Challenging Behaviors in Young Children

child showing anger

Young children learn behavior and communication from everything and everyone around them. Children need guidance as they learn what is, and isn’t, appropriate behavior. This tool kit includes information on child development, the meaning of behavior, strategies adults can use with young children, and additional resources for families and educators.

Child Development

It is important for adults to understand what is typical behavior for young children. Toddlers sometimes bite. Preschoolers may hit others. Some behaviors, while challenging to adults, are a result of underdeveloped communication, self-regulation, or emotional skills.

  • A child’s temperament plays a role in how they respond to the world around them. Some children are outgoing and assertive, while others are slower to warm up. These traits are often observed very early in life. The Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for Children Birth to Age Three  (pp. 9–10) lists nine characteristics of temperament that influence a child’s reaction to their environment and the importance of learning to reading a child’s cues. 
  • Until they can talk, infants and toddlers tend to fuss when overwhelmed or uncomfortable. This is natural. They don’t have the words to tell you that they are hot, tired, hungry, or have a hair wrapped around their toe. Adults should observe children to figure out what they are trying to communicate. Additional tips can be found on IEL’s Fuss Management tip sheets, Comforting the Irritable Child and Planning Ahead to Prevent Tantrums.  
  • The development of social and emotional skills is critical to the development of appropriate responses to interactions. Adults can observe children’s abilities to interact with others, express preferences or frustrations, take turns, and problem-solve with others to determine how to support young children and intervene when needed. IEL’s Children’s Social Competence Checklist provides additional social skills to watch for in young children.  
  • Preschoolers are learning to recognize their emotions, understand and follow rules, use their communication skills in interactions, and manage conflicts with their peers. The Social/Emotional Development domain within the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards provides a general overview of what most preschoolers can do by the end of the preschool years.  
  • Young children’s behaviors can be challenging to adults, even though they may be appropriate for the age of the child. A child’s behavior may be different in different settings, with unfamiliar people, after an illness or stressful event, or when the child is tired. Providing predictable and consistent routines can help to reduce challenging behaviors. The Positive Guidance for Young Children tip sheet series from IEL includes additional strategies to reduce challenging behaviors. 

The Meaning of Behavior

Behavior is influenced by a wide variety of factors. For the purposes of this tool kit, challenging behavior is defined as a pattern of behavior that interferes with a child’s development, is harmful to the child or others, and puts a child at risk for later concerns. Caregivers often look for the meaning, or function, of a behavior to appropriately address the behavior.

  • Behavior is communication. A toddler’s tantrum, while challenging to adults, is the child’s way of telling others that they are unhappy, frustrated, or tired when they do not have the means to verbally communicate that feeling. Adults should focus on what the child is communicating and not label them as “bossy” or consider them  “dramatic.” Sesame Street in Communities provides additional ways to reframe what adults are observing in the article Changing the Labels.  
  • The antecedent, or what happens before the behavior, can help tell the story. Is the behavior a response to sensory input, such as sounds, smells, or lights? Is the child uncomfortable or wanting to get out of a situation? Are they craving the attention of another person? Do they want a particular toy or to participate in an activity?  
  • The behavior observed can include crying, yelling, throwing things, or other undesirable actions. These are all expressions of a child’s feelings. A child can experience moments of laughter, excitement, tantrums, and crying, often in one afternoon.  
  • The consequence is the response received as a result of the behavior. If a child is seeking attention and receives it—whether it is positive or negative attention—the behavior may be repeated. Likewise, if an adult gives in to the behavior, the child learns that their actions are effective.  
  • Cultural values and norms might also influence how a child behaves in a group setting. It is important for behavior expectations to reflect the values and cultures of families in the program. Meals, play, interactions with adults, and many other activities may look different for families from different cultures, as described in this article from NAEYC.  

Strategies for Adults

Whether at home or in the classroom, children may demonstrate behaviors that adults find challenging. Adults can provide an environment that is not too stimulating, that provides quiet spaces, and that is safe to explore.

At Home

When young children act out at home, adults can support them by responding effectively to the behaviors. It is the adult’s responsibility to remain calm and talk to children at their level using words that they understand.

  • Children should not be expected to master behavior regulation by themselves. Adults can help infants and toddlers develop behavior regulation skills by establishing routines, providing a warning when a change or transition will happen, and other strategies as described in the Behavior Regulation sub-domain of the Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for Children Birth to Age Three.  
  • Families can support young children’s social-emotional development by providing opportunities for playtime with others, taking them out for a walk, playing games, offering choices during routines, and reading books together. Additional strategies are described on these age-specific parent activity sheets from the developers of the Ages & Stages Questionnaire, a screening tool often used in well-baby visits.  
  • Adults can often prevent challenging behaviors by labeling emotions, providing structure and consistency, and offering acceptable choices. Avoid tagging “okay?” to the end of a request because it gives them the option to decline. Tantrums, Tears, and Tempers, an ACTion Information Sheet from The Pacer Center, offers additional strategies parents can use to encourage positive behaviors.  
  • When a behavior interferes with the child’s day, adults should help a child with finding an alternative to challenging behaviors. Naming feelings using words, describing those feelings, and giving children permission to talk about those feelings are appropriate strategies for adults to use, as described in this Feelings Are Fantastic blog post from IEL.   

In the Classroom

All children benefit from predictable routines, high-quality environments, and nurturing relationships. Some children require targeted supports to help them regulate their emotions and behavior. A smaller portion of children will benefit from intensive interventions to help with persistent challenges.

  • Many classroom teachers have found the Pyramid Model to be an effective tool to support social-emotional competence in young children. This three-tiered approach provides supports to all children, including those with more intense needs. 
  • Preventing challenging behaviors and promoting appropriate social behaviors are the most effective strategies to address unwanted behaviors. Adults should keep interactions to a minimum while ensuring the child’s safety. Let children know what they should do instead of what they should not do. These and other responsive strategies are outlined in this tip sheet from the Pyramid Equity Project.  
  • Even a longtime classroom teacher can struggle with young children’s challenging behaviors. It is important to take a step back to see what your experience with discipline was and what children may be experiencing in the classroom. Providing positive descriptive feedback tells young children what they are doing that attracted your positive attention and increases the likelihood of repeating that behavior, as described in this IEL blog post, Positive Descriptive Feedback for the Win! 
  • Visual supports can provide young children with both a way to communicate and an opportunity to understand classroom expectations and routines, thus minimizing challenging behaviors. The Head Start Center for Inclusion has developed several tools that teachers can use in the classroom, including reproducible pictures and activities to engage young learners.  

Web Resources

  • The opinions, resources, and referrals provided on the IEL Web site are intended for informational purposes only and are not intended to take the place of medical or legal advice, or of other appropriate services. We encourage you to seek direct local assistance from a qualified professional if necessary before taking action.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Family Child Care
  • Home
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
  • Infants and Toddlers (Birth To Age 3)
  • Preschoolers (Age 3 Through Age 5)

Related IEL Birth to Three Guidelines:
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2021