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5 Key Principles for Preventing Challenging Behavior

Your job as an early childhood educator would be a lot easier if you could count on challenging classroom behaviors to “go away” on their own—but you know that generally doesn’t happen. In fact, research has shown that without effective early intervention, challenging behaviors that begin in preschool classrooms often continue through adulthood.

The immediate effects of challenging behaviors in your classroom include demands on your attention and a regularly disrupted learning environment that can have a negative effect on every student’s ability to learn. And too often, challenging behaviors in early childhood classrooms are met with increasing levels of punishment ending with expulsion. According to a 2005 survey of 53 pre-K programs nationwide, the preschool expulsion rate was 3.2 times higher than the combined national rate for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, with African-American children twice as likely to be expelled as white or Latino children, and boys 4.5 times more likely to be expelled than girls1.

To combat these troubling disparities, more early childhood programs are adopting preventive strategies for coping with challenging behaviors. In this article, we’ll examine 5 principles—adapted from the book Early Social-Emotional Development—to keep in mind when developing a proactive approach to promoting social-emotional growth for all children.

5 Key Principles

1. Assume ALL Children Can Learn

Begin with the assumption that all children can learn and be successful in all learning environments, regardless of disposition, ability level, and other factors. Both the rate and amount of progress will vary from child to child—and not every strategy will be effective for every student—but consistent support that’s patiently applied is a reliable path towards positive social-emotional development.

For an example, read this anecdote about a 2-year-old girl named Jiao-Lin being taught to use sign language to ask for things. This is a good illustration of how diligent use of an effective learning strategy can eventually pay off. It’s also a good reminder not to assume that a child isn’t making progress or isn’t capable of learning. When you establish appropriate expectations and then couple those goals with high-quality engagement and consistently positive reinforcements and supports, you’ll likely see significant improvements in a child’s social-emotional skills and behavior.

2. Make Sure Expectations Are Clearly Stated, Appropriate, and Visible

The classroom is only one environment of several that a young child is asked to navigate during a typical day. Your behavioral expectations may not align completely with the expectations placed on that child at home, the playground, and other familiar places that make up their world. That’s why it’s important to be as clear as possible when explaining and reinforcing what’s expected of a child as they transition between different settings and activities throughout the school day.

How well are you setting expectations in your classroom? Read the following list of questions and see how many you can answer “yes” to:

    • Is every adult in the child’s life consistent with their behavioral expectations within a given setting or activity?
    • Do you clearly explain these expectations before the child enters that setting or starts that activity?
    • Do you use simple pictures and/or songs to reinforce classroom rules and expectations?
    • Are expectations realistic, developmentally appropriate, and phrased in a positive way? (For example, it’s better to say “Use walking feet” and “Use gentle hands” instead of “No running” or “No hitting.”)
    • Do you frequently remind the child of expectations in a supportive, non-disciplinary way?

3. Use Prompt Hierarchies

The goal of the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) framework is prevention, not punishment. When you concentrate on cultivating positive behaviors throughout the school day, challenging behaviors are much less likely to take root. Using a prompt hierarchy greatly increases the likelihood that a child will perform a desired task.


Take a look at this illustration of a prompt hierarchy designed to get a child to sit down. As this example shows, it’s best to begin with the least intrusive level of prompt (a gesture or motion), and then if the child fails to respond, progress through prompts of slightly increasing intensity, concluding with a full physical assist prompt if necessary.



If you’re currently using a more intrusive level of prompting with a child in your classroom, see if you can slowly work towards getting that child to respond to less intensive gestural or verbal prompts.

4. Focus Concern on the Emotion or Behavior, Not the Child

It’s helpful to remind yourself that although a child’s behaviors and emotions can be challenging or frustrating, the child is not “difficult” or “bad.” Every student has their own unique strengths, interests, and needs, and often, challenging behavior and/or emotional displays are simply how the child has chosen to get those needs met. The job of every adult in that child’s life is to help them make better, more appropriate choices.

5. Always Think of a Behavior’s Function

Think of all behavior as an attempt at communication. Every time a young child acts out or engages in a concerning behavior, they’re trying to tell you something. You first must determine what function the challenging behavior or emotion is serving before you can respond effectively.

Common behavioral functions include problem solving, attention-seeking, sensory stimulation, access to tangibles, escape/avoidance, and play or entertainment. This annotated illustration of a bird escaping from a cage is an easy way to visualize the six common functions of challenging behavior.


If it’s true that young children are trying to tell you something with their challenging behavior, it’s also true that the same behavior might serve multiple functions and could mean different things in different contexts. For example, three children who engage in biting behavior might be trying to communicate three distinct messages: “I want to stop doing this activity!” or “I’m teething and my gums hurt!” or “Give me attention!” These three children have different needs, so it wouldn’t be appropriate to respond to all three in the same way.



How can you determine a behavior’s underlying function? First, define it in objective terms (for example, “pushes peers with one or both hands” is preferable to “child behaves aggressively”) and then ask yourself a few reflective questions:

  • What is the child trying to say by acting this way?
  • Did my comments or actions before or after the behavior affect what happened?
  • Are my words and actions making it more or less likely that the behavior will re-occur?

That last one is especially important. For instance, if you repeatedly send a child to the office because she pushes her peers during storytime, you’re clearly sending her the message that all she needs to do to get out of a disliked activity is push someone. When a child repeats a challenging behavior, that’s probably because it’s working!

Once you’ve reflected on the challenging behavior, the next step is to gather data from close observation of the child throughout the school day until telltale patterns begin to emerge. Using this Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence table as a guide, consider the context in which the behavior occurs, as well the contributing role any adults or peers might have played in what happened before and after the incident.

Once the function of the behavior has been identified, it’s up to you and other early childhood professionals in the classroom to teach and reinforce more appropriate ways for the child to communicate what they need.

Keep these five principles in mind as you work toward building a preventive approach to challenging behaviors in your own classroom. For an in-depth look at the five principles discussed in this article—and much more practical guidance on fostering healthy social-emotional development in young children—check out the book Early Social-Emotional Development, by Nicole M. Edwards, Ph.D.


Gilliam, W.S. (2005). Prekindergarteners left behind: Expulsion rates in state prekindergarten systems. New York: Foundation for Child Development.

Originally published: March 2019