Skip to main content

Helping Staff Respond 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 help staff members respond positively and appropriately. This lesson will introduce you to positive guidance techniques. It will also help you recognize behaviors that are never acceptable amongst staff in your workplace.

  • Distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable guidance strategies in response to challenging behavior.
  • Describe and enforce your program’s Guidance and Touch policy.
  • Observe and provide feedback on positive guidance strategies.



Every staff member will encounter challenging behavior at some point. In fact, many child development professionals identify responding to challenging behavior as their number one professional development need. Your role is to help staff members feel confident about their abilities to respond to challenges; you are a supporter, a teacher, and a role model. You help staff members respond to challenges by teaching them about positive guidance and helping them understand the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate responses to behavior.

Teach Positive Guidance Techniques

First, you must teach staff members what guidance is. Guidance is how staff members help children know what it means to be a member of your community. It is how they help children learn the expectations for behavior in a variety of settings. It means helping children learn from their mistakes and make positive choices.

You must also teach staff members what guidance is not . Guidance is not punishment. It is not about control or making children fear adults. It is about knowing children and creating the best physical and social environment in which they can learn.

There are a variety of positive guidance techniques that you must teach staff members. All of the techniques 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 early childhood work by Hearron and Hildebrand (2013). Be sure you teach staff members the following techniques and enforce them in your program:

Appropriate expectations for children’s behavior: Rules, expectations, or guidelines help create a positive social climate in your program. All of the staff and management in your program might work together to develop the expectations. Alternatively, staff members might involve children in developing rules and expectations. 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.”

Managing space, time, and energy: 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 used for running. Another example is providing many activity choices, so wait time is minimized or used productively. Teach staff to look at their environments (physical and temporal) first when a child has a problem in the setting. Help them see how the organization of space or time influences the decisions children make.

Experiences that engage the whole child: Curricular programming is the foundation of everything you do in your program. If children are bored, over-stimulated, or disinterested, they will engage in challenging behavior. Busy learners don’t have time for challenging behavior! Teach staff members how to use your curriculum or programming and observe regularly to ensure they are using materials effectively and well.

Maximizing our relationships : Guidance is based on relationships. Strategies develop as you and staff members 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. Make sure staff members spend “neutral” time with children, just listening, playing, and enjoying time together.

Expressing feelings: Adults who help children express their feelings nurture empathy . 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?” Adults must also be genuine and express their 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.” You might say to a staff member, “I’m really disappointed that we didn’t get the new playground equipment. We’ll try again next time.”

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.” Teach them how to stop and notice all the positive behaviors that happen each day. Provide positive feedback to staff members when they encourage a child.

Provide short, clear directions: Staff members use a natural tone of voice and make eye contact. They check in to make sure children understood. Teach staff members to tell children what to do instead of what not to do.

Provide choices: Whenever possible, staff members offer children a choice. This promotes independence and self-regulation. It also minimizes challenging behavior. Any time staff members have to say “No,” you might suggest they offer two acceptable choices to children. For example, they 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.”

Facilitate social problem-solving: Staff members help children know what to do when they have a problem. They help them learn to recognize their problem, come up with solutions, make a decision, and try it out. Teach staff members about the resources available to help them do this work (see the Apply section of Lesson 3).

Prevent Inappropriate Responses to Challenging Behavior

You and all the staff members in your program 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 staff members 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. You must make sure staff members know that the following practices have no place in child and youth programs:

  • Corporal punishment : Staff 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 : Staff 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 : Staff may not, under any circumstances, intentionally make a child fear for his or her physical or psychological safety. Staff may not call children hurtful names, threaten children, or make children feel shame.
  • Isolating a child : Staff 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 : Staff 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).

In the Child Abuse Identification and Reporting course, some staff members were offered a clear table of behaviors that were “OK and Not OK.” It is worth repeating those concepts now because they are critically important, and this is a clear way to communicate your expectations with new staff members. Also help staff members understand that consent is an important part of all touch. From infancy through childhood, encourage staff members to describe touch and get consent (“Would you like a hug?” or “Shall we change your diaper? I’m unfastening your diaper and wiping your skin.”) Staff should describe their movements and check-in to make sure the touch is OK.

