Early childhood is a time of rapid physical, emotional and cognitive development. Children come from a wide range of backgrounds and will experience many developmentally normal social, emotional, and behavioural problems during this period. Many children will also engage in ongoing, persistent, harmful challenging behaviours that may hurt, interfere, or intimidate others. The impact of dealing with these ongoing challenging behaviours can be incredibly stressful for educators, support staff, children, and their families. If not managed effectively it contributes to a higher teacher workload, breakdowns in relationships and consequent feelings of overwhelm and burnout. It also puts the child at a high risk for later social problems, mental health issues and school failure.
In the past, educators would punish children displaying challenging behaviours through reprimand and negative consequences. The intent was to reduce or eliminate the immediate problem, however, it was detrimental to the emotional well-being of the child, and did not give them the skills in pro-social behaviour or the opportunity to practice self-regulation. More recent research tells us that the most effective way to deal with these behaviours is to utilise a positive approach by addressing the underlying cause of the behaviour and teaching children life-long skills in problem solving, communication, independent thinking, and social-emotional competence
In special education settings, complex challenging behaviours are typical on a daily basis and teachers have been trained to use a process called functional behavioural assessment to understand why the challenging behaviour is happening in the first place and how aspects of the environment or situation contribute towards the behaviour. This process is extremely effective as it looks beyond the problem behaviour and instead tries to understand the motivation behind it. The undesirable behaviour is then replaced with a pro-social behaviour which assists with the long-term well-being of all members of the classroom. Functional behavioural assessments can be tedious and time-consuming, as they utilise direct observations, data collection, interviews, and reviews of Individual Education Plans and medical records. Functional behavioural assessment, however, can be simplified and adapted to suit the principles, practices and learning outcomes of the Early Years Learning Framework and still achieve the same positive results.
The following is a step-by-step guide that can be used by early educators to support children engaging in challenging behaviours:
Step 1: List and prioritise the challenging behaviours.
This step involves brainstorming and writing down all the challenging behaviours that the child engages in. The educator should put them in order from most challenging behaviour to the least challenging behaviour. To avoid confusion and overwhelm, it is important to just work on one behaviour at a time. Start with the behaviour that is negatively impacting the learning environment the most.
Step 2: Create a realistic hypothesis of why the challenging behaviour is occurring.
This part of the process involves analysing the first behaviour on the list and trying to understand why it is occurring in the first place. To get more of an insight into the motivations of the child, educators should observe exactly what happens before, during and after the challenging behaviour and keep an accurate record of their findings. For educators to gain a deeper understanding, if possible, they should also seek input from other staff members, support workers, parents, or caregivers. Sometimes children can act differently in the presence or absence of specific people, at varying times of the day or in alternate environments. Having other adults observe and give feedback will give the educator different perspectives and insights into the child’s challenging behaviour.
After analysing the behaviour itself, the educator can identify specific patterns and accurately hypothesise why the child is engaging in that particular behaviour. Regardless of whether the challenging behaviour is hitting, biting, spitting, destroying property, invading personal space, tantrums, snatching toys, screaming or foul language; the underlying reasons generally fall into three categories:
1️⃣ To get what they want
2️⃣To avoid something
3️⃣ To meet sensory, physical, emotional, or developmental needs
When creating a hypothesis, it is important to understand that this process works on a no blame theory, because accusations seldom lead to positive intervention strategies. The blame for the challenging behaviours cannot be placed on someone or something. Therefore, all adults involved in this process should be objective, self-reflective, and open to change and personal growth.
STEP 3: Create a Positive Behaviour Management Plan (PBMP)
A PBMP involves developing intervention strategies to decrease the challenging behaviours and supporting the child to practice positive, pro-social behaviours instead. These strategies will depend solely on what the educator has discovered in Step Two and why they think the challenging behaviour has occurred in the first place.
The educator should take the following into consideration when constructing the intervention strategies:
Make necessary adjustments to the environment, activity, time, or communication style used.
Break down the new positive, pro-social behaviour into small chunks of information appropriate to the age and developmental needs of the child.
Use intrinsic positive reinforcement to encourage the new, pro-social behaviour.
Consider connection first as an intervention when the challenging behaviour occurs.
Support natural consequences to discourage the challenging behaviour.
Progress to logical consequences if needed, but ensure they have a meaningful connection to the behaviour (not random, ambiguous punishments).
Step 4: Consider barriers to success.
Potentially there are many barriers that could impact upon the success of the PBMP, including staff training, budget, resources, time available, and/or family support. It is important for the educator to consider all barriers and devise appropriate strategies to counteract or minimise them beforehand.
Step 5: Trial and review the Positive Behaviour Management Plan (PBMP)
Using knowledge of reflective practice, it is imperative for the educator to trial and review the PBMP and reflect upon its efficacy on a regular basis. They should keep relevant records of observations and any changes implemented. If the educator feels like the PBMP is not working, they should return to Step two and consider a different hypothesis.
In conclusion, when educators understand the motivations behind challenging behaviours, they are better equipped to implement positive behaviour solutions appropriate to the individual needs of each child. This five-step positive behaviour approach aligns with the Early Years Learning Framework concept of being, belonging and becoming. With the relationship at the forefront of the solution, both the educator and the child can connect in a safe, respectful, and meaningful way. This allows children to be supported in exploring, growing, learning, and developing their own identity while still maintaining the consistent behaviour boundaries required in an early learning environment.
This article has also been published (with permission) in the following places:
Information in this article is based on my experience as a Special Education and Early Years trained teacher with post-graduate studies in Positive Psychology. Additional information for this article was sourced from:
Chandler, L., & Dahliquist, C. (2015). Functional assessment : Strategies to prevent and remediate challenging behaviors in school settings. New Jersey: Pearson.
Cipani, E. (2017). Functional Behavioral Assessment, Diagnosis, and Treatment. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
National Center for Pyramid Model of Innovations. (2018, January). What is challenging behavior in early childhood. Retrieved from National Center for Pyramid Model of Innovations: https://challengingbehavior.cbcs.usf.edu/resources/index.html
Wright, P. (2021). Functional behavioral assessment, behavioral intervention plans and positive interventions and supports. . Retrieved from Virginia Department of Education: : http://www.doe.virginia.gov/support/student_conduct/functional_behavioral_assessment.pdf
Children’s Author, Freelance Writer + Educational Consultant
Renee is a children’s author based on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. She is passionate about creating profound social change by providing children, teachers and parents with the positive language needed for healthy social and emotional development. She is the author of picture books, The Strongest Boy, and Rosie Leads the Way.