How to Deal with Challenging Behaviors in Preschool

We’ve all been there: You’re trying to get through a lesson on the ABC’s but every time you start a new sentence, one of your students feels the need to join in about something completely unrelated.

At ChildCare Education Institute, we’ve spent the past 20+ years training educators like you to become the best possible teacher for your students. As a result, we know firsthand how difficult it can be trying to deal with challenging behaviors in preschool.

Thankfully, we’ve put together this resource to help you become an expert in how to respond to children’s challenging behavior — and learn to prevent similar outbursts in the future.

What are challenging behaviors in preschool?

As an early childhood educator, it’s no surprise that your students are still learning and growing. And, as part of that developmental journey, they’re slowly learning how to express their thoughts, regulate their emotions and interact with their environment and peers. During this time of exploration, they’re bound to have some mishaps — including some of the most common challenging behaviors in preschool like:

  • Biting
  • Temper tantrums
  • Hitting
  • Talking out of turn
  • Screaming
  • Refusing to cooperate
  • Throwing toys and/or other objects
  • Lashing out

No matter the challenging behavior, it’s crucial that you separate the problem from the child and remember that no kid is perfect (or the sum of their mistakes). Instead, it’s about helping the child understand the error of their ways, learn from it and grow in the future.

What are some tips for responding to challenging behaviors?

Now that you know what the behaviors are, it’s important to understand how to respond to children’s challenging behavior in the classroom. Some of our favorite tips include:

Remain Calm: It’s understandable to feel frustrated when one of your students is throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of your music lesson. But, if you don’t take a moment to collect your emotions, you might respond by lashing out and showing that frustration. Not only is that detrimental to your relationship with the student who is acting out (and those who are watching), but it can also encourage the student to mirror your emotions and continue acting out. Instead, take a deep breath and pause before deciding how to respond to the student. This will help you respond more rationally to the behavior, and it can serve as an example to your students on how to respond to others who act out.

Change the Setting: Challenging behaviors aren’t just annoying for you; they’re also disruptive for other students and can take away from their learning experience. With that in mind, we recommend encouraging students who are acting out to take part in another activity or move to another area, if possible. This can help contain the behavior and ensure your other students still feel supported. It can also help in de-escalating the situation. However, it’s important to let your student know why they’re being moved to another area (or taking place in a different activity) and ensure they still feel supported and attended to.

Teach Them Other Ways to Respond: Instead of simply telling your students what they’re doing is wrong, turn the moment into a learning opportunity and teach them better ways to handle the situation in the future. For example, if Johnny snatched a book out of Isaac’s hands because he wanted to look at it, let him know that in the future he should stop and ask Isaac if they can share the book instead. This will help your students learn how to better express their emotions and will help prevent them from repeating bad behaviors in the future.

Practice Positive Reinforcement: For some students, challenging behaviors may be their way of trying to get attention. That’s why it’s crucial for teachers to make a habit of recognizing when their students do good — even if it’s a small act. One of our favorite ways to do this is by instituting daily “good job rewards.” Did Sally offer to help pass out art supplies? Did Marquis notice his friend crying and come to console them? They should both be rewarded in front of the class and notes should go home to let their parents know (so they can celebrate the behavior at home). You can even go the extra mile and create a chart to display good acts throughout the week.

Let Parents Know of Recurring Challenges: Children don’t stop learning and growing when they leave the classroom. So, if you notice that one of your students is starting to have consistent behavior issues, set aside time to talk to their parents about the challenge and how they can support their child at home. By talking with their immediate family members, you might also be able to gain more insight into why the behavior is happening, which can help you better support the student in class. If necessary, make an action plan with the family about how you can both work in tandem to help their kid turn over a new leaf. This should include realistic, attainable goals along with a timeline for when those goals will be met and steps both parties will take to meet them.

Keep Routines: Another common cause of challenging behaviors in preschool is students’ inability to deal with change. Thankfully, creating and maintaining regular routines inside the classroom can help with this. At the beginning of the year, create a semi-regular schedule for each school day. For example, you can start each morning with some quiet individual assignments before moving into a larger circle time. In addition to creating regular schedule blocks, we also recommend creating transition activities to help your kiddos go from activity to activity. This sense of routine will help your students better anticipate what’s happening throughout the day and can help reduce (or eliminate) outbursts from students who don’t want to go from coloring to learning.

