There are times when all children display behaviors that are less than ideal. Just as adults have “bad days”, every child has bouts of fussiness or outbursts. Common causes for such outbursts include, children asserting independence, testing boundaries, lacking communication skills, and seeking attention. Toddlers often act out as they lack the language to tell us their needs (food, a toy, etc.). During these times it is common for toddlers to tantrum, hit or even bite to express their needs and wants.


As children mature and caregivers model and teach effective ways of communicating and dealing with strong emotions, most children develop appropriate social-emotional skills to communicate with others, handle their emotions appropriately and begin to develop healthy relationships with peers. However, for some children challenging behaviors are more intense, last longer, present themselves more often and at times are developmentally inappropriate for their age. These behaviors can interfere with a child’s learning and ability to develop and keep social relationships.


If we can understand some basic ideas around challenging behavior we can understand why it is happening and ultimately we can help children learn new behaviors.


Behavior is always a form of communication. It is meant to tell us something. Without realizing it both positive and negative feelings are expressed through behavior. Think about a smile, a hug, an outburst or a tantrum expresses how an individual is feeling.


There is always a reason for challenging behaviors. Children use behavior to get something or to avoid something. Examples would include behavior to get a toy or attention, or to avoid going to bed. As a caregiver the first step to changing behavior is to ask ourselves what is this behavior communicating and what is the child wanting or avoiding.


Challenging behavior continues when it is effective. As the adult and caregiver it is important to carefully think about how we handle children’s behavior. As long as the challenging behavior works for the child to avoid something or to get something they want, they will continue to use it.


Challenging behavior often indicates that a child lacks skills in some area. When we understand the reason behind the behavior, we can not only address the challenging behavior but teach new skills that children can use to appropriately express their needs and wants. It is important that we look at both the behavior and why it is happening. All too often as caregivers we look at diminishing the behavior but forget to teach replacement/appropriate behavior. When this happens we often take away a child’s only known way of communicating. This can then lead to a child exhibiting new challenging behaviors.


We can prevent some challenging behaviors by addressing environments, routines, schedules and transitions. By having a basic schedule and regular routine, we teach children what to expect next. Children are more relaxed and have an easier time complying when a predictable routine and schedule is in place. In the environment, choose activities that are age appropriate and foster independence. When appropriate, provide choices for children, such as we can play with this toy or this one, you can hold my hand or you can walk next to me etc. Always prep children for transitions and give them plenty of warning before moving to a new activity.


It is important to model appropriate social/emotional interactions. Just like children will not learn their ABC’s in one day, appropriate behavior is also not perfected on the first try. Children need to be intentionally taught appropriate behaviors, given many reminders and lots of opportunities to practice. Here are some examples of social/emotional skills you can teach your child:

  • As adults we want to model and draw attention to turn-taking/sharing and other social skills such as comforting a friend, and what to say when an accident happens.
  • Children also need to be taught problem solving skills and how to negotiate. Start simple and let your child help you problem solve what to make for dinner.
  • As a family develop 3-6 family rules positively stated. Post the rules and review them often with young children. Examples of positive rules would include, “use walking feet,  and use kind words”.
  • Have clear and developmentally appropriate consequences when rules are not followed. Enforce them fairly and consistently with all children.
  • Focus on the positive. Draw attention to and celebrate appropriate behavior. The more we specifically praise appropriate behavior the more appropriate behavior children will exhibit.


Remember sometimes it takes a village to raise children. Not all children are the same or respond the same way. If you are struggling with parenting do not be afraid ask for help. Consider asking a friend, talking with a pediatrician, your child’s teacher or county birth to three program.


Submitted by: Bobbi Jo Mork, Disabilities Coordinator, Indianhead Community Action Agency

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