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Early Childhood Intervention
Tips for preventing challenging behavior


Challenging behavior rears its head in many ways. Screaming, throwing things, biting, head banging, pinching, and refusal to do daily activities are just a few examples of young children’s behaviors that demand adult intervention. One of the best ways to deal with negative behaviors is to apply strategies before children lose control. Use these strategies regularly to help set routines and behavior patterns that let the children in your classroom know what to expect.

Maintain routines. Having predictable routines helps you and the children in your class enjoy order and a sense of comfort and stability. Routines can be looked at from the perspective of a daily schedule or broken down into individual activities. A day’s routine, for example, may consist of time in centers, morning snack, circle time, outside play, lunch, nap, afternoon snack, and story time. For instance, at lunchtime, break down the routine into smaller segments including picking up the toys in the classroom, washing hands, getting cups, and sitting in assigned places.

If there will be a change in routine, which is inevitable, letting children know in advance, when possible, can help them cope with the change. You might talk about the change or show a visual to illustrate it. For instance, if firefighters will come for circle time, you can show a picture of a fire truck and firefighters and talk about what firefighters do.

Warn children about transitions. Plan your schedule to allow time for transitioning. Many children have difficulty stopping an activity to move on to another one, especially if they don’t feel like they have finished the activity. Let your class know before it is time to stop and move on to the next activity.

Sometimes it helps to use a visual from the next activity. For example, as you transition from outdoor play, you may show your class a plate to indicate lunchtime or a book for story time. (This strategy is particularly useful for younger children and children who have been diagnosed as on the autism spectrum). Give children time to wind down a project or allow them to finish an activity, if possible. It can be helpful to have an in-progress basket in your classroom for items that children haven’t finished. For this strategy to work, you must remember to come back to the basket consistently and remind children to reclaim their unfinished work.

Plan a balance of activity. To avoid eruptions of challenging behavior, plan the schedule with lively activities in which children can get their wiggles out as well as calming activities for more focused learning. Keep new or challenging activities short enough to hold the group’s attention or bracket one between two easier or more familiar activities.

Having a calm place in the classroom can be helpful to children who have a sensory processing disorder or otherwise become easily overexcited. It is important, if you have such a place, that children not regard it as a time-out spot and instead know that they can voluntarily access the quiet place. Children can learn that if they are getting frustrated or overwhelmed, they can choose to go to the calm place with a book or stuffed animal to regain control.

Learn to identify cues for needing help. Children often give us cues before they lose control and engage in challenging behavior. Common cues are whining, rocking, getting louder, and becoming tense. If you make a habit of looking for these cues, you have an opportunity to intervene by talking softly to the child, showing empathy, offering a suggestion of what they can do with their feelings, or changing the environment if possible.

Use clear language to direct children. One of the best ways decrease challenging behavior is to teach better behavior. Use short, simple words to explain what behavior you would like to see. Instead of “Don’t hit your friends,” you can say, “If she takes your toy again, say ‘no no!’” (to a 2- or 3-year-old) or “If you want to play with her toy, ask for a turn and offer her a different toy to trade” (to an older child).

You could also show children what better behavior would look like by modeling the behavior yourself, using stuffed animals or puppets to act it out, or reading children’s books about handling behavior issues.

Reinforce positive behavior. Children will continue to do what is reinforced. If children are able to get what they want using negative behavior, they will continue to use that behavior. For example, if biting another child results in getting that child’s toy, the biting will continue. If asking politely for a turn works to get a toy, you are more likely to see words being used to get needs met.

It is often easier to give the negative behavior more attention because it’s more noticeable than positive behavior. If you have suggested a better way to get what the child wants, make sure the new, more positive behavior works and that you notice it. When a child does something kind (like drawing a picture for a sick friend) or handles frustration well, reinforce the compassion or self-control.

Offer lots of choices throughout the day. A great strategy for helping children feel important and independent is letting them choose items and activities in their daily lives. Even getting to choose small, seemingly irrelevant things like water or milk, this toy or that toy, or doing something alone versus getting help can enable children to feel more in control. Feeling more in control over time can translate to better behavior.

Offering choices can be helpful when children show signs that they are about to lose control. You might say, for example, “I see that you want to play with Jesse’s ball, but he’s still playing with it. You can play with this other ball or this truck while you wait.” Another example: “I see you’re having a hard time putting your shoes on. Do you want help, or do you want to keep trying?”

You can also offer choices by teaching more acceptable behavior as outlets for frustration or excessive energy.


Red flags may indicate a need for referral
The behaviors below are red flags that can keep a child from learning. If they happen often, 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 a local ECI program in your area, call the DARS Inquiries Line at 1-800-628- 5115 or visit


Does not smile, move, or look at you when you talk or play with her.
Does not want to be held.
Does not make sounds by 3 months.
Does not babble by 6 months.


Has tantrums that last 20 minutes or longer.
Breaks things on purpose.
Hurts or bites other people or himself.
Does not look at you when you call his 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 she wants.
Has no words by 12 months.


At any age
Fusses or cries a lot, even when not tired or hungry.
Has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
Does not notice people.
Is unhappy most of the time.
Is anxious most of the time.
Shows any loss of speech, babbling, or social skills.


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