Challenging Behavior in the Early Childhood Classroom

Image result for children meltdown in the classroom
image from The Irish Times

Student ‘S’

S is a lovely 5 year old boy who is very bright. Although he is doing well academically, he often struggles with his social emotional skills partly due to seemingly ADHD (undiagnosed), sensory processing issues, and his strong willfulness (egotism). He is an only child and lives with his mom who is a very successful businesswoman. Mom is always busy with her work, thus most of the times he gets taken care by his nanny, which I assume also results in unstable emotions in him.

Challenging Behaviors

S is sensitive to loud noise and gets easily overwhelmed by his emotions especially when things don’t go as he thought or wanted, which frequently leads to an outburst of emotion and aggression; biting, hitting, kicking, and verbally hurting others which cost him a suspension from school last year. His mood swings are extremely fickle and very swift that sometimes it is difficult to find the trigger for his explosive behavior.

He also shows inattentiveness and impulsiveness, which makes me believe that he has ADHD and often escalates to disruptive behaviors in class. Another challenging behavior he displays is bullying and being manipulative. Not only does he have favoritism on certain friends to engage with, but he also has obsession to them. When his favorite friend doesn’t want to play with him or wants to involve other friends, he finds it hard to manage his emotion and often bullies other friends he doesn’t like.

The Impact of Behaviors in the Classroom

Impact on Himself

His difficulty on managing his own emotions often takes his learning opportunities away in the class. When he doesn’t get his own way, for instance when he isn’t chosen to answer with his hand up, he gets very upset and loses his interest in the lesson immediately. Then he either goes to the calm-down area spending a long time or starts disrupting the class. Despite his bright intelligence, he has missed so many lesson or activities due to the upswells of his emotion, and I had to repeat the same activity the next day because the fact that he didn’t experience it also upsets him.

Image result for child social isolation
image from Grift Family Services

It also impedes his social skills, communication, and play. When his friends don’t want to play the game or activity he chooses or his favorite friend doesn’t want to play with him, he gets emotional and just opts out of the group, not wanting to engage in any other activities. Also, his favoritism makes him want to interact with certain people, limiting his exposure to a variety social situation where he can build up social skills.

Impact on the Class

His impulsive behavior makes him difficult to sit still or stay focused during lessons and he often disrupts the class by talking, moving around, or interrupting his peers or the lesson, which is a big distraction in the classroom. It takes time away from the lesson, often making me spend a lot of time redirecting and reminding him of the appropriate behavior. Not only do his behaviors interrupt his peers who are working on their task, but also spread to easily influenced students, replicating his challenging behaviors in the classroom.

When his emotions get escalated, his behaviors become aggressive both physically and verbally, and this can harm other students. And his strong sense of self and egotism often interrupt class discussions or conversations and play among students, insisting to take charge and bossing around the peer. If the pattern of his behaviors continues, his peers may dislike him, resulting in social exclusion from peers. There has been a couple of moments when he thought somebody was talking about him although nobody said anything, and his emotional reaction became aggressive, which made some students not wanting to work or play with him that day. It seems like some parents are already rejecting him afraid of his behaviors to harm their child that he wasn’t included for most of the play dates during school shut down last year.

How His Behaviors can be Addressed

S has a strong will to be a good person and he just keeps forgetting how to behave properly. It really breaks my heart to see him getting easily discouraged and losing his motivation instantly when he fails. At the same time, he is also losing confidence in himself.

Although I am not a huge fan of rewards and punishment for behavior management, Skinner’s behaviorism (operant conditioning) can be used to help S build and practice the skills he needs. According to his operant conditioning theory, a person learns to choose how to behave in a variety of ways by associating the behavior and the consequence. The behavior that resulted in pleasant consequence gets reinforced and it’s more likely to be repeated, and the behavior that resulted in unpleasant experience gets weakened, which means it would occur less or be extinguished.

The key concepts of the theory are reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement is the driving force of the environmental stimulus that encourages the frequency of the desired behavior and punishment discourages it. If presented positive stimulus or reward, it’s positive reinforcement because the behavior is more likely to be strengthened, leading to the repetition of the behavior (e.g. parent giving money if a child gets 100 percent on a test). When an unpleasant stimulus is removed, it’s negative reinforcement because the behavior would get strengthened to avoid the unpleasant experience (e.g. not giving homework if students finish their tasks in school). Positive punishment is giving an unpleasant stimulus to decrease a behavior; thus the undesired behavior will be diminished (e.g. giving extra work if students don’t do their homework). Negative punishment is taking a pleasant or desired stimulus to weaken the undesired behavior (taking away a phone if a student is using it during the test). This video explains the theory quite simply using Simpson characters:

I do not think punishment (no matter positive or negative) and negative reinforcement would work for S because they diminish his motivation and confidence, and bring out more challenging behaviors in turn. However, the positive reinforcement would work well because the recognition of his sensible choice makes him proud and wanting to continue it. Along with positive reinforcement, other positive guidance and discipline techniques would benefit him to promote positive behaviors.

