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Responding To Behavior That Challenges

All of us experience challenging behavior in the classroom at one time or another. It is important to be prepared to respond positively and appropriately. This lesson will introduce you to positive guidance techniques. It will also help you recognize discipline or punishment procedures that are never acceptable in your workplace.

  • Distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable guidance strategies in response to challenging behavior.
  • Describe and follow your program’s Guidance and Touch policy.
  • Use positive guidance strategies in your work with children.



Two girls are fighting over a piece of purple construction paper in the art area. They begin to yell and rip the paper out of one another’s hands. The preschool teacher, Janice, walks over and yells, “Stop.” She begins muttering, “I've had enough. You girls have been bothering each other all day.” She rips the paper out of the girls’ hands and throws it away. “If you’re going to act like little brats, then nobody gets the purple paper.”

Janice clearly felt some stress in this situation. When the girls’ behavior challenged her, she began to yell and act aggressively. She let that stress get the best of her and she reacted in a way that was not appropriate. Janice made a poor decision, but you can learn from her experience. It’s not unusual to feel stress at work. Nearly everyone does at one time or another. What matters is how we handle our stress. How do you think Janice handled her stress? What do you think she should have done differently? Can you relate to the emotions that led to her actions?

What if Janice had taken a moment to slow down and think about what was happening? How might the situation have been different if Janice had asked herself, "What is the issue? What needs to be done? What do I know about these children and their development? Can I get help from someone in this situation?” Let’s look at that scenario again, but this time let’s imagine that things went differently:

When Janice hears the girls arguing, she walks over and says, “It looks like there’s a problem over here. I heard your yelling and can see you’re both angry about the situation. What’s the problem that’s upset you two, and can we try to find a solution?” She listens to the girls explain. They each try to interrupt each other and continue fighting, but she makes sure all sides are heard. After they have explained the situation, Janice summarizes what she has heard. “It sounds like Simone wants to use the purple paper to make a card for her mom, and Destiny wants to make a picture. Simone, what do you think would be fair? Destiny, what do you think would be fair?” The girls arrive at a compromise all can agree to. Janice stays close while they begin taking action on their compromise.

What was different this time? What specific strategies did Janice use to defuse the situation? She did a lot of things really well. First, she remembered her knowledge of child development. She knew that this behavior was typical of children this age. She remained calm and modeled problem-solving strategies. She reflected the children’s emotions and redirected them to a more positive activity. Finally, she followed through to make sure the children were successful.

As you read about in a previous lesson, young children are at heightened risk for abuse and neglect. Often, this is because adults do not know what to do when a child’s behavior challenges them, and the adult makes a terrible decision. Taking the time to think through difficult situations will help you in times of stress. This can protect you and help you to make decisions that are healthy for you and the children. Knowing how to respond to behaviors that challenge directly prevents child abuse and neglect.

Why Do Children Engage in Challenging Behavior?

There are many reasons why children might engage in behavior that adults find challenging. As stated in previous lessons, sometimes the behavior that adults find challenging is part of typical development. In all cases, a child’s behavior communicates a message. It is up to adults to learn the child’s “code” and interpret the message. Here are some messages a child’s behavior might send:

  • I need your attention, but I don’t know how to ask for it.
  • I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.
  • I need help.
  • I’m bored.
  • I’m lonely.
  • I don’t feel well.
  • I’m scared.
  • I’m tired.
  • I don’t want to do that, or I don’t like that.
  • I’m overwhelmed.
  • This is a new experience, and I don't know what I should be doing.

What is Guidance?

Guidance is how we help children know what it means to be a member of our community. It is how we help children learn the expectations for behavior in a variety of settings. Guidance means helping children learn from their mistakes and make positive choices.

Guidance is not punishment. It is not about control or making children fear you. It is about knowing children and creating the best physical and social environment in which they can learn. Examples of positive guidance,

  • Be available. Let children know who they can look to for questions by being available and in close proximity.
  • Deliver consistent messages. Clear communication between adults in the room is important so children receive the same messages from all caregivers.
  • Check in with other adults in the room. Discuss how children are doing, if any challenges have been observed, or if certain children need more support.

What are Positive Guidance Techniques?

There are a variety of positive guidance techniques (Hearron & Hildebrand, 2012). All of them work best in the context of a strong relationship with each child. For preschool children, Hearron and Hildebrand (2012) recommend the following guidance techniques:

  • Appropriate expectations for children’s behavior: Child guidance begins with establishing a limited number of positively stated expectations for behavior. These expectations apply to everyone in the setting. Examples might include “be safe” or “be respectful.”
  • Managing space, time, and energy: Through guidance techniques, you create a space that promotes positive behavior. Adults arrange and rearrange the physical space and the schedule of the day to meet children’s needs. A common example is moving furniture to eliminate a large open space that children use for running. Another example is making large-group times shorter to eliminate challenging behavior as children get bored.
  • Experiences that engage the whole child: The curriculum is the foundation of everything we do. If children are bored, over-stimulated, or disinterested, they will engage in challenging behavior. Busy learners don’t have time for challenging behavior!
  • Maximizing our relationships: Guidance is based on relationships. Strategies develop as you get to know the children, observe them, watch their play, and listen to their stories. It is based on finding the positive attributes of every child and recognizing them. Spend “neutral” time with children, just listening, playing, and enjoying time together.
  • Expressing feelings: A teacher supporting a child in expressing their feelings and problem-solving might say, “I can tell you’re sad about cleaning up right now, but it’s not safe for you to stay here by yourself. Would you like to write a note to let others know you are saving your work for later?” Teachers should also be genuine when expressing their own feelings. You can do this by saying, “What you’re doing makes me feel scared. I don’t think it’s safe. Let’s do this instead….”
  • Notice and recognize positive behaviors: An important part of positive guidance is encouragement. Notice and describe accomplishments or positive behaviors in children to reinforce appropriate behaviors. You might say, “Jonah, I bet you are really proud of yourself for solving that problem….” Or “I noticed that you gave Sonya a turn on the computer. She really appreciated that. Thank you.”
  • Provide short, clear directions: Use a natural tone of voice and make eye contact. Check in to make sure children understood.
  • Provide choices: Whenever possible, offer children a choice. You can let children decide where they will play, what they will play (e.g., build a castle or a farm in the block area), how they will do something (sit or stand at the art easel), the order they will do things in (first block area then water table), and with whom they do things.
  • Redirect children to appropriate behaviors : When a challenging behavior occurs, adults must know how to get the child back on track. “No,” “stop,” and “don’t” do little to help a child know what to do. An example of a positive redirection is, “Keep the water in the table” or “Walk in the hall.”
  • Use gestures, pictures, or other cues to help children understand : You might point to a picture schedule on the wall to help a child move to a new activity.
  • Facilitate social problem-solving: Help children know what to do when they have a problem. Help them learn to recognize their problem, come up with solutions, make a decision, and try it out. As children get older, you can prompt them to initiate this process and support them as they work through social problems. Young children will likely need more help with finding possible solutions to try.
  • Tune Into Children's Temperament: A child’s temperament can influence their ability to manage feelings and cope with stress. They may need extra time and guidance based on their temperament.

Unacceptable Forms of Guidance 

You have a professional responsibility to keep children safe from harm. This includes emotional, psychological, and mental harm. There are certain types of guidance that have the potential to inflict harm and model aggression. When we use aggressive techniques with children, they and their families learn that aggressive responses to behavior are OK. That is not the message we want to send children and families. The following practices have no place in child development programs:

  • Corporal punishment: You may not, under any circumstances, strike, hit, whip, spank, or use any other form of physical punishment on a child of any age.
  • Withholding physical needs: You may not, under any circumstances, withhold food, sleep, physical activity or other needs like toileting from a child as punishment.
  • Yelling, shaming, belittling, or threatening a child: You may not, under any circumstances, intentionally make a child fear for his or her physical or psychological safety. You may not call children hurtful names, threaten children, or make children feel shame.
  • Isolating a child: You may not punish a child by leaving him or her alone (i.e., leaving a child on the playground alone because he did not line up with the group) or by putting the child in “time out” in an enclosed space like a closet, restroom, or cardboard box.
  • Binding or restricting a child’s movements: You may not punish a child by preventing him or her from being able to move or speak (i.e., strap a child into a chair, so he cannot leave group time; covering a child’s mouth or hands with tape).

Your program has Guidance and Touch policies. It is your responsibility to read these policies and to understand them. In the Identification and Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect course, you worked with your manager to learn about these policies. It's a good idea to review them now and again regularly as you begin your work with children. Make sure you can answer these questions:

  • What guidance practices are not acceptable in my workplace?
  • What are the boundaries for touch between staff members and children?
  • Who can I go to if I have questions?


