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Why are they acting that way? A three-tier approach to guidance

by Marla J. Lohmann and Natalie M. Nenovich


The children are playing productively in centers until, suddenly, you hear a howl from the dress-up area. Upon investigation, you discover that Molly has bitten Joey.

While saying the alphabet during circle time, Sally screams in anger, takes off her shoes, and throws them at you.



Kicking, hitting, biting, spitting, yelling, and tantrums are all behaviors that early childhood teachers experience in their classrooms and that we have addressed in our own classrooms as well.

Research has shown that children who exhibit problematic behaviors in childhood generally first exhibit those behaviors in the early childhood years (Cohen and Kaufmann 2005; Conroy, Hendrickson, and Hester 2004). Additionally, we know that teachers spend about 50 percent of their instructional time managing behavior problems (Witt, VanDerHeyden, and Gilbertson 2004).

Imagine how much more you could engage with children if you had fewer behaviors to manage and twice as much time each day to support positive growth across all domains. While we understand that positive behavior intervention will never eliminate all classroom behavior problems, we do know that using effective, research-based classroom management practices will reduce the number of problematic behaviors in children each day.

In order to effectively manage behaviors, we recommend a three-tier approach that consists of 1) appropriate and engaging activities, 2) appropriate expectations and management of classroom behaviors, and 3) individualized interventions.


Tier 1: Offering appropriate and engaging activities
There is a direct relationship between teacher guidance in classroom activities and children’s behaviors. When the classroom instruction is developmentally appropriate for the children and reflective of the teacher’s genuine interest and skill in sharing information, children are engaged in learning. When children are engaged in learning, they have fewer problem behaviors (Witt et al. 2004).

While you’re not teaching algebra, you are certainly teaching children all day every day through circle times, group activities, independent activities, and free play. For young children, instruction does not equal traditional paper and pencil academics.

The first step in preschool classroom management involves examining your instruction. Ask yourself two questions about your instruction: Are the tasks too easy or too difficult for the children? A lack of challenge often leads a child to feel bored, which may lead to behavior problems. Likewise, being asked to complete a task that is not within the child’s abilities will create frustration and may lead to inappropriate behavior.

Once you have determined that the activity choices are appropriate for the children, ask how the children are being reinforced for their work. Reinforcements might include verbal encouragement for task completion or correctness but might also include giving the child choices in work to do or the order in which to complete the work (Witt et al. 2004).


Tier 2: Teaching classroom expectations
Children learn the expectations of the classroom through rules and routines and the teacher’s management of those rules and routines. The rules must be taught to the children and posted in the classroom for them to see.

It can be beneficial to create a specific visual of the classroom rules in various places or situations in the classroom. For example, we created this visual to remind our students of the expectations in the restroom. We want them to be respectful and flush the toilet, be responsible and wash their hands, and be honest about their accidental spills.

Teachers plan the routines and specifically teach them to children. Before the school year begins, you need to determine how you want children to do certain activities. Starting on Day 1, you show the children what to do. Once you have demonstrated expectations, you give the children the opportunity to practice. Teacher feedback during practice is valuable.

An example of targeted instruction is teaching children to quietly walk in the hallways. On the first day of school, we demonstrate for the children how we walk in the hallway. We then allow the students the opportunity to practice how we walk, giving them positive feedback. For the next several days, we spend a few minutes practicing how to walk. Throughout the school year, children continue to practice the correct behavior so that they remember our expectations of them. When we as teachers take time to practice the correct behavior, we will spend less time correcting negative behaviors.

Children need teachers to be consistent with the management of the classroom rules and routines. Every day, we need to have the same expectations for the children. When they want or need something, we expect them to ask in appropriate ways. If Billy is allowed to whine and yell in order to ride the tricycle, he learns this behavior is appropriate. He will correct this misstep if you say something like, “We all take turns riding the tricycles. Use a calm voice and ask Henry if he’s ready to trade his tricycle for your wagon.” Or you can use a gesture, a picture cue, or a communication device, such as a book or video that shows the expected behavior. Your consistent responses and interactions guide children in expected classroom behaviors while helping them feel secure and certain about how to act.


Tier 3: Addressing an individual child’s problem behavior
While using a classroom-wide positive guidance system will prevent the majority of behavior problems, one or two children may need a more individualized approach. The first step is to determine why the child is not behaving appropriately. You do this by looking at both the activities and situations that precede the behaviors as well as the outcomes of the behavior (McConnell, Cox, Thomas, and Hilvitz 2001).

For example, Jenny might have a habit of kicking the wall immediately after you announce that it’s nap time, which would suggest that she does not want to take a nap or is angered by having to stop playing. Jenny may be kicking to express her frustrations. Alternatively, Kenisha may get the toy she wants each time she bites another child. She is being rewarded for biting by gaining access to the toy she wants. The biting behavior may continue because, from Kenisha’s point of view, it is an effective behavior.

Teachers must spend time observing specific children to determine the causes of problem behaviors with individualized responses. This is key to determining appropriate solutions to children’s behavioral missteps. Using the same consequence for every behavioral misstep will not help children develop the desired self-regulation and control. In Jenny’s case, we might need to teach her more appropriate methods for handling frustrations. Once Jenny has the words and can engage in appropriate actions, she will no longer need to kick to handle frustrations. For Kenisha, you must ensure that biting does not result in inadvertently rewarding her with access to the desired toy. Once she discovers that biting no longer has the intended result, she will likely stop biting on her own.


Create a positive learning environment
Using a three-tier approach to behavior management in an early childhood setting will allow you to reduce negative behaviors and create a positive teaching experience. You need to teach students classroom expectations by modeling appropriate behavior, practice, and reinforcement. You may need to individualize some strategies for some children. Once you communicate expectations and use them consistently, you can create a positive classroom environment.

For more information about preschool behavior management, consult the following websites:
Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice,
Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning,
Intervention Central,
OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports,


Cohen, E. and R. Kaufmann. 2005. Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. DHHS. Pub. No. CMHS-SVP0151. Rockville, Md.: Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse, and Mental Health Services Administration.
Conroy, M.A., J. M. Hendrickson, and P. P. Hester. 2004. Early identification and prevention of emotional and behavioral disorders. In R. B. Rutherford, M. M. Quinn, and S. R. Mathur, Eds. Handbook of Research in Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. New York: Guilford Press.
McConnell, M., C. Cox, D. Thomas, and P. Hilvitz. 2001. Functional Behavioral Assessment: A Systematic Process for Assessment and Intervention in General and Special Education Classrooms. Denver: Love Publishing.
Witt, J. C., A. M. VanDerHeyden, and D. Gilbertson. 2004. Instruction and classroom management: Prevention and intervention research. In R. B. Rutherford, M. M. Quinn, and S. R. Mathur, Eds. Handbook of Research in Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. New York: Guilford Press..


About the author
Marla Lohmann, Ph.D., is a former infant/toddler and special education teacher in Houston. She received her doctorate in special education from the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, and is now an affiliate faculty member in special education and early childhood special education at Regis University in Denver.

Natalie Nenovich, M.Ed., has worked with special needs children in both the private and public school setting, focusing on students with behavioral needs. She is currently a special education teacher in the Plano Independent School District and is working on her doctorate in special education from the University of North Texas.