Understanding the “Why” of Challenging Behavior in Young Children Can Help With Strategies

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By Hayley Jackson, Extension Educator in Lancaster County

Editor’s note: This is third in a series of articles. Previous Nebline issues are at https://lancaster.unl.edu/nebline.

Challenging behavior in young children is defined as a repeated pattern of behavior that impedes the ability of the child to engage in appropriate social interactions with both their peers and adults (NCPMI, 2023). There are some simple strategies we can use to lessen the likelihood that challenging behaviors are going to happen.

Let’s examine what children’s behavior tells us and how we can use that information to reduce the occurrence of challenging behaviors. When young children engage in challenging behaviors such as hitting, temper tantrums or refusal to comply with a directive, it can be extremely frustrating for both the young child and the adult alike. Typically, adults view children’s misbehavior as something that the child is doing on purpose to upset the caregiver. When working with young children, this is typically not the case.

One of the underlying assumptions when thinking about challenging behavior in young children is the idea that all behavior is a form of communication. Even when your child is throwing a temper tantrum, they are communicating a message. Maybe that message is that they are tired or hungry, or they are dysregulated and need your support in calming down.

Whatever the behavior, our job as adults is to look past the behavior to try and figure out what the behavior is telling us. The “what” or “why” of the behavior is commonly referred to as the function of the behavior (NAEYC, 2023).

The best way to figure out what the behavior is communicating is to observe the child in the environment when the challenging behavior is most likely to occur. You will want to pay special attention to what happens before the behavior (the antecedent), what the specific challenging behavior is and then what happens directly after the child engages in the behavior (often referred to as the consequence). This is called the ABC’s of behavior — with the A being the Antecedent, the B being the Behavior and the C being the consequence. Examining the behavior in context can sometimes provide clues as to what the behavior is trying to tell us.

Attainment of a Privilege/Object:
• Grabbing toys from peers without permission.
• Refusal to share toys.
• Hitting peers to be first in line.

Avoidance of a Task/Activity/Person:
• Acting out before a certain activity
• Saying “no” when asked to complete an activity such as cleaning up.
• Pretending they can’t hear your request.

Attention or Seeking Connection:
• Engaging in challenging behavior only when they know you are watching.
• Asking for a caregiver’s time/energy/attention, but not receiving it.

• Running away from caregivers in loud environments.
• Overstimulated easily in busy environments.

Once you have an educated guess as to what the behavior is communicating, you can then start to alter your behavior or the environment to reduce the likelihood that the challenging behavior continues. How you do this will relate directly to the “why” of the behavior.

Since we know that behavior is communicating either a missing skill or unmet need within the environment, the logical way to reduce the challenging behavior is to teach the child the missing skill or modify the environment to support their needs being met.

For example, if a child is being aggressive with friends because they do not have the skill to take turns with a preferred toy, we could teach the child strategies for taking turns. Strategies such as trading toys, getting a timer or practicing deep breathing while we wait are all skills children could use to take turns with peers. Once the child has additional skills to successfully take turns, they will not need to use aggression to share and instead they will start to use the appropriate strategies to take turns.

Biting is another example of a challenging behavior. If we observe a young toddler biting peers in order to engage in social play, we would want to teach the child strategies for entering into play with peers in more appropriate ways. One such way would be to teach them to grab a toy of interest, walk up to a peer and say “play?” while holding up the toy. Once the child learns to successfully enter into play with a new strategy, the child’s biting should diminish as they have a new way to achieve their goal.

Thinking about challenging behaviors as a missing skill or unmet need can help adults to reduce negative feelings about the behavior and the child. Although challenging behaviors are frustrating, viewing the behavior as a tool for communication rather than children “being bad” