What counts as challenging behaviour? Instead of reacting to students who display challenging behaviour, can we plan an approach to dealing with the behaviour that challenges us? Sahar Tanweer and Yasmeen Shahzad give us some tips to help us understand the underlying causes of challenging behaviour.

Challenging Behaviour: When the going gets tough

A disruptive pre-schooler can turn the class routine on its head. In this article, Sahar Tanweer offers valuable strategies for dealing with challenging behaviour in an ECE environment for anyone who deals with and cares for young children.

A pre-schooler walks into a play environment, picks up a toy and throws it on the floor. The teacher reprimands him “You are a disruptive child. One thing you can do well for sure is, annoy me!”

This statement reminded me of an article that I had read which was based on the premise that teachers are the culprits behind students’ challenging behaviour. The adult in the above situation has done two things by reacting the way that she did. Apart from using harsh words to label the child and overreact, she has also reassured the child that he managed to annoy her. Instead of labelling the child as a disruptive one, the caregiver needs to understand that there is always a reason for problem behaviour. We must first find out the underlying cause of that behaviour. Maybe the child just wanted the adult’s attention and the best possible way that occurred to him was to do something like this.

What is challenging behaviour?

According to Ellen C. Frede of the National Institute for Early Education Research, ‘challenging behaviour is any repeated pattern of behaviour that interferes with learning or engaging in social interactions’. This includes unresponsiveness to developmentally appropriate guidance and actions such as prolonged tantrums, physical and verbal aggression, disruptive vocal and motor behaviour, property destruction, self-injury, noncompliance and withdrawal.

After identifying the challenging behaviour, we need to dig deep into the purpose of the behaviour and what can be done to prevent it from recurring.

As a pre-primary teacher my best guess about the purpose of the child’s behaviour mentioned above would be because she liked the attention she was getting from her teacher and so would annoy her just to grab her attention again. A child, who is seeking the attention of an adult, can either gain this through positive or negative means. If a child is behaving well, occupying themselves, and doing the right things, let’s face it, we often give them little attention.

Possible reasons for challenging behaviour

When children are young, they have trouble communicating, because they may not know the words that describe how they are feeling. Thus, at times when they are hungry, sad, scared, hurt or insecure they may act out their feelings or needs. Also, sometimes it’s only in hindsight that we realise the child was coming down with an illness, when they displayed poor behaviour a day before.

Not to forget, that children learn best by imitation. A child, who sees an adult show frustration by throwing things, is highly likely to be a child who throws toys when he himself is frustrated.

One of the causes, that I have experienced the most in a preschool setting is during transitions, when the children are moving from one activity to another. Also, if the child finds an activity overwhelming or boring they will get frustrated, which in turn could result in an unwanted behaviour.

After you have explored the possible reasons related to the environment, you need to look into the intensity and the frequency of the behaviour. How often is the behaviour displayed? Is the behaviour progressing or regressing? How does the child react after exhibiting that behaviour? These questions will help you decide and successfully implement your prevention and intervention strategy.

Honestly, there is no magic pill that you can give a child in order for him to stop the problem behaviour. However, within classrooms, early childhood teachers can make deliberate efforts to focus on a few things to prevent the occurrence.

Prevention practices in the classroom

You must have heard the phrase, ‘Catch them when they are being good’. In my opinion, it is one of the most effective and quickest ways to promote the appropriate behaviour. Pre-schoolers love to please their teachers. When the teacher shows appreciation and provides positive attention to a display of appropriate behaviour, the child will be motivated and encouraged to reinforce the good behaviour.

I typically use songs or chants for transitions in my class. This minimises the waiting time due to which opportunities for disruptive behaviour are decreased. Engaging in activities that are, varied, fun, and creative and designed to meet children’s individual interests, contribute to children’s positive engagement.

The physical setting of the class plays a major role in fostering a positive interaction between the children. If a child wants to sit and relax in the library corner, but is irritated because of the noise in the music corner next to him, she is most likely to end up feeling frustrated. We must have an organised and comfortable physical space, which includes the layout and boundaries of learning centres and traffic/movement patterns within the classroom.

Balance the day with active times, quiet times, times to be alone, and times to be with others, so that the child is not over-stimulated.

