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Responding To Behavior That Challenges

All professionals who work with children experience challenging behavior 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 magazine in the reading lounge. They begin to yell and rip the magazine out of one another’s hands. The school-age staff member, Janice, walks over and yells, “Stop.” She begins muttering, “I have had enough. You girls have been bothering each other all afternoon.” She rips the magazine out of the girls’ hands and throws it away. “If you’re going to act like fools, nobody gets the magazine.”

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. She calmly but firmly says, “It looks like there’s a problem here and you’re getting angry. What is the problem?” 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 magazine to make a collage, and Destiny wants to read an article. 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 acting on the 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.

Why Do School-Age Children Engage in Challenging Behavior?

There are many reasons why school-age 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; I haven’t learned the skills to navigate this situation.

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 clear in roles – Let children know who they can look to answer questions
  • Deliver consistent message – Clear communication between adults in the room is necessary so children are receiving same message
  • Check in with other adults in the room – Check in about how children in the room are doing, if any challenges are seen or if certain children need more attention.

What are Positive Guidance Techniques?

There are a variety of positive guidance techniques. All of them work best in the context of a strong relationship with each child. The following list of techniques is adapted from the Massachusetts School-Age Coalition and expands upon work by Hearron and Hildebrand (2013):

Appropriate expectations for children’s behavior: Rules, expectations, or guidelines help create a positive social climate in your program. Involve school-age children in developing rules. They will feel a sense of ownership over the program, and they will be more likely to develop rules they understand and will follow. Limit the rules or expectations to a few key ideas that apply broadly. It is easier to remember a few rules like, “Respect each other” or “Be a responsible citizen.” You must also work hard to be consistent. Fairness is very important to school-agers, and they will notice if you are inconsistent.

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 providing many activity choices, so wait time is minimized or used productively.

Experiences that engage the whole child: Curricular programming 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, and listen to them. 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 staff member might say, “I can tell you’re sad about what just happened between you and Terese. Would you like me to help you talk to Terese about it?” It is also about being genuine and expressing your own feelings. A staff member might say, “I’m feeling a little bit frustrated that I can’t get this computer program to work. I’m going to go find someone who can help us.”

Notice and recognize positive behaviors: An important part of positive guidance is encouragement. We notice and describe accomplishments or positive behaviors. A staff member 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. School-age programs are full of choices. This promotes independence and self-regulation. It also minimizes challenging behavior. Any time you have to say “No,” it can be helpful to offer two acceptable choices to children. For example, you might say, “You cannot run in here. But you can go to Zumba in the gym, or you can join Ms. Stephanie outside.”

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 scissors in the sewing area” or “Walk in the hall.” When you need to talk to a child about his or her behavior, do so privately away from other children. Avoid embarrassing children in front of their friends.

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 simply facilitate this process and be available to help them work through social problems. Young children will likely need your help coming up with possible solutions to try.

You can also be a mediator between children. Follow these four steps from the Massachusetts School-Age Coalition:

  1. Each child tells his or her side of the story without interruption.
  2. Each child describes the problem as he or she sees it and then what happened in the conflict.
  3. Children are encouraged to consider alternatives to the course of action they chose.
  4. Children agree upon a solution.

Tune Into a Child’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 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 behaviors (often used in the name of “punishment”) 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 school-age 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., covering a child’s mouth or hands with tape).

Your program has a Guidance and Touch policy. It is your responsibility to read this policy and to understand it. In the Identification and Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect course, you worked with your manager to learn about this policy. It is a good idea to review it 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 school-age children.

Acceptable and Unacceptable Guidance Strategies


Lost Backpack


Scenario A: Lost Backpack

A child lost his backpack on a field trip, and the whole bus had to wait for him while he looked for it. The boy began to pout and stomp his feet. He plopped onto a picnic table and refused to look anymore. 


Wrong Way to Respond

The staff member calls the child "stupid and forgetful." She talks about him in front of other children on the bus.


Right Way to Respond

The staff member helps him find the backpack and works with other staff members to make sure remaining children are supervised and active.



Scenario B: Profanity

An 11-year-old uses profanity towards a staff member and insults him.


Wrong Way to Respond

The staff member hits the back of the child's head and says, "Cut it out."


Right Way to Respond

The staff member remains calm and reminds the child that the program requires respectful language.



Scenario C: Roughhouse

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


Wrong Way to Respond

The staff member makes the boys write the words "Be Safe" for five minutes.


Right Way to Respond

The staff member redirects the children to a different activity or an active sport.



Scenario D: Line-Up

A child will not line up to begin the walk from his school to the after-school program.


Wrong Way to Respond

The staff member grabs the child by the arm and pulls him into line.


Right Way to Respond

The staff member says, "You can line up with your friends or walk with me. What's your choice?" The staff member gives the child a job to do (count the children, carry the basketballs, etc.).



Scenario E: Accident

A staff member asks a  5-year-old if he needs to use the restroom. He says “No”, but five minutes later he has an accident and soils his pants.


Wrong Way to Respond

The staff member shames the child in front of other children by saying, "Kids in this program don't pee their pants. You must be a baby."


Right Way to Respond

The staff member helps the child to the restroom without drawing attention to the accident and gets the child a change of clothes.

Now watch experts talk about positive child guidance.

Positive Child Guidance: School-Age Programs

Learn about guiding school-age 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. See the Apply section for ideas.
  • 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 administrator, trainer, 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 program out of ratio or leave children unattended. 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. Use the tips you read there as you work with children.





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 final answers with your trainer, coach, or administrator. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.


Caring for school-age children can be a stressful job. There will be times when you feel like children are testing the limits or challenging you. It could feel overwhelming. In these times, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself. Print and review the Managing Stress Guide below. This guide will help you identify signs of stress and steps you can take to manage stress in the program and beyond.

The guide is adapted from Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (p. 39).


How children learn to the expectations for an environment and how to regulate their own behavior


Laszlo is following the staff member around and copying everything the staff member says. He is mimicking the staff member’s body language and movements. 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. Pearson.

Massachusetts School-Age Coalition (n.d.). School-Age Child Guidance Technical Assistance Paper. MSAC. Available from

University of Minnesota REACH (2013). An overview of physical and psychological safety in youth programs.