Shame-free, supportive responses to children's challenging behavior

Originally written for Famly, with a few small edits. A digital platform for early educators and families to collaborate, share the workload, and nurture children together

For a moment, imagine a child in your home or classroom having a tantrum and knocking down a block tower built by a friend, sibling or peer. This event has most likely caused heightened emotions amongst the children and adults in your home or education program.

Will you approach the situation with a quick reaction, or thoughtful response? When challenging behaviors cause our patience to run thin, it’s easy to be quick to react. However, it’s much more advantageous for our children and ourselves if we lean in with a thoughtful, calm response.

Before getting into specific steps for finding your calm during those challenging events, I’ll begin by examining ways to create a classroom environment that is physically and emotionally safe, predictable, and consistent with clear expectations for everyone. 

Creating a safe and positive space is important from the moment a child steps foot into your education setting; the same goes for your home environment. A positive environment supports a calmer, more trusting, compassionate and empathetic atmosphere. 

How your home or learning environment shapes a child's behavior

To offer supportive responses to children’s challenging behavior, we’ve got to set ourselves up for success in advance. In early childhood, helping children with challenging behavior isn’t just a matter of your in-the-moment response. It's also about how you set up and structure your learning environment.

To provide that in the early years, we need to focus on:

  • Positive, engaged relationships: Building relationships with your children helps them feel a sense of safety and trust. We can do this by learning about each student individually and sharing parts of ourselves with them, as well. These may sound like simple steps, but they show a mutual respect and help us connect with our students.
  • A consistent home or classroom routine: Children thrive in an environment with routines. Home and classroom routines bring feelings of safety, security and a greater sense of calm for children. The predictability of routines helps set expectations and lead to better cooperation and regulation. Children can learn to follow routines from a very young age, and posting visuals around your home or classroom will support children in learning to follow routines. 
  • Teaching social-emotional skills: Social-emotional skills are a vital part of teaching children at any age. It is extremely important to begin teaching our youngest learners about reading their own and other’s body cues, emotional vocabulary to better express themselves, and regulation strategies to support dealing with tough emotions. Teaching explicit social-emotional skills can happen throughout the day in your own home or classroom. Whether it's a part of a curriculum, naturally occurring events taking place and using them as teachable moments, or even implementing daily morning meetings to check-in with how children are feeling. FeelLinks dolls are a unique, colorful, cuddly hands-on tool for children of any age to use for checking-in with their body cues and communicating how they are feeling.

The critical difference between reacting and responding

When you find yourself in a situation where you're dealing with challenging behavior, there's a difference between reacting and responding to the situation. This may seem like just a matter of wording, but in early childhood education, it makes all the difference for a supportive response.

Reacting is based in the moment, when we don’t consider the long-term effects of our response. It’s often a defense mechanism, where one’s tough actions are met with another tough action. Reacting doesn’t work well when a child is experiencing tough emotions, thoughts, or behaviors. In most cases, it will not lead to calm for the child or the adult. What we really want to do is respond instead of quickly reacting, which can be difficult, especially when our own emotions are heightened.

Responding is when we think before acting, are deliberate with our actions, considerate of our own and other’s well-being, weigh any long-term effects, and do so in line with our core values. Calm is contagious - as we approach with calm, we are helping our child become more calm. We are modeling what we want them to learn.

Step by step: Responding in the moment to challenging behavior 

Let’s get into those action steps on what to do in those tricky events when challenging behaviors arise, and everyone’s emotions are overwhelmed.

1. Take a breath, and keep your calm: If you remain calm, it’s more likely that you will lend that calm to your student. Be a warm, responsive adult, show up to the child with respect and empathy. Take a breath and pause, think about your response and how it will affect the student. Even a three-second pause can make a big difference in responding calmly.

2. Lean in, kneel down and listen: Get on the same physical level as the child. This helps children feel safer and more in control, and communicates to the child that you are ready to connect and listen. This is a time for you to listen to the child, paying attention to what they are communicating. While you are observing behavior on the outside, the child is feeling big emotions on the inside. Gaining an understanding of those emotions is critical.

3. Validate children’s feelings: Actively listen to what the child is sharing with you, this lets them know that you respect and value them under all circumstances. Continue on with a warm tone of voice, using simple language to help process the events. Use non-verbal cues such as nodding, and refrain from disregarding or disagreeing with the feelings they are expressing; they are very real to them. Validating a child’s feelings lets them know that all feelings are okay and accepted, even the tough ones.

"Acknowledging isn't agreeing with or condoning our child's actions; it's validating the feeling behind them." - Janet Lansbury

Managing those big emotions

To help children build up their emotional regulation, we’ve got to begin with co-regulation and work towards self-regulation. 

Co-regulation is a supportive, soothing process between an adult and a child. This includes your affect, tone, and gestures in approaching a child with heightened emotions. Young children, especially, need this support as they are learning coping skills through your modeling and teaching.

In daily classroom practice, co-regulation can take many forms. Here are some common examples:

Eventually, all of our teaching and modeling will support children in knowing how to self-regulate. Self-regulation is when one is able to self-soothe and manage their emotions by responding rather than reacting.  Learning to self-regulate emotions is an important life skill. Supporting children to develop these skills from a young age sets them up for current and future successes in life – in school, work, relationships, and overall physical, emotional, and mental health.

Looking ahead: Success in bouncing back from challenging behaviors

In the bigger picture, our in-the-moment responses shape how children learn to steer their own emotions and respond to others. When we set social-emotional development as a learning goal, it’s important to give children these key ingredients:

  • Problem-solving skills: Once a child is feeling calm, their thinking brain is able to process language, and it’s time to reflect and problem-solve. Giving children the opportunity for problem-solving at a young age helps them grow, gain confidence, and sets them up for solving bigger challenges as they mature. Children’s play provides plenty of opportunities for problem-solving. You can teach problem-solving strategies through explicit social-emotional instruction so that children can use the skills when those tricky events arise.   
  • Emotional resilience: Is your student ready to move on and get back to their activity? Bouncing back from tough emotions can be difficult. Building emotional resilience in children comes along with your connection, teaching and modeling. Children can develop an understanding that tough emotions don’t last forever, they are able to overcome them, and then move on.

Let’s go back and revisit the scenario from the beginning - the child in having a tantrum and knocking down a block tower built by a friend, sibling or peer. With everyone experiencing heightened emotions, you can appreciate and understand the value in responding with a calm demeanor. Take a breath and remember that you want to act in ways that are in line with your core values and support the social skills and behaviors you want to see from your children. 

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