Understanding Challenging Behaviors As Communication

Aug 25 / IMPACT Team
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Many early childhood educators report challenging behaviors are one of the hardest parts of their job. IMPACT has supported hundreds of early childhood education programs with managing difficult behaviors and provides consultation, live trainings and online courses on the topic. The first step in tackling challenging behavior is to go back to the basics and work to understand what behavior is. Behavior is objective – it is what a child does or the actions they take. A child's observable actions (the behaviors we can see) are influenced by how they feel inside (their emotions, sensations, and memories). And this is true of all human behavior. What we do and how we act is a reflection of how we feel. All behavior is communication. It’s our job as the adults in their lives to figure out what children are trying to tell us with their actions.
So, when does a behavior become challenging? Where does this behavior come from? Do you think kids behave in a certain way just to make your day harder? Sometimes it may feel that way, but behaviors are not personal. When we say, “challenging behavior,” what we’re really talking about is behavior that is challenging to the adult. Challenging behavior is any behavior that you perceive as challenging. What is "challenging behavior" is subjective. What's challenging to one teacher may not be considered "challenging" by another teacher. And what’s challenging to you on a Friday afternoon at the end of a long, hard week might feel like no big deal to you on a Monday morning when you’re well rested after a restorative weekend. Challenging behavior is really in the eye of the beholder and depends on so many factors, including what’s going on for us as adults.

Children with challenging behavior are whole, complete, wonderful human beings who don't need to be "fixed." They need to be understood and supported. The role of early childhood educators is to examine our teaching practices, our classroom environments, the materials we're using, and our own mindset, to ensure we’re meeting the needs of all students, so children don’t have to communicate their needs through behaviors that may feel challenging to us.

And we need to shift our mindset – so instead of thinking "Kids do well if they want to," the truth is "Kids do well if they can." Challenging behavior is not a matter of children not trying hard enough. Research shows that kids don't lack the will to behave well, they lack the skill to behave well. It's the role of a teacher, of the adult, to figure out what a kid is struggling with and how you can help. Kids who have challenging behaviors are good kids who are still learning skills and who need your support.

 IMPACT’s Mastering Challenging Behaviors: The Essentials online course offers all of the essential information you need to begin to understand behavior in a whole new way and learn specific, effective strategies and tools to make you more confident in addressing challenging behaviors that arise in your classroom or program.