Reflect on Your Responses: You’re likely to experience a number of challenging behaviors over the course of your teaching career and, like your students, you can learn from each one. Create a reflection journal where you write about any behaviors you experienced that day and how you dealt with them. Are there things you could have done better? Were there techniques you found especially effective? Write them all down in your journal, so you can reflect back on them from time to time. Be sure to keep your filled-out journal at your desk so it’s easy to reference should you need to consult it in the future.

How to help a child with challenging behaviors?

Responding to challenging behaviors in preschool is only half the battle. The other half is finding out the “why” behind the behavior and helping the student grow and develop out of their bad habits.  So, when it comes to how to help a child with challenging behaviors, here are some of our top tips:

Be Clear with Expectations: One of the easiest ways to help students behave better is to be clear about what you expect from them. On the first day of school, walk your students through your classroom rules. If possible, try to explain the “why” behind each rule so they can better understand why you’re making each request. For example, you can let them know they should be quiet when the teacher is talking so that their fellow students can better hear the lesson. Then, create an easy-to-follow chart (containing plenty of graphics for younger students) that they can refer to throughout the year. When a student misbehaves, you can refer to the chart to help them understand why their challenging behavior isn’t appropriate.

Incorporate Social and Emotional Skills Training: As we mentioned, a lot of challenging behaviors in preschool occur when students are trying to express themselves but don’t know how. By incorporating regular lessons on social skills into your curriculum, you can help your students understand how to recognize their emotions and deal with them in a healthy way. The best part? Incorporating skills training into your lessons can be as simple as selecting emotions-focused books to read during storytime or doing emotions-themed worksheets and activities.

Check In Regularly with Your Students: Another answer for how to help a child with challenging behaviors is to regularly check in with them and see how they’re doing. This can be something simple like having them complete a daily feelings chart or something more in-depth like hosting morning one-on-one sessions. Whatever you choose to do, be sure to use the time to ask the child how they’re feeling and ensure they know you’re a resource for them to go to no matter what.

Promote Positive Peer-to-Peer Relationships: Having healthy peer relationships is crucial for students’ growth and development — and it can help prevent future behavior mishaps. Ensure your classroom is a place of warmth and positivity by planning activities that help your students form bonds with one another. For example, you can host regular “compliment circles” where students take turns complimenting others around them. You can also help children in your classroom bond by hosting events like show-and-tell that allow them to learn more about each other.

Provide Students with Creative Outlets: Our final tip for how to help a child with challenging behaviors is to provide them with plenty of opportunities to let their creativity shine. Whether it’s unstructured free play or finger painting sessions, being able to let out their thoughts and emotions in a constructive way will help children mature and develop. These sessions can also be combined with social and emotional skills training to provide children with a time to reflect on how they feel and how to best express those feelings.

Consider Other Accommodations: If you have a student that’s consistently showing signs of challenging behavior, it may be worth meeting with other school professionals to see if special accommodations might help. This could be moving their desk to another area of the classroom or something more in-depth like pairing them with an aid.

Create a Calm Down Area in Your Classroom: Sometimes, simply giving students an area to retreat to when they’re feeling frustrated or overwhelmed can help prevent bad behavior. That’s why we recommend turning a corner of your classroom (or a small section) into a “calm down” area. This area should be stocked with items that can help calm your students, such as stress balls and emotions cards. You can also provide students with their own journal to keep in the corner that they can fill out when they visit the space.

What resources are available to help you deal with challenging behavior in preschool?

You’re not alone in your search for how to respond to children’s challenging behavior. In fact, there are a number of resources available to help you create a more calm, stress-free classroom. Some of those include:

Mobile Crisis Intervention Services: If you have a student that appears to be going through a mental health or behavioral crisis, most states have intervention service teams that can help. These teams are trained to provide over-the-phone and sometimes in-person consultations and support. We recommend looking up the services offered in your state and printing out their contact information for easy future reference.

The Center of Excellence for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (CoE for IECMHC): CoE for IECMHC is a prevention-based support group that aims to equip caregivers with the tools and knowledge they need to support children’s healthy social and emotional development. Their consultants are available to work alongside you and come up with action plans to support specific students,

Our Online Courses: Want the answers to more of your top early education questions like how to help a child with challenging behaviors or how to respond to children’s challenging behavior? Our online courses can help! We have over 150 topics (available in English and Spanish) that touch on the issues facing teachers today. While you’re learning about how to respond to children’s challenging behavior, you can also brush up on similar topics including positive guidance and helping children cope with trauma.

So, what are you waiting for? Click here to explore all of our courses — including one on further understanding challenging behaviors in preschool — and start on your learning journey today!