Working with Children-Preventing Challenging Behavior

This post is for teachers, those considering fostering or adopting or parenting in the future or are currently, those that know someone that does/is, those that work with children in another capacity, or those that know someone with challenging behavior.  Basically everyone. :)
I have mentioned to several of you in the past that my job relates to challenging behavior and supporting those that support individuals with challenging behavior.  Anyway, I hadn't been able to find a good comprehensive list of basic techniques to share, so I have been meaning for a while now to put one together. 
Because I thought it might be a helpful resource for others, I am including it below-sorry for the length, but when you are "there" you want lots of options!
These are research-based.  They are meant for use with all types of children, but are especially helpful if the child has any difficult behavior.  Let me say up front that I know these can seem really obvious at first glance, but as I am sure the parents and teachers can attest to, when you get emotionally involved it is easy for these ideas to go out the window.  It is nice to have a list you can go back to and remind yourself that even though you don't have control over all the variables, there are certain things you can do to to help the situation and set the child up for a greater chance of success.  The focus of this list is preventing challening behavior in the first place.  It applies to wide range of ages, though I kind of wrote it geared to younger children and parents.
Because they were off the top of my head, I was worried I was missing some, so I ran them by an early childhood educator.  She didn't add any new ones techniques, just elaborated on some in parenthesis, and I have included both of our thoughts here, unedited.  Since we are both "in the field," we may not have realized if something isn't as obvious to others, so feel free to ask me to elaborate and I will use your feedback to perfect the list.
Without further ado...


1. Have clear expectations that are developmentally appropriate (joining Parents As Teachers for those children birth through 3 might be a way to know what those expectations are for parents. Books such as “what to expect…” are helpful, too)

2. Talk about expectations; teach them, role play how to act appropriately. Make it a game and fun.

3. Reward the child with praise or whatever motivates (internally preferable to external) when they act appropriately. (hugs or clapping are good ones, but depends on the age, etc)

4. Give choices-usually two because more is overwhelming (and be sure you can follow through on their choice option)

5. Schedule, predictability, consistency (and consistency, and consistency, and consistency!)

6. Children thrive on routines-there should be a bath routine, a bedtime routine, a naptime routine, even a dinner routine (with prayer and handwashing and carrying our plate over or asking to be excused). (and as close as possible to the same time each day to help with the child’s internal clock knowing when things are coming – this is more important for younger children, children in transition and some little personalities that happen to be more sensitive)

7. Giving kids enough sleep goes a long way toward good behavior. Find out what is developmentally appropriate by resources such as babycenter.com or there are several good sleep books out there.

8. Ignoring and redirecting or distracting is the easiest way to deal with challenging behavior.

9. When you notice patterns of challenging behavior, prepare the child going into the situation. Talk about what they need to do beforehand.

10. If at all possible, set the environment up for the child to be successful. For example, make sure there aren’t toys in the bedroom if they can be distracting where the child wants to play and not go to bed; don’t have a house full of things they can’t touch, etc. Altering the environment to prevent challenging behavior (such as childproofing) makes your life easier.

11. Talking about what to do is preferable to talking about what not to do. (children’s brains actually have trouble processing your meaning when you say “don’t run”; what their brain processes first is the “run” portion – so try to state things in a positive way, such as “walking feet”)

12. Shaping means we might have to change behavior a little at a time and reward progress in the right direction, no matter how small.

13. Never underestimate the power of a good sticker chart.

14. Find out what motivates the child-is it your praise? Your attention? An item like trucks?

15. Transitions, especially from things children are having fun doing to things children don’t like to do are tough. In this case, sometimes a warning is helpful so they just aren’t snatched away. Five minutes, then one minute, then the timer goes off. Then you approach them from the front and not surprise them from the back if you are picking them up. You never respond to them throwing a fit by then giving them an additional minute or two.

16. Down time can be the enemy. Anticipate things like standing in line at the post office and bring things to do, sing songs, play I spy, etc. Have food, a big diaper bag with novel things, etc.

17. Children that are active may have a hard time standing still. It might be easier if the child is held, or has a chair to sit in, even cross legged on the floor with a book rather than just standing waiting. Sometimes these children need something in their hands, like a cup of milk, during a story to sit still.

18. Songs and books, even ones you make up, are a great way to teach things like patience, self-control, how to respond when you are frustrated, taking turns, interrupting, etc. I have about 3 CDs that cover all these things put out by people of faith and/or music therapists I’d be happy to share. Cathy Bollinger is one I like a lot.

19. Surround your child with good examples, role models in real life, good examples on tv, good characters in stories. Children are sponges, so you might as well have them soak in good stuff and make every story count/song/tv show count.

20. Children act out mostly when they are hungry or tired. Do not think that just one stop on the way home before dinner will be quick and easy. You will regret it unless you are armed with lots of snacks  (and we often forget they might be thirsty or needing to potty – if older- and not realizing/verbalizing that that is what is making them cranky)

21. When a child acts out, most important is why they are acting out, not in what form it occurs in. What is your best guess-the options are not many-it is either to get something, avoid something, or for stimulation (like banging head). Sometime it can be a combination. Of those three are they wanting/avoiding: an item, peer attention, or adult attention? Can you teach them a better way to get what they are wanting, a way that is more appropriate? (as they get older, the more options of ways they can respond correlate directly with their ability to solve the problem quickly – get them thinking, “what else might work?” and help it become natural to come up with MANY ways of solving a problem…that gives you more options of acceptable choices that you or the other party can agree to)

22. Quality childcare or preschool program (or elementary school teacher, etc) is paramount as children often spend a lot of time there and are really shaped by their environment. Do your homework.

23. Behavior is communicative. The better a child can express themselves, the less likely they will act out in frustration. Can you help give your child the words to use? If your child struggles with words, how about signs which you can help a child do by prompting them with your hands? Or would a picture schedule or something more visual be helpful-like some picture choices of food items with magnets on the fridge as snack options, etc

24. Some things, like time, can be very abstract and hard for little ones to grasp. Making it as tangible as possible helps, so setting a timer to count down time, or filling empty boxes with stars, and when all the boxes are filled up that means it is time for X (something they are looking forward to) might help make it more concrete.

25. Proximity is helpful. A child is more likely to act appropriately if you are physically close. (and down on their level, esp looking into their eyes when possible)

26. Discipline means you are teaching appropriate behavior, much like you teach anything; it isn’t the same as punishment. Good behavior isn’t a given, it is learned like anything else.

27. There is such thing as behavioral momentum. We want the gravity to pull your child toward good behavior, not bad, and we want the environment to be one that is encouraging, not discouraging.

28. Spanking a child tells them hitting is okay. It also only tends to work on the very good children that aren’t likely to act out in the first place. For children with behaviors, once it happens, the mystery is gone and they realize it isn’t really anything to fear. So next time the spanking is harder, then you find yourself doing it more often, you can’t keep raising the stakes with something like spanking or eventually you are beating a child or giving up. (K and T has some points pro spanking; I didn’t include them here because this list was made prior and represents my education and work experience, as well as my philosophy. As with everything, there are other views out there; but on this list this is probably the only one that is controversial in any way).

29. You should praise your child between 4 and 10 times for every time you say something negative or corrective. We often notice the bad and not the good and children find the best way to get our attention is do something so mom or dad corrects them.

30. If you are going to give up on something you started, give up early. We all have our days where we are tired and can’t follow through. Fine. But don’t hold your ground for a long time and then give it up after the child pushes. It will only encourage him/her to push harder the next time. (If you want to give in, ask yourself, “am I giving in because it is not really important, or because I don’t want to deal with the battle/tantrum, etc. If the answer is that you are trying to avoid a tantrum or don’t have the energy to deal with the battle, know that that is the answer to set you up for failure in the long run (and not the right answer, though sometimes happens for sanity)


K and T said...

This is a great list - and yeah - the only thing we differ on is the spanking part. I know, know, know folks have strong views on both sides, views that are backed up with studies and statistics.... (kind of like politics, right?) I recommend "The Strong Willed Child" because the author is a professional and I'm not, so he can explain my view for me.
I love how you worded how critical routines are. It has worked so well in our home - all three children are thriving. They know what to expect - so they feel safe - and when a child feels safe - everything else seems to fall into place.

mrsblondies said...

Great list. Thanks for sharing.