Touch that can be OKTouch that is not OK
  • Reassuring touch: Pat on the shoulder or upper back, tousling hair, holding the hand of a young child, gently rubbing the upper back to calm a child
  • Hugging gently if the child is comfortable or initiates
  • Holding the hand of a child for safety or reassurance (i.e., as you cross the street)
  • Moving a child’s fingers to help him hold a musical instrument or play a sport
  • Helping a child stand up who has fallen on the playground
  • Tending to an injured child’s wound
  • Patting on the buttocks or any touch to a child’s genitalia or “private parts” (including fondling and molestation)
  • Hugs that are romantic, intimate, or forced upon the child
  • Forcing goodbye kisses
  • Corporal punishment
  • Slapping, striking, or pinching
  • Tickling for prolonged periods
  • Any behavior that is romantic, intimate, or flirtatious: holding hands romantically, sitting on laps, cuddling on furniture, lifting or carrying youth as part of roughhousing, etc.
  • Touching any child or youth who does not want touched
  • Any touch that satisfies the adult’s needs at the expense of the child


Your program has a Guidance and Touch policy. In the Identification and Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect course, you learned about this policy. It is your responsibility to help management enforce this policy. It is a good idea to review it now and again regularly as you work with staff. 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?
  • What do I do if a staff member crosses a boundary?
  • Who can I go to if I have questions about something I saw in a classroom or program?


Model a positive approach to behavior in all your interactions with children and staff. Be intentional about how you talk to children, families, and staff:

  • State directions in the positive (what to do instead of what not to do). Model this behavior with everyone you see. This makes a big difference in the overall climate of your program. When you see children moving too quickly in the hallway, say, “Walk safely please” instead of “Stop running.” Imagine telling a staff member, “Don’t turn in your lesson plan late again.” This sends the message to the staff member that you think they might turn the plan in late. Send positive messages by saying, “Remember your plans are due tomorrow.” This also opens an opportunity to ask if the staff member needs any support.
  • Recognize staff for their efforts and achievements. Provide positive feedback individually (“You did so much research on rocks for this week’s investigation. It really paid off in the classroom when the kids started brainstorming what they wanted to learn.”). Consider ways to motivate staff members through recognition bulletin boards or newsletters.
  • Follow and talk about the rules or expectations set by your program. For example, you might model thanking staff members in an intentional way (“Thanks for being a team player”; “Thanks for helping keep kids safe on the playground today. It meant a lot that you stepped in to provide coverage and supervision”) or you might model following program expectations in front of children and youth (“I’m going to go help Ms. M with lunch. I want to be a team player.”). This helps set the tone for safe, stable, and nurturing environments. Focus on the ways
  • Offer staff choices whenever possible. Whenever you can, provide choices about classroom assignments, scheduling, classroom materials, and planning. Also consider whether there are different ways staff can get feedback: do they want you to send them an email about their weekly plans, or do they want to talk in person?
  • Coach staff around their interactions with children. Observe all the strategies described in the Teach section. Help staff members notice the details of their interactions, and describe the effect their behavior had on children.

Watch this video to learn more about supporting staff.

Supporting Staff around Positive Guidance

Learn how you can help staff support children's behavior


As you begin observing programs, you will see a range of guidance strategies. It is important to learn to discriminate between acceptable and unacceptable guidance strategies. The tables below provide examples of each for infants and toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children.

Infants & Toddlers



A toddler bites another child who has taken his toy.A caregiver comforts the victim, tends the child’s wounds, and helps the child who bit use more positive interactions. She stays close and steps in if it looks like the child will bite again. If the problem persists, she works with her team to develop a plan.A caregiver threatens to "bite the child back" herself or encourages the other child to do so.
An infant refuses a bottle and then immediately cries and acts hungry.A caregiver notes that a bottle was offered on the feeding log and remembers to try again later.A caregiver forces the bottle into the child's mouth.
A toddler keeps getting out of his chair at snack time although he is not finished eating.A caregiver says, "First eat, then play." She offers the choice to eat or clean up.A caregiver finds a chair with a seatbelt and restrains the child in his chair (although he is physically capable of sitting safely).




A child is acting silly and playing with his food at lunch.A teacher makes a game out of taking tastes of different foods.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.
Children are running up the slide on the playground.A teacher stands near the slide and reminds children to slide down.A teacher closes the playground and does not allow the class to go outside for a week.
A child scratches another child's face.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.A teacher threatens to get out a belt and whip the child.




Two boys are pretending to fight and roughhouse on the carpet.The staff member redirects the children to a different activity or an active sport.The staff member makes the boys write the words "Be Safe" for five minutes.
A child will not line up to begin the walk from his school to the after-school program.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.).The staff member grabs the child by the arm and pulls him into line.
A 5-year-old has an accident and soils his pants.The staff member helps the child to the restroom without drawing attention to the accident and gets the child a change of clothes.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."

