilities.

    Let’s use language diversity to think more about the individual nature of developmentally appropriate behavior. You likely care for children from multilingual families who speak English, or Spanish, and other languages. Sometimes, especially if these children visit family in non-English speaking environments for extended periods of time, multilingual children may only speak their families’ home language when they return to primarily English-speaking environments such as a child care program. They may refuse to respond to questions and requests in English or only respond in their home languages. While this is developmentally appropriate behavior for multilingual children, caregivers who do not have this knowledge may feel frustrated and view this as challenging behavior. This same behavior, refusing to speak when capable of doing so, is not normally typical or developmentally appropriate in monolingual children. Can you think of other examples where the expectations for children’s behavior are different?

    As you reflect on the uniqueness of each child in your care, also think about your own uniqueness. The factors that contribute to your development and learning, as well as the culture of your specific program, influence what you think of children’s behavior and how you respond. As you complete this course, reflect on your own abilities, disabilities, social identities, cultural and familial experiences, interests, and language(s).

    Balancing Act: Consistent Program Expectations and Diverse Family Practices

    While you should learn about the family practices and expectations of children while they are at home, it is equally important to have clear and consistent expectations for children’s behavior while in your program. Though most children, with time and support, can learn to flexibly shift based on the specific environment they are in (home versus child care program), your thoughtful guidance is necessary to help them understand different expectations in ways that respect families’ beliefs, culture, and identities. This guidance is key to using developmentally appropriate practice to prevent challenging behavior.

    Sometimes, child care staff may interpret developmentally appropriate practice to mean that you must cater your care of each child to the varied opinions of their families. However, this is not an either or situation, and your program can do both—it can respect family values and have clear program expectations.  Use what you know about families to inform your understanding of why children engage in certain behavior, so you can help them meet the expectations in your program. Look to your program leadership to help guide the communication of program expectations to families. In addition to simply knowing specific rules, focus on helping families understand why these expectations exist.


    There is not one universal definition or list of challenging behaviors, and children’s behavior occurs in the context of their environments. Some behaviors may feel challenging to some caregivers, despite being a normal part of development. As you listen to the experts in the video speak, reflect on your expectations for the children in your care and how your expectations influence how you define challenging behavior.

    Challenging Behaviors: An Introduction

    Listen to two experts describe challenging and developmentally appropriate behavior.

    Behaviors in the Context of Culture

    Rosemarie Allen, Ph.D. speaks about how children’s environments shape their behavior.



    Observation, Reflection, and Reappraisal: Keys to Supporting Children and Youth

    Later lessons delve further into how you can specifically observe and respond to challenging behavior, but know that observation, reflection, and reappraisal are valuable strategies caregivers use for all children and for all types of behavior.

    1. Observation allows you to think about children’s behavior without bias or opinion and determine, “What happened?”
    2. Reflection helps you understand why behavior occurred and how children’s specific environments and experiences affect their behavior. To reflect, ask yourself these questions:
      • What do I know about child development and learning?
      • What do I know about the individual child?
      • What do I know about the social and cultural context of the children I care for, myself, and my program?
    3. Reappraisal, also discussed in the Social Emotional Learning for Teachers course, is the ability to think about situations in a different way and take ownership of your viewpoint. You might think of reappraisal as seeing the glass half full rather than half empty. For example, if a teacher feels that a child’s behavior makes them feel frustrated, reappraisal of this thought might look like this: “This behavior is an opportunity to help this child learn and for me to grow my ability to support children through even the most challenging situations.”

    Know that these strategies are not only used when there is a challenge, but they also help you think about what led to desired outcomes or behaviors, too. Whether you are supporting a child with challenging behavior or thinking about how you helped a child succeed or learn a new skill, use these strategies to guide your work.

    Completing this Course

    For more information on what to expect in this course and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Challenging Behavior Course Guide

    Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.



    Read the scenario in Developmentally Appropriate Behavior: A Case Study. Then complete the questions in the Developmentally Appropriate Behavior: Reflection activity and discuss your thoughts with a colleague.  



    Share this handout on Children with Challenging Behavior with families to guide their understanding of their children’s behavior and development.


    Developmentally Appropriate PracticeThe result of intentional decisions that early childhood educators and other professionals make to promote the optimal development and learning of each and every child served
    EthnicityA large group of people who have the same national, racial, or cultural origins, or the state of belonging to such a group
    Multilingual ChildrenChildren who use more than language
    Monolingual ChildrenChildren who speak one language
    RacePerson’s self-identification with one or more social groups such as White, Black or African American, Asian, American Indiana and Alaska Native, native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, or some other race
    ReappraisalCognitive change to the meaning of emotion-invoking situations or thinking about situations in a different way




    True or False? There is a single, agreed-upon list of specific challenging behaviors in children and youth.


    When thinking about developmentally appropriate behavior in children and youth, you should consider:


    True or False? You can respect families’ values and home practices and create consistent behavior expectations in your program.

    References & Resources

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

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). CDC’s Developmental Milestones. Retrieved from

    Division for Early Childhood. (2017). Position Statement on Challenging Behavior and Young Children. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

    Hepach, R. & Warneken, F. (2018). Editorial overview: Early development of prosocial behavior: Revealing the foundation of human prosociality. Current Opinion in Psychology, 20.

    NAEYC Position Statement on Developmentally Appropriate Practice: 2019 (DRAFT). Retrieved from

    Smith, B., & Fox, L. (2003). Systems of service delivery: A synthesis of evidence relevant to young children at risk of or who have challenging behavior. Tampa, FL: Center for Evidence-Based Practice: Young Children with Challenging Behavior.