Goals for S

In order for him to develop social competences, I want him to first work on the emotional skills such as self-regulation, positive self-image, empathy, and emotional literacy. I set the goals that are achievable in a weekly time span in discussion with him, so that he can be accountable for his own behaviors and see his own progress.

  • Prepare yourself to have a good day:
    In order to keep on his motivation to be good, he needs to build a strong foundation of positive self-image in him. The practice of getting ready to have a good day will develop self-esteem as well as reflective thinking, providing resilience even though he makes mistakes.
  • Practice to express your feeling with the reason when upset
    Identifying how I feel and what makes me feel in that way can help him logically deal with each emotion, preventing escalation. It will also help him learn empathy, how his behavior would impact other people’s feeling.
  • Proper use of calm down corner
    Instead of working on problem-solving on his emotion control, he usually escapes to the calm-down corner. Once he becomes more aware of his emotions, I believe the frequent use of the calm down corner will decrease. He will learn different techniques to allay his negative feelings and I want him to use it only if he really cannot resist being aggressive.

Goals for social skills:

  • Raise hand and wait for your turn to speak in group setting
  • Try to share class toys and other materials or think of a fair way of using it
  • Use polite language for asking and apologize if you make a mistake
  • Instead of touching, try to use words to get others’ attention
  • Engage with other friends, especially girls, during play time

Strategies to Increase the Student’s Engagement in the classroom

  • Focus on the positive behavior and model them
    Students like S may feel that they get blamed for everything which can cause low self-esteem and demotivation. Reinforcing is the foremost way to infuse and promote the appropriate behavior and it also gives less room for students to develop negative behaviors. Children learn by example, so it’s important to be a good role model.
  • Praise the positive behavior as well as efforts and progress
    Praise improves concentration skills and the sooner that approval is given regarding appropriate behavior, the more likely the student will repeat it. The comments should focus on what the student did right and the efforts about what part of the student’s behavior was desirable to motivate them to keep it on.
  • Demonstrate the emotional management strategies
    In order for students like S to learn what works for themselves, teaching different strategies such as taking a deep breath, closing eyes, or going to the calm down corner and practicing them helps them feel that they can control their behaviors.
  • Communicate clear rules with consistency
    Getting into a habit of good behavior comes from clear rules, thus they need to understand clearly what is expected of them. Making routines and sticking to them helps students not only to stay on task and reduce distracting changes, but also to avoid confusion in students.
  • Encourage self-control by providing meaningful choices
    Offering a choice of options gives a feel of control to the student, thus the student is more compliant and act less negative. Choices also provide students practice in decision making.
  • Visual schedule
    Students like S feel safe and secure if they know what to expect and don’t deal with the change well because it creates distraction, uncertainty and confusion. With regular routines and schedule, they become more familiar with what they need to do.  
  • Give clear directions, and divide work into smaller units, one at a time
    S usually finds it difficult to process multiple requests quickly and accurately, so keeping to one clear concept command is better. The simpler the expectations communicated, the more likely it is that the student will comprehend and complete them in a timely and productive manner, hence break down assignments into smaller, less complex tasks.
  • Visual Reminder
    Behavioral prompts such as visual cues or hand gestures help remind them about expectations for their learning and behavior in the classroom.
  • Calm down corner
    A space to calm down where students can go if they feel overwhelmed or stressed helps them gather their thoughts. The space needs various materials to ease their emotions such as toys, sensory jars, mindfulness coloring, or word searches. Also, having reflection activities such as reflection sheet or chatting about it afterwards assists them to cope with the emotion.
  • Fidget toy
    Allowing the student to play with small objects that can be manipulated quietly, such as a soft squeeze ball, spinner, tangle toy or small building block will help him stay focused because the access to the manipulatives gain some needed sensory input while still attending to the lesson.
  • Seating arrangement with fewer distractions
    Since students like S have difficulty remaining focused or paying attention, it is important to keep them away from distractions.
  • Brain breaks
    Since students like S struggle with sitting still for a long period of time, frequent opportunities to move around gives them the ability to refocus. Minds in Bloom blog has a great list of brain break activities.
  • Teach students how to check their work and catch careless mistakes
    Due to their inattentiveness, they tend to a sloppy job on their task. Allowing them with opportunities for self-correction teaching how to identify and correct their own mistakes or providing a checklist helps them improve the quality of their work.
  • Affirmation
    Giving positive affirmation helps the student develop confidence and self-belief to motivate himself. It also helps build strong relationship with the student, encouraging positive changes.
  • Goal setting and behavior contract
    Having the child agree to identify appropriate and tangible goals to master helps him understand expectations, develop concrete strategies, and remain aware of the progress. It also motivates him to improve his self-monitoring and self-control skills, as well as making him more accountable for his actions.
  • Personal behavior chart
    Providing a behavior chart lets the student know how he is doing and motivates him to be in the ‘green’ area. I used the color coded elastic bands (red, yellow and green) with him that he could put on his wrist and its tangible and visual nature worked very well.
  • End of day/week reflection
    Having the student monitor and evaluate his own behavior such as a rating scale sheet allows him to see his own progress and to become responsible for self-monitoring. It also gives him more control, self-awareness and a deeper understanding of his actions.
  • Stay calm
    When the student has explosive outbursts, staying calm, trying not to show any emotion will show the student that I (teacher) am in charge of the situation, offering him a chance to calm down.
  • Show empathy & share the feelings about the behavior
    When the student is struggling managing his behavior, acknowledging and talking about it gives an opportunity for him to learn what empathy is, and it also prevents the behavior to escalate.

Positive Incentives

According to Skinner, positive consequence brings the frequency of positive behavior. Students like S have short attention span and are easily forgetful, therefore, immediate motivational incentives when displaying appropriate, desired behaviors or efforts are important. The examples of positive incentives are:

  • Verbal acknowledgement of compliments
  • Non-verbal attention such as high five or thumbs up
  • Green on his personal behavior chart (green elastic band)
  • Assigning him a classroom job
  • Giving a choice of activities
  • Giving a turn to take the class mascot and journal home
  • Giving a stamp or drawing on his hand
  • Sharing his positive behavior with his parents


The student will come up with the consequences for his misbehavior as agreed on the personal behavior contract, but it wouldn’t be anything negative. It would rather look as positive discipline and guidance for him to be accountable for his actions and to solve the problem so that he can learn the skills from the mistake for the.

For example, if he seems to need more time to work on some skills, he would be working on the same skills in the following week. If he becomes aggressive enough to harm others, he would be taken out of the activity to think about how to solve the situation and then work for that (i.e. making an apology card). If he is misbehaving and not putting any effort to improve, he would get yellow or red elastic band to wear.

Communicating the Plan & the Progress with the Family

Home-school collaboration and communication are essential to help with the student’s behaviors. It allows parents to become familiar with classroom expectations, to follow up at home, and to let the teacher know the techniques that are working in the home setting so that both parents and teacher can prepare and adopt a consistent approach. It also ensures the student and the family that the teacher is concerned about how they are feeling and coping. In order to ally with the family in helping his challenging behaviors, we need to build a strong relationship with the family by doing

  • Timely manner
    Inform parents when immediate action needs to be taken.
  • Be direct to share facts
    Stating facts removes emotion and blame and will be more likely to help open doors for a problem solving conversation.
  • Ask for the family’s perspective in an open-ended way
    Because the parents know their child best, their knowledge and perspective can be very useful to find a solution.
  • Share some solutions and offer ongoing support to the family
    Sharing strategies that are effectively used in the classroom provides additional resources for parents to try and build consistency.
  • Send a classroom management packet
    It helps parents clearly understand the behavior expectations in the classroom and gives opportunities for them to reinforce appropriate behavior at home.
  • Have parents sign the behavior contract, too and keep a copy at home
    Involving the parents in the behavior contract process will make him feel more responsible and remind him that he needs to behave appropriately at all times, not just in school.
  • Progress report
    Make use of checklists and charts to keep parents informed of the student’s progress with the effective reinforcement techniques used in the classroom.


Fletcher, A. (2016, April). Positive discipline and child guidance. University of Missouri: Extension.

Hasan, S. (2017, November). ADHD and school. KidsHealth.

Low, K. (2019, September 17). How to improve social skills in children with ADHD. Very Well Mind.

Meinke, H. (2019, December 30). Understanding the stages of emotional development in children. Rasmussen College.

Schreier, J. (2020, February 24). Helping a child with ADHD develop social skills. Mayo Clinic Health System.

The Understood Team. (n.d.). ADHD and mood swings: what you need to know. Understood.

U.S. Department of Education. (2008). Teaching children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: Instructional strategies and practices.

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