The first question is: How can you prevent these inappropriate guidance strategies from happening? There are a variety of things you can do:

  • Work with management to ensure staffing and break schedules are supportive. Stress and fatigue can lead to bad decisions. Make sure that your program’s safe, stable, and nurturing environment extends to staff, as well as children and families. Make sure staff get adequate breaks, have a supportive mentor to talk to, and can meet their physical needs throughout the day.
  • Role play with staff members. During team meetings, ask staff members to practice responding to behavior that challenges. Assign one staff member to be the “teacher” and one or two others to be the “children.” Give the children specific behaviors to engage in (whining, ignoring, being aggressive, etc.). It can be instructive to ask staff members to act out a mild “wrong way” to respond first. This lets them explore the range of responses and shows you what they know about appropriate and inappropriate responses. Debrief how that felt for the "child” and what impact it had on behavior. Then have them talk about what they could do instead. Have them role play a positive, appropriate response.
  • Discuss scenarios. Print a few of the scenarios from the tables above and read them to staff members. Play a game of “What would you do if…” Ask them to talk about what they would do if they saw a co-worker use one of the unacceptable practices.
  • Arrange times for new staff members to observe in excellent classrooms or programs. Give new staff members an assignment to write down how the senior staff member responds to behaviors that challenge. Debrief together about the observation.
  • Let staff members ease into responsibilities. Stay close when new staff members begin working in classrooms. Observe and provide feedback on the staff member’s interactions with children. Model how to guide children’s behavior when appropriate. Talk afterwards with the staff member about what you did.
  • Recognize staff members who managed their stress well. Praise someone for asking for a break or stepping away from a tense situation. Always respond when a staff member needs your help.
  • Use the Inventories in the Apply section to observe and provide feedback to staff members.

The next question is: What do you do when you see inappropriate guidance strategies? First, you must take action. Otherwise, you run the risk of implicitly endorsing the staff members’ behavior. In other words, they might think their behavior is OK. The specific actions you take depend on the severity of the situation and your relationship with the staff member. In most of the situations above, you should step in immediately. Think about situations like seeing a staff member hit a school-age child on the head or seeing a staff member leave an infant unsupervised. In those situations, it would be irresponsible to leave children in those staff members’ care. In other situations, you might be able to go back later and have a conversation with the staff member about more appropriate techniques. For example, the staff member who told a toddler to “Stop pushing” may not have realized how her actions and behaviors might have frightened a child. Her T&C might have a conversation about that interaction and brainstorm more appropriate ways to respond when a child takes a toy from another child. Other staff members might need you to develop an improvement plan with systematic monitoring and feedback. The school-age staff member who had boys write the rules, for example, might need specific training on positive behavior support strategies and ongoing support about using those strategies. In other cases, such as a staff member repeatedly belittling a child, disciplinary action might be required. Still other cases might result in termination from employment and/or a report of child abuse or neglect: striking a child, withholding food, leaving a child unsupervised. Work with management to decide when more intensive responses are necessary. Remember, if you suspect child abuse or neglect, you must report your suspicions of child abuse or neglect.


A great strategy for preventing inappropriate guidance practices from happening is to support staff in understanding and forming developmentally appropriate expectations of children. Use the Supporting Appropriate Expectations activity with staff during staff meetings or group training to analyze potentially concerning situations that may occur. Encourage staff to reflect on how they would and should respond in the moment.


There are many tools available to help you observe and provide feedback on staff members’ use of positive guidance techniques. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) has developed a series of Inventories of Practices. Review the Infant Toddler Practice Inventory, Preschool Practice Inventory, and School-Age Practice Inventory for strategies that promote social and emotional competence and prevent challenging behavior. For more tools from CSEFEL, please visit the following website:

The Pyramid Model Practices Implementation Checklist is a tool provided by the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI). This checklist is another option that could also be used to help support staff in preventing challenging behaviors and promoting social development. For additional resources from NCPMI, please visit the following website:


True or False. It is best to have many rules or behavior expectations for the children in your program.
Which of the following is NOT an example of a positive guidance technique?
Finish this statement: The following guidance or discipline techniques are NEVER to be used with children or youth…
Which of the following is an example of how you can model positive guidance techniques for your staff?
What do you do when you see inappropriate guidance strategies in your program?
References & Resources

Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning:

Hawkey, K.R., Hawkins, S., Jordan, A.C., Kearney, J., Wittcoff Kuhl, M., Pinna, K.L.M, … Borden, L. (2018). Safeguarding children and youth from sexual abuse: The role of organizations. Research Brief submitted to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Hearron, P. F., & Hildebrand, V. (2013). Guiding young children, 9th ed. Columbus, OH: Pearson.

Massachusetts School-Age Coalition (n.d.). School-Age child guidance technical assistance paper. Dorchester, MA: MSAC. Available from

National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI):

The University of Minnesota Center for Research and Outreach. (2020). Module 2:Physical and psychological safety research review.