There’s no doubt that veteran early childhood professionals are seeing more challenging behavior in their settings these days. And new teachers are feeling quite unprepared – with good reason – to handle the behavior challenges they’re experiencing. Both groups struggle with the amount of time wasted on classroom management.

Why is challenging behavior more of an issue these days? I think much of it results from changes to early childhood education. From the emphasis on academics and accountability, and the attempt to accelerate child development. Following are seven reasons I believe are behind the increase in disruptive behavior.

Children have almost no time to play — something that early childhood researcher and professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige calls “nature’s plan” and “a biological drive.” Experts around the globe agree with this statement. Can you imagine if we insisted that kittens and puppies stay still? If we prevented them from frolicking and playing? The idea is ludicrous – and it should be just as ludicrous when we’re discussing children.

We are demanding that children accomplish things for which they are in no way developmentally equipped. We insist that three-year-olds sit still, learn to grasp a pencil properly, or memorize the meaning of words like hypothesis, which have absolutely no relevance to their lives — because they have to “get ready to be four.” We expect them to read by the end of kindergarten, ready or not. This puts enormous pressure on young children because they’re so anxious to please the adults in their lives. When they continually are unable to comply with adult demands – because the natural course of child development doesn’t allow them to – they become frustrated and unhappy.

Children get little to no downtime, which is detrimental to their mental health. How are they supposed to enjoy their lives when every moment is scheduled for them? Downtime is essential for everybody’s mental health. It also makes free play (child-chosen and child-directed) possible.

We treat children as though they exist only from the neck up and that only their brains matter, when the research shows and good sense validates the importance of the mind-body connection. The failure to acknowledge this connection is the primary reason why play and movement are being eliminated from early childhood classrooms – and why young children are being forced to sit for long periods. Not only does the research demonstrate the importance of the mind-body connection; also, it has demonstrated that sitting increases fatigue and reduces concentration. Tired children who are unable to concentrate have a tendency to act out!

We stifle children’s natural creativity and inherent love of learning through worksheets, standardized tests and curricula, and an insistence on conformity and rote — as opposed to active, authentic — learning. Children are born with a love of learning and are naturally creative, active learners. They’re not meant to be empty vessels to be filled with useless information. This is boring for them!

We pit children against one another with our focus on competition and winning. Competition is not developmentally appropriate for young children – who actually prefer cooperative activities to competitive ones. When children are more well-versed in competition than cooperation, the atmosphere in an early childhood setting is not as friendly as it should be. After all, as I’ve written before, competition increases aggression and other antisocial behaviors.

Too many children spend hours in front of screens, leading sedentary lives (it’s the sitting thing again) filled with virtual relationships instead of interacting with real people in real life – when the research clearly shows that social-emotional development is critical in early childhood and that in-person interactions are necessary for social-emotional development. Additionally, we have research demonstrating that screen time is creating depression and aggression in children.

With all of this in mind, it’s no wonder there are more challenging behaviors in early childhood settings. That children are acting out. How could all of these circumstances not lead to defiance? Defiance is often the only way young children are able to push back. To express themselves.

Heck, if all of this were being imposed on me, even with my verbal ability, I just might act out too!

Note: This post is excerpted and adapted from my online course, “Avoid Behavior Challenges in Your Early Childhood Setting” (coming soon), and in my new book, Acting Out! Avoid Behavior Challenges with Active Learning Games and Activities, available for pre-order now.


  1. Very insightful observations, Rae.

    Challenging behavior in children occurs, as you said, because we make them ‘adjust’ to our rules of right behavior. Like sitting tight. Or not having enough free play. Or making them learn to write at the age of 3.

    However, one of the causes of challenging behavior in children, in my experience, has been the inability to ‘express’ emotions. As children are ‘primarily’ emotional, their need of ’emotional acceptance’ is critical at this age. When this needs are not ‘fulfilled’, they demonstrate many unruly behaviors ( such as throwing, hitting, blaming, insisting) that are more difficult to ‘regulate. I would like to have your opinion on the ’emotional’ needs impacting child behavior.


    • As I mention in the piece, Sanjiv, children are using disruptive behavior because they don’t yet have the ability to express themselves verbally and logically. So, yes, I agree that their inability to express emotions is an issue that results in all kinds of behaviors, including throwing, hitting, etc. I believe that if we accept children for who they are — at the developmental stage they’re at — and make the necessary accommodations, we’ll see much less of that kind of behavior. For example, if we accept that young children are not yet ready to sit, we won’t demand that they do so. If we accept that young children are active, experiential learners, we’ll offer them learning experiences that match their needs. If we facilitate enjoyable activities that promote cooperation, self-regulation, and relaxation, the children will feel cared for and have friendlier feelings toward one another.

      Thanks for weighing in!

  2. Unfortunately, your article does not address the fact that 3 year olds should not be in a school setting in the first place. They should be at home with their parents learning important social skills from them! Children should be with their parents until the age of 5 at least! Our society has created a social situation where educators are raising the children for parents. I am frustrated by the blame that is always placed on educators and what they do. With declining resources and little supports for learning issues, few people would survive in a classroom with twenty 3 year olds and only 1 teacher and 1 EA.
    Place the responsibility where it belongs- with the parents.

    • Trish, it’s not my intention to lay blame anywhere — with the exception of with policymakers who don’t understand child development and can’t be bothered to understand it before making decisions that negatively affect the lives of millions of young children. If teachers are doing the wrong things, it’s because they’re being force to. Wrongheaded policies, along with a culture that is caught up in the belief that life is a race to be won, are creating situations that are hurting children.

      Yes, parents have a responsibility to teach their children social skills. They also have a responsibility to ensure that the child care and preschool settings in which they enroll their children are developmentally appropriate. But, given all the misinformation they’re receiving, they generally have no idea what that means.

      I agree that 3-year-olds should not be in a school setting. But they will be in child care settings. That’s today’s reality. We can’t turn back the hands of time. We can only fight to ensure that in whatever settings young children find themselves they’ll be treated with the love and respect they deserve.

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