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By Grace Sawyer

Children’s relationships with their primary caregivers are foundational to their emerging social-emotional development (Morris et al., 2007), which intersects with children’s challenging behavior (DEC, 2017). The Division for Early Childhood’s position statement on challenging behavior outlines five practices practitioners can use to partner with families to address challenging behaviors (DEC, 2017). Practitioners serving military families with young children should consider how these strategies may apply during all phases of deployment. Tips and examples are provided for each of the five strategies.

  1. Respect and affirm families’ cultures and identities.
    • Culture influences behavior and values in complex ways, affecting behaviors such as how children demonstrate interest or attention, their comfort/discomfort with physical proximity to others, and how much risk is permitted during play (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2022). Practitioners should work closely with families to learn about and affirm their culture (DEC, 2017).
      • A preschool teacher on a home visit could ask a child’s grandmother about her grandson’s strengths and favorite activities. The teacher could also inquire about how she and the child’s mother address challenging behavior when it arises.
  2. Have conversations with families about their strengths. When practitioners use interventions focused on families’ strengths, families report feeling more confident in supporting their children (Keilty et al., 2022).
    • Begin conversations by noting family members’ strengths in supporting their children.
    • Invite families to share family strengths from their own perspectives.
    • In every interaction with a family, mention their child’s positive behaviors or characteristics at least once.
      • A home-based childcare provider writes a daily note for every child, documenting ways the children were helpful or kind. The provider debriefs with families at pickup and always mentions the children’s positive behaviors.
  3. Share information. This practice supports practitioners and families alike by fostering mutual understanding and knowledge. When sharing information, use families’ preferred forms of communication (Hemmeter et al., 2021).
    • Ask families how they prefer to exchange information (i.e., text, notes, phone calls).
    • Translate communication into families’ home languages whenever possible.
    • Ensure that families also have a means of sharing information.
      • A bulletin board next to the sign-in book may be a convenient place to offer information to families, however, it inhibits bi-directional communication. The lead teacher may consider being available for phone conversations with families, as needs arise.
    • Some child behaviors can be both challenging and Practitioners can support families in recognizing developmentally appropriate behaviors versus atypical behaviors in their young children. Practitioners who serve military families may be especially mindful of this, as a service member may expect a greater degree of compliance from their child than is developmentally appropriate.
      • A 15-month-old biting another child if a toy is taken from them is developmentally appropriate for their age and social-emotional development (CSEFEL, n.d.). This does not mean that practitioners should allow the biting to persist, but they can encourage families to respond with empathy. Practitioners might help families arrive at a response to biting, such as firmly stating, “Biting hurts!” and discussing the child’s emotional state. A practitioner could model to families, “They took your toy. That made you mad! But biting hurts!”
  4. Be flexible and responsive to families’ needs and choices.
    • Families’ needs, like children’s behaviors, may change over time. Practitioners should accommodate families as their needs evolve.
      • Timothy’s Head Start teacher has spent hours over the past week thinking of potential solutions for his social isolation. When his mother arrives for their planning meeting, she immediately shares that she recently lost her job and apartment. She vents about these recent struggles. Timothy’s teacher sets the materials aside and listens to the mother’s concerns. Afterward, she asks if Timothy’s mother would like to explore social supports (e.g. emergency housing) together.
      • Alana’s early intervention providers have sessions with the family on Tuesdays during lunchtime to work on making requests and fine motor skills. After Alana’s mother is deployed, Alana has a harder time separating from her father during childcare dropoff and bedtime. When her father attempts to leave the room, she cries, runs toward him, and clings to his legs. The providers agreed to have sessions at Alana’s bedtime to observe the routine and problem-solve with Dad.
    • Some families may use punitive responses (e.g., threatening, physical punishment) when their children engage in challenging behavior. However, these responses do not yield long-term benefits and can be damaging to young children (Durrant & Ensom, 2012; Rajyaguru et al., 2018). Practitioners must be responsive to these choices when families engage in them or discuss them, approaching families from a place of empathy rather than shame. Practitioners can coach families to use positive behavior techniques instead.
  5. Collaborate with families to design interventions and supports. Family members know themselves and their children best, so they should be contributors to intervention planning.
    • Learn how families address challenging behavior, what motivates their child, and areas where their child needs support.
    • Brainstorm strategies with families, focusing on ones that could work at home, in the community, and/or in the classroom.
      • Lian’s IFSP team creates an IFSP outcome to help Lian transition away from fun activities at church, daycare, and home.

Practitioners can and should collaborate with families to support children who engage in challenging behavior. These five practices may enhance family partnerships while reducing challenging behaviors.

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


CSEFEL. (n.d.). Responding to your child’s bite. Vanderbilt University.

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

Durrant, J., & Ensom, R. (2012). Physical punishment of children: Lessons from 20 years of research. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 184(12), 1373-1377.

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

Keilty, B., Trivette, C., & Gillespie, J. (2022). Parent agency in promoting child learning: Family perceptions of focusing on family strengths during early childhood assessment and planning practices. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 20(3), 397-412.

Morris, A. S., Silk, J. S., Steinberg, L., Myers, S. S., & Robinson, L. R. (2007). The role of the family context in the development of emotion regulation. Social development (Oxford, England), 16(2), 361–388.

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.

NCPMI. (2023). The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations. University of South Florida.

Rajyaguru, P., Moran, P., Cordero, M., & Pearson, R. (2018). Disciplinary parenting practice and child mental health: Evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 58(1), 108-116.