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By Grace Sawyer

What is challenging behavior? Challenging behaviors are essentially children’s actions that adults find challenging. An adult’s definition of challenging behavior depends on the context (e.g., adult’s experiences, culture, values) (DEC, 2017; NAEYC, 2022). Early childhood practitioners must reflect on what they consider to be challenging behavior and counteract individual and systemic factors influencing their reaction to behavior (Gilliam et al., 2016).

The Challenge to Define ‘Challenging’

Most or all practitioners agree some behaviors are challenging (e.g., self-injury). However, children’s behavior is communicative (e.g., biting for sensory input). Additionally, just as children’s contexts influence their behavior, adults’ contexts influence their reactions to behavior. Below are examples of behaviors practitioners might find challenging:

  • Aliana hits her peers when they initiate play with her. Her preschool teacher, Mx. Lang has tried teaching Aliana the sign for ‘play,’ modeling appropriate behavior, and creating more space for independent play in the classroom. After three weeks, Mx. Lang sees no behavior changes and is not sure what to do.
  • Smith has always felt frustrated by whining in her first-grade classroom. She feels her students can communicate without using a high-pitched voice. Aniyah sometimes whines during large group. Ms. Smith is annoyed by this behavior and chooses to call on Aniyah less often, even when she raises her hand.
  • Stefan is a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). His Head Start teacher, Mr. Peter, considers Stefan’s repetitive hand flapping (i.e., stimming) a challenging behavior. Because Mr. Peter has limited knowledge of ASD, he is unaware of how Stefan’s stimming supports his full involvement in the classroom.

Reflective Questions

Consider these reflective questions on your own or with a trusted colleague:

  1. What behaviors are unacceptable in my classroom? Why don’t I want these behaviors to occur?
  2. What do I consider typical behaviors for the age of the children in my class? When I consider individual children and their broader social identities (e.g., race, ability, economic status), how does my description of “normal or typical” influence my expectations (Derman-Sparks et al., 2020)?
  3. How do my beliefs influence the behaviors I find challenging? My culture? My values?
  4. How can I involve children and families in developing expectations and rules to prevent challenging behavior (Hemmeter et al., 2021)?

Next Steps

After reflecting on your views of challenging behavior, consider implementing the following practices to support students:

  • Respond with empathy and positive guidance. Children’s behavior communicates their wants and needs; practitioners must be cautious when assigning blame to children, who are only trying to get their needs met; use empathy and offer support rather than punitive responses.
    • Lang holds a conference with Aliana’s parents to discuss her behavior. Mx. Lang explains what they have been seeing in the classroom and asks Aliana’s parents for input. Aliana’s mother looks uncomfortable during the conversation. After a few minutes, she tells Mx. Lang that she suspects it is related to some struggles the family is having at home. Mx. Lang probes for more details and asks if they can help, but Aliana’s mother states that she does not want to share details. Rather than feeling frustrated, Mx. Lang recognizes they do not need more information to understand that Aliana’s stress may be influencing her behavior. Mx. Lang and Aliana’s parents discuss how to teach Aliana emotional regulation strategies at home and school to address the behavior.

The above scenario may be especially relevant for military families. Due to operational security (OpSec) guidelines, military families may not be able to share specific information about themselves. Practitioners must consider what information they truly need to support a child and their family. Then, practitioners should only ask for the minimum information that will help them support the family without violating OpSec. In the above scenario, Aliana’s mother could be withholding information about upcoming military movements impacting the family. Practitioners should consider whether this information is really more helpful than knowing Aliana is experiencing stress, especially given that the family would have to violate OpSec to reveal it.

  • Reflect with colleagues. Addressing challenging behavior can be taxing when done alone, and practitioners often need support from others to make changes to their practice. Practitioners can utilize their program’s peer coaching network or partner with a colleague to collaboratively address challenging behaviors.
    • Despite Ms. Smith’s reduced attention during large group time, Aniyah’s whining only increased. Ms. Smith asks the other first-grade teacher, Mrs. Aguilar, to conduct a functional behavior assessment (FBA) related to Aniyah’s whining. After the FBA, Mrs. Aguilar shares her conclusion that Aniyah’s whining appears to be to obtain attention from Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith makes it a goal to call on Aniyah during large group times when Aniyah is not whining.
  • Advocate for the children in your care. Inequity does not come exclusively from individual biases; it emerges from systemic issues impacting children and families in varied ways. Early childhood practitioners can follow the Acknowledge, Ask, Adapt strategy when addressing inequities with colleagues and administrators (Derman-Sparks et al., 2020).
    • Peter’s co-teacher, Mrs. Nielsen, notices that Mr. Peter has not considered that Stefan’s stimming could be helping him stay focused. Mrs. Nielsen acknowledges the differing viewpoints, asking to discuss the matter during the teachers’ planning meeting. She asks Mr. Peter what about the stimming he finds challenging and how he wants to respond. Mr. Peter relays that he finds this behavior distracting during small group, causing him to forget what he was planning to do next. Mrs. Nielsen then shares her perspective, including her experiences working with children with ASD in her previous position. Finally, Mrs. Nielsen adapts by suggesting that Mr. Peter brings a sticky note with him to small group listing the activities he wants to cover. The co-teachers set a date to revisit this topic in two weeks after trying this solution.

Challenging behavior can be difficult to define and address because adults find different behaviors challenging. Through reflection and action, practitioners can better support their students who engage in challenging behaviors.

You can find links to helpful Tip Sheets and Resources from the Illinois Early Learning Project in this document.


Derman-Sparks, L. D., Edwards, J. O., & Goins, C. M. (2020). Anti-bias education for young children and ourselves. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Division for Early Childhood. (2017). Position statement on challenging behavior and young children.

Gilliam, W. S., Maupin, A. N., Reyes, C. N., Accavitti, M., & Shic, F. (2016). Do early educators’ implicit biases regarding sex and race relate to behavior expectations and recommendations of preschool expulsions and suspensions? Yale University Child Study Center.

Hemmeter, M. L., Ostrosky, M. M., & Fox, L. (2021). Unpacking the Pyramid Model: A practical guide for preschool teachers. Brookes.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2022). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8 (4th ed.). NAEYC Books.

National Autistic Society. (2020, August 14). Stimming – a guide for all audiences.