As you begin observing and working in classrooms, you will see a lot of guidance strategies. It is important to learn to discriminate between acceptable and unacceptable guidance strategies. The table below provides examples of each. Remember, the behaviors you see listed might be challenging to adults, but they are typical behaviors for preschool children.

Acceptable and Unacceptable Guidance Strategies




Scenario A: Lunch

A child is acting silly and playing with his food at lunch.


Wrong Way to Respond

A teacher throws his lunch away and tells him to go sit in the bathroom (where he can't see the other children) until the other children finish eating.


Right Way to Respond

A teacher makes a game out of taking tastes of different foods.



Scenario B: Roughhouse

Two boys are pretending to fight and roughhouse on the carpet.


Wrong Way to Respond

A teacher makes the boys write the words "Be Safe" for five minutes.


Right Way to Respond

A teacher suggests different activities to the children (“Braden, there’s a spot at the water table. Dan, come help me set the table for snack.”) 

Playground Slide


Scenario C: Playground Slide

Children are running up the slide on the playground.


Wrong Way to Respond

A teacher closes the playground and does not allow the class to go outside for a week.


Right Way to Respond

A teacher stands near the slide and reminds children to slide down.

Group Time


Scenario D: Group Time

A child does not want to sit at group time.


Wrong Way to Respond

An adult restrains the child on her lap while he kicks and screams.


Right Way to Respond

The teacher offers another choice for the child to do instead of group time or changes group time so it is interesting to him.



Scenario E: Scratching

A child scratches another child's face.


Wrong Way to Respond

A teacher threatens to get out a belt and whip the child.


Right Way to Respond

The teacher separates the children, comforts the victim, tends to the child’s wounds, and keeps children safe until the issues that sparked the fighting can be addressed.

Now watch experts talk about positive child guidance.

Positive Child Guidance: Preschool

Learn about guiding preschoolers' behavior


The following strategies will help you remain positive and create a caring community:

  • Remember that children (and families) are always watching. You are a role model even when you think no one is watching. The way you respond to children and to stressful situations is important.
  • Keep a copy of your program’s Guidance and Touch policy near other information that you share with families. If revisions are made, make sure you have the most recent version of the policy.
  • Practice positive guidance. Ask your trainer, administrator, or a co-worker to observe your work with children. Ask for feedback on whether you provide positive directions, how many positive comments you make, how many negative comments you make, etc. Set a goal to say four positives for every negative.
  • If you get overwhelmed, step away from the situation. Make sure children are safe, and never leave a room out of ratio. Simply step away to a different part of the room, or ask another adult to take over what you were doing. Everyone needs a break sometimes. You can even model anger-management techniques by saying, “I’m going to go take a deep breath and come back ready to help you think of some solutions to this problem.”
  • Watch your words. Harsh or critical words stick with us. Children are especially vulnerable because they look up to you. Make sure you use words that encourage and support. Do not use words that shame, belittle, or insult a child.
  • Read the resources in the Apply section. They were designed for families, but the ideas are just as valuable for new staff members. Use the tips you read there as you work with children, and share the materials with families.


In a previous course, you learned about institutional abuse. You learned that abuse and neglect can occur in your program. For some people, it can be difficult to distinguish between practices that violate your program’s Guidance policy and practices that could be abusive. In the Continuum of Guidance: OK or Not OK? activity below, you will practice distinguishing between the two. Read each scenario and mark where you think it falls on the continuum. Share your answers with your trainer, coach, or administrator. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.


We can all use resources to help us respond to challenging behavior. The Preschool Guide below is great for your own professional library or to share with families. This guide and more are available from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL; and print it. Use what you learn to help you guide children’s behavior.


Picture Schedule:
A way of using photos, drawings, or other visuals to show the sequence of the day’s activities


Laszlo is crying and following his teacher around. What might his behavior be communicating? Choose the best answer.
Deandra spends time sitting and talking to each child every day. What guidance technique is she using?
Which of the following statements is not a good way to recognize, praise, or encourage positive behavior?
Which of the following guidance practices is never OK? Choose the best answer.
Marissa just hit another child. Which of the following is an appropriate guidance strategy?
References & Resources

Hearron, P. F., & Hildebrand, V. (2012). Guiding Young Children. Columbus, OH: Pearson.

Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning: