current issue button
about TXCC button
back issues button
manuscript guidelines button
resources button
Acquire PDF for full version of this article.
  (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader®)

Early Childhood Intervention
Handling challenging behavior by teaching better behavior


Kayden is a 2 ½-year-old boy with an abundance of energy. He has difficulty sitting down and participating in circle time, and he has been in trouble a lot lately for biting other children and the teacher. Redirection and distraction don’t seem to be curbing Kayden’s challenging behavior.

According to behavior management principles, the best way to stop challenging behavior is to teach better behavior. Children often hear “No,” “Stop,” and “Don’t,” but if they are to learn what they should do instead, we must teach them. Punishment does not teach better behavior but rather often results in a child’s replacing one negative behavior with another. For longer-lasting, positive behavior, we must focus on teaching children how to get their needs met by using acceptable communication strategies or replacement behaviors.

Look for a purpose behind the challenging behavior. Are there patterns in misbehavior? When does the behavior usually occur? Under what circumstances? Is the child trying to get something? Get out of something? Using Kayden’s example, you might discover that Kayden tends to bite when he does not want to sit in circle time. Biting results in time out, so Kayden successfully gets out of circle time. He finds biting effective to get his desire met, so he continues to bite.

Children might misbehave more when tired, hungry, bored, challenged, or over-stimulated. To find the purpose, you can keep records of what happens before and after the challenging behavior.

Try to prevent challenging behavior before it happens. In the Winter 2015 issue (Volume 39, issue 3, “Early Childhood Intervention: Tips for Preventing Challenging Behavior”), we discussed effective prevention strategies including the following:
maintain predictable routines,
warn children about transitions,
balance active and calm activities as well as easy and challenging activities,
watch for cues that a child needs help or is getting frustrated,
use clear language to direct children, and
positively reinforce acceptable behavior.

Once challenging behavior is occurring or has already occurred, additional strategies can be useful. Effective, research-based strategies for teaching better behavior include offering choices, using logical consequences, and teaching replacement behaviors.


Offering choices
Giving children choices helps to increase motivation and allows children to use their communication skills (Green, Mays, Jolivette 2011). You can allow children to choose between different activities (digging in the garden or playing in the sandbox, for example) or select different materials within an activity (such as finger painting or drawing with crayons within the art center).

You can offer choices using words, pictures, or the actual items. Pictures and actual items work best with young children and children with cognitive delays (Dunlap and Liso 2004). Many teachers have success using visual choice boards where children can see their options.

To make offering choices work for your classroom, give two options that are acceptable to you, available, and desirable to the child (Green, Mays, and Jolivette 2011). You can offer more options to children older than 5 who do not have cognitive delays. Allow the child time to process the choices and respond, keeping in mind that children with delays may need more time to process.

If the child does not respond to the offered choices, use visuals. If the child still doesn’t respond, model choosing an option and prompt the child again to make a choice. Children will sometimes test to see if they can ignore the choices and have or do what they originally wanted. In that case, you can either remain consistent with your choices or choose another behavioral strategy.

With Kayden, the teacher has several options. She can warn him ahead of time that a transition is about to occur and free play will soon end. When announcing circle time, she can ask Kayden if he wants to sit on the blue square or the yellow circle. She can show him some interesting items that will be used in circle time to help him transition and perhaps he can help choose which item will be used first.


Logical consequences
Logical consequences help guide more appropriate behavior by letting children face the consequences of their behavior (Fox and Langhans 2005). For logical consequences to work, the consequence must be clearly tied to the behavior and must happen immediately or soon after the behavior.

Logical consequences are most effective when they are framed as guidance, not punishment. According to Fox and Langhans (2005), “the tone of voice used can mean the difference between logical consequences and punishment.” One way to frame a logical consequence as guidance is to offer the consequence as a choice. For instance, “If you would like to draw with your classmates, you need to help clean up this center first” or “To go outside, you have to put your shoes on.” For young children or children with cognitive delays, use first/then statements such as, “First pick up toys, then draw” or “First shoes, then outside.”

Caution: For logical consequences to work, children must have the cognitive ability to understand consequences. Certain conditions, such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, can affect a child’s ability to link consequences with their actions. In that case, you may need to repeat behavior instructions or use different strategies. Even then, the child may not be able to generalize the desired behavior to other, similar situations.


Replacement behavior
A replacement behavior serves the same purpose as a child’s challenging behavior, but it is a more positive, less harmful way for a child to get needs met. This strategy requires that you first watch for patterns in the child’s behavior and determine what purpose the challenging behavior serves.

For this strategy to be effective, replacement behavior must be easily taught, is something the child is able to do, is easily noticed and reinforced when the child uses it, and works quickly for the child (Dunlap and Duda 2004). Common mistakes are coaching the child to use words beyond the child’s vocabulary, misinterpreting the purpose (thinking the child is head banging to get something he wants when he’s really having sensory overload, for example), and using a replacement behavior that does not work as well for the child as the challenging behavior. If a new behavior is too difficult, for example, the child will continue to use the challenging behavior.

Try to catch the child before the challenging behavior occurs so you can coach a new behavior, help the child use this new behavior, and then positively reinforce the child for using it. Olivia, a 3-year-old, hits children during free play. The teacher, who has been looking for patterns in this challenging behavior, finds that the child doesn’t seem upset and even tends to smile while hitting. Moreover, nothing seems to occur before she hits to provoke aggression. The teacher thinks Olivia may be hitting to get another child’s attention and to interact with others. As a result, the teacher coaches Olivia to say “play” or to hand the other child a toy so that both children have a toy. If Olivia wants the same toy, the teacher can coach her to say, “My turn,” and make sure Olivia gets a turn or finds a similar toy.

Using choices, logical consequences, and replacement behaviors all require time and individual attention. You may have to repeat each strategy several times for the child to learn from it and start making better choices. But with continued teaching and positive reinforcement of better choices and behavior, most children will show a great improvement.


Red flags may indicate a need for referral
Sometimes you may need more help figuring out the cause of challenging behavior or which strategies to use to help increase more positive behavior. If the child is younger than 3 and has any of the behaviors below, talk to the child’s parent or your director about a referral to Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) for help with social-emotional development.

To find an ECI program in your area, call the Office of the Ombudsman at 1-877-787-8999 and a representative will assist you.
Has tantrums that last 20 minutes or longer.
Breaks things on purpose.
Hurts or bites other people or self.
Does not look at you when you call the child by name.
Does not play with toys.
Does not engage in any pretend play by 24 months.
Does not enjoy being around and watching other toddlers.
Flaps hands, rocks, or sways over and over.
Does not point at objects wanted.
Does not say any words by 12 months. 
Does not notice people or engage in classroom activities.
Is unhappy most of the time.
Is anxious most of the time.
Shows any loss of speech, babbling, or social skills.



Ackerman, D. J., andDunlap, G. and M. Duda. 2004. Using functional communication training to replace challenging behavior. Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Retrieved from on July 26, 2016.
Dunlap, G. and D. Liso. 2004. Using choice and preference to promote improved behavior. Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Retrieved from on July 19, 2016.
Fox, L. and S. Langhans. 2005. Logical consequences. Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Retrieved from on July 19, 2016.
Green, K. B., N. M. Mays, K. Jolivette. 2011. Making choices: A proactive way to improve behaviors for young children with challenging behaviors. Beyond Behavior, Fall 2011. Retrieved from on July 19, 2016.
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Technical Assistance Center. 2016.