Commonsense Solutions to Behavior Challenges in Early Childhood Settings

I’ve been writing a new book for the past several months. It’s about avoiding behavior challenges – essentially by understanding that children will be children! And, as I’ve been writing, it’s occurred to me that so many challenges can be avoided if we (1) appreciate and respect childhood for what it is, and (2) employ common sense!

Or, perhaps those two go together. Common sense should tell us that children aren’t small adults and can’t be expected to act like anything other than what they are. Still, in many early childhood programs, children are expected to be able to sit for endless minutes and hours, stay still, be quiet, and stand in straight lines – despite the fact that young children are not yet developmentally ready to do any of those things.

Yes, I know they will eventually have to be able to do all of those things. But as I’ve written before, eventually they also will have to learn to drive a car. That doesn’t mean we should put them behind the wheel while they’re still preschoolers.

I’m convinced one of the reasons we’re seeing more behavior challenges than in the past is that we’re more often asking children to do things for which they’re not equipped and the frustration is causing them to act out. I mean, if someone insisted over and over again that I fly a plane, or perform surgery, I’d get pretty frustrated too!

One of the things we know for sure about young children is that they need to move! Of course, many teachers hesitate to make movement and active learning part of their programs because when they think of children and movement, they immediately form a mental image of children “bouncing off the walls.” The concept of movement as an approach to avoiding behavior challenges feels like an oxymoron!

Fortunately, common sense does play a vital role in establishing a peaceful environment, regardless of how active the children are. For example, we’ve all been taught to begin where the children are developmentally. Doing so and then building from there with a logical progression of skills will ensure that the children are challenged but not overwhelmed. Not only can you expect greater success from children asked merely to build on their earlier successes, but you can also expect greater response from them.

You’ll also have fewer behavior challenges if you use your voice as a tool. If you want the children to move slowly, speak slowly. If you want them to move quietly, speak quietly. In addition, just as you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar, you can attract more attention with a lower volume than with a higher one, as children are far more likely to react to a whisper than to a yell.

Remember, too, although you should present your challenges enthusiastically, if you maintain a fever pitch of enthusiasm, the children will become overstimulated. I witnessed this once when working as a university adjunct. One of my students was conducting a lesson with a group of five-year-olds and spoke to them at an extremely rapid pace and a high pitch throughout. By the time she asked them to move like turtles, what she got was a group of racing turtles!

Certainly, there are times when kids just being kids can make you feel as though you’ve lost control of them. But if you expect children to act like children, you can get ahead of potential issues and nip them in the bud. Here are three typical situations we’ve all experienced, along with solutions:

  • You hand out equipment or a prop to the children and expect them to stand silently, holding onto it and awaiting your instructions with bated breath. But how realistic is that? Young children are playful and inquisitive! If you simply allow them some time to experiment with the props and get it out of their system, they’re much more likely to be ready and willing to listen to you and follow your instructions.
  • You’ve asked the children to gather around but some just aren’t interested, perhaps because they’re in the middle of something they consider more important. It you get started with those who are interested, others will eventually join in – because young children are curious and don’t want to feel left out!
  • Similarly, if you’ve asked the children to group themselves by twos for a game or activity and there are those who object to the child they’re paired with, start without them! There’s no reason to spend time debating with them – and taking time away from the children who are ready to go – when ignoring their behavior is so much more effective. If you begin without them, chances are very good that they’ll partner up and join in.

Speaking of taking partners: if you make a game out of it you’ll have a greater success rate. With an activity called Back to Back, you ask the children to get back to back with someone else as quickly and quietly as they can. You then count down, dramatically, from five to zero, at which point the children should all be paired up. Typically, the children will be more concerned with how quickly they can get back to back than with whom they’re pairing up – because they love games and they love a challenge. But if one of the children complains about his or her partner, implement the practice above.

There will be times, of course, when you wonder if there isn’t an easier way to make a living! (I know I did when I was working directly with the little ones!) These suggestions (along with the other approaches – and activities – I’ll offer in my book) may not guarantee you’ll never again be tempted to look for a less-challenging occupation, but I can guarantee they will help to avoid behavior challenges and create a positive learning environment.



  • Amazing Rae. Thank you for speaking truth… It needs to also be expressed to parents..That, NO. Making your 3 mo old baby “make” a painting for you WILL not help her fine motor skills..(But it will probably Tick her off..LOL) I have painted with many infants in the past-as the “rules” called for it. Also, there was this time when I was caring for a group of infants, and we had all of the babies sitting together at the same time…for a period of time for a story-we were praised for it. The District Manger even took a picture of the story time and sent it out to other centers. And now I feel bad I didn’t speak up more an educate parents. Say-this is NOT a DAP. Many educators already know this…but some just go along with the ridiculous mandatory “circle time” where they must sit…and listen to or do things they have no interest in to begin with! And why is it, that the folks who are making these regs and standards are INSISTING on boxed Curriculum, and the encouraging sitting in circle…or setting a timer to force children to move to the next activity. (That is not free-play OR child led. Sheesh. In my heart I feel telling parents the truth…educating them on what is DAP and getting parents to advocate for more appropriate guidelines would help a lot. As educators we could share the studies…the articles….the REAL IDEAL learning environment. They could then, see a snap shot of a child-led, play-based learning environment, VS, a teacher led…with no open ended toys or open ended play environment. And they could make an educated choice. However, I do know that some parents feel they don’t have a choice, as many chain child care centers DO not offer open ended play….are not nature and play-based…To get that they would have to go to a pricier, and maybe far- from-home school that offered these approaches. (Why can’t all child care centers offer these approaches? Is that possible? I went on a bit of a rabbit trail….sorry. Rant over. 🙂 THANK YOU RAE, for all you do for us in the the world of Early Childhood!

    • Rae says:

      Love your passion, Sherri!

      I have to say, I find it enormously frustrating — and maddening — when admins praise teachers for developmentally inappropriate practices!! We can understand parents not knowing, but there’s no excuse for directors and principals!

  • Maureen Cummings says:

    I feel your pain, Sherri. I teach a Toddler Class and I am in the same boat. I do my best and wish I could teach in a school that is not obsessed with Facebook photos.

  • Theresa Griffin says:

    I agree 100 % with the premise of your new book. Infact it is the perfect answer to many of my questions. I just sent you an email to ask for answers to these concerns. It is so very frustrating when teachers and Early Childhood Educators who are dedicated and so very excited to work with these little ones when we run into the wall with the simple , age appropriate behaviours that you discuss. Of course they have very short attention spans, and no they are not able to stand in line while we decide our next move. We are also seeing behaviours that are surprisingly becoming very common that we did not see a few years ago. Young children bored with what we are trying to introduce. Some of our older SK’s
    standing with arms crossed when we put on dance songs they are far past being interested in. They are exposed to soo many things these days that it takes a great deal of imagination and energy to engage them, even with the self directed play programs we are introducing. Please hurry with your new book.
    Sincerely,,, Theresa Griffin ECE ( Early Childhood Educator )

    • Rae says:

      I didn’t receive an email from you, Theresa. But I appreciate you weighing in here.

      It makes me so sad that you and others are seeing these kinds of behaviors these days. You’re right when you say they’re exposed to so much these days. They have all kinds of things to entertain them, and even their parents believe they must keep them entertained at all times. As a result, children can no longer use their imaginations, and they bore far too easily.

      I’m afraid I didn’t address that particular issue in my new book (manuscript has already been turned in), and I’m not really sure what to say now! I’m going to percolate on it for a while. Thanks, Theresa!

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