When the child is directed most of the time and is not given choices, his natural desire to be independent is thwarted and feelings of resentment or rebellion may arise. This feeling later results in an unwanted behaviour. An example of giving a child a choice within ‘limits’, would be to let him choose if he wants to use a crayon or a paint to colour.

Helping the pre-schooler put feeling words into context, when she is experiencing a heightened emotional moment. For example, you might say, “I understand that you feel frustrated with this puzzle”. By helping children learn, how to communicate their feelings and emotions effectively, we give them the social and emotional tools they need to deflate tense situations.


Sometimes, there is no time for prevention practices and you witness the behaviour and decide to intervene, what should you do?

Most of the time, the child just doesn’t understand, what is being asked, because the directions are not clear and understandable, as well as stated negatively. Make sure that, when you intervene, you inform the child what to do, rather than what not to do.

If that doesn’t work and the child still continues, try redirecting the child to another behaviour, toy, or activity. For example, tell the child that snatching a toy from his peer’s hand is wrong, while directing him to the toy box to pick another toy.

Remove the child from the situation. For example, if a child is climbing on to a table, to practice his new climbing skills, take him outside, where he has suitable equipment and opportunity for climbing.

When all else fails!

Sometimes, the behaviour is short-term and decreases with age and the use of appropriate guidance strategies. Still if the behaviour persists, you could find out how the family reacts to the problem behaviour when it is displayed at home. The strategies will be most effective if the child sees that ‘no one’ is going to tolerate this kind of behaviour.

The writer, Sahar Tanweer is a TRC-IECE graduate (2010-2011) and is currently a teacher at Mrs. Haque’s Nursery.

References: http://nieer.org/resources/policybriefs/16.pdf

Challenging Behaviour: What works and what doesn’t

Children’s challenging behaviour probably tops the list when it comes to the biggest issues that teachers face in the classroom. In this article, Yasmeen Shahzad discusses the kind of behaviour that winds us up in a primary classroom and discusses appropriate methods to deal with it.

When dealing with children, it is almost expected that at some point we will be challenged by their behaviour. Sometimes the challenging behaviour is only aimed at irritating the teacher or parent, at another time it may be aimed at disrupting the daily routine at home or at school. Whatever it is, it makes everyone, teachers and students – suffer.

Many types of behaviours can be categorised as challenging. For some teachers, a chuckle during a classroom discussion could classify as challenging, whereas for another teacher a student who stands around staring and not doing what they have been asked to do could be termed challenging. It is therefore important to realise that when classifying any behaviour as challenging, we also have to take into account the teacher’s perception. Thus if a teacher finds a particular behaviour difficult to cope with, it is classified as challenging.
What is challenging behaviour?

There is no single, universally accepted definition for challenging behaviour. It can be defined in quite a few ways, and is any form of behaviour that interferes with children’s learning or normal development; is harmful to the child or adults; or puts children in a high-risk category for later social problems or school failure. Or to use a formal definition, “Behaviour of such intensity, frequency and duration that the physical safety of the person or others is likely to be placed in serious jeopardy or behaviour which is likely to seriously limit or delay access to and use of ordinary facilities.” (Emerson et al 1987)

It can therefore be said that any behaviour that is against the social norm and is aimed at irritating a caretaker can be called challenging.

In a home, a caretaker may be subjected to wild tantrums, a child refusing to clean up after playing, disobeying, or not eating food, but in this article we are specifically talking about challenging behaviour in a school setting, where there will always be a number of children who challenge the teacher in a way which does not fall within the norms expected at their age. The types of behaviour that are most commonly perceived to be challenging in a classroom are:

• Not listening to the teacher
• Not doing one’s work
• Distracting others
• Avoiding homework deliberately
• Excessive talking with friends
• Using different tactics to delay class work
• Roaming about in the class
• Hitting or teasing
• Bullying
• Stealing
• Lying
• Leaving notebooks at home

Usually, disruptive behaviour such as throwing tantrums, crying loudly and running away is limited to the lower primary classes.

Causes of challenging behaviour

Identifying why children display challenging behaviour is key to finding a solution. The first and foremost step to keep in mind is the promotion of positive or pro-social behaviour. Punishing a child is not the solution, as it tends to make them stubborn. A caretaker must bear in mind the various reasons, which lead to challenging behaviour. Some of these can be:

• Not understanding the work that is being done
• Seeking attention
• Too many instructions given in the course of one lesson
• Peer pressure
• Boredom
• Student is unwell
• Student has a single parent
• Problems at home. These include:
1. Fights between parents
2. A sick parent
3. A new addition to the family
4. Economic issues
5. Being neglected at home
6. Death in the family

Strategies for dealing with challenging behaviour

Once the behaviour and its reason are identified, teachers can sometimes be stumped about what to do in a particular situation. Some children may exhibit challenging behaviour as a result of a specific condition, but whatever the cause, the welfare of the child should be of paramount concern.

Children who do not show any interest in class, do not listen to the teacher or distract others make it very difficult for us to continue our work. Instead of thinking of ways to make the child realise that he is the culprit, the teacher can review her teaching strategies as the child may simply be bored by how he is being taught.

Destructive behaviour, bullying, stealing or showing aggression may be a result of being neglected at home. Children who roam about the classroom, or who don’t do their work or who peep into friends’ notebooks may be doing so because they do not understand the language or the difficult terms used by the teacher. Giving clear instructions and using age-appropriate language may bring an end to this problem.

Knowing the children we teach is always beneficial. Giving extra attention to those who seek it will not only be helpful for them, but also for the rest of the class. Talking to the students when they are emotionally under the weather can also help. I have talked to quite a few students separately, who were exhibiting challenging behaviour and the discussion has always been fruitful – the most important message I conveyed at that time was that there is someone who cares, and that was enough to make all the difference in the world!

All of us need a safe environment for our mental stability and children are no different. A safe and secure classroom with a regular routine, where the child is assured that while his act might be against the social norm he himself is not ‘bad’, makes him comfortable and a willing worker.

Having a discussion and then coming up with classroom norms always proves to be helpful. Words matter a lot. For example instead of using “Do not shout”, we could say “We talk softly with one another”. “No kicking or pushing”, can be conveyed as “Keep your hands and feet to yourself.” The meaning remains the same, but the impact softens.

Can children’s challenging behaviour be curtailed?

If I could answer using a single word, the answer would be yes.

Even without uttering a single word, we have the ability to communicate through our body language and behaviour. Our thoughts automatically become our actions, as all humans are capable of transmitting positive or negative signals through verbal and non-verbal language. Whatever we say (verbal language); our body might give different signals (non-verbal). We can easily intimidate, humiliate, comfort or reassure a child through our body language and facial expressions.

I would like to share a few measures I have adopted and found to be very helpful in minimising challenging behaviour.

Be respectful. You get what you give. If a child is respected, he will respect others in turn.
Be consistent. A predictable routine helps a child settle down easily. Sharing the weekly plan can also be of assistance.
Offer choices. Choice give assurance that the children can choose the questions or medium they are most comfortable with and at the same time it gives them confidence that they can decide.
Stay calm. It needs a lot of practice, but once we get a hang of it, there is no turning back. It also improves the quality of their work by guaranteeing that whatever happens, the teacher would help them.
Give responsibilities. By making class in-charges or helpers of the day, we can make sure that everybody gets a chance to share responsibility.
Notice the change. Even acknowledging a new haircut makes the student realise that the teacher notices.
Be fair. We all have our personal favourites, but while dealing with such children we should make sure not to let our feelings affect our judgment. At the same time, we need to be very careful with our words and never say what we do not mean to say. If, by any chance, we feel, we would not be able to judge fairly, we should delay the discussion and come back to it later.
Not discussing our students with other teachers. There is no denying that there are variations of ability amongst children and some do struggle with a particular subject or subjects, but once a label is attached, it is very difficult to take it off. Labelling is akin to stamping the child as defective and leads to low self-esteem, thus increasing their chances of exhibiting challenging behaviour. A child who is labelled will, consciously or unconsciously, live up to it.

While dealing with children, the following should never be permitted as a means of managing behaviour:
• Physical punishment or the threat of such
• Refusal to speak or interact with the child
• Being deprived of breaks or other co-curricular activities
• Ridicule or humiliation.

I would like to end on the note that children who show evidence of challenging behaviour are sending messages that something is just not okay or their needs are not being met. It then becomes the responsibility of the teacher or the caretaker to interpret such behaviour and tackle it in the best way possible.

The writer, Yasmeen Shahzad is an IECE graduate (2010-2011) and teaches English to classes 4 and 5 at the P.E.C.H.S Girls’ School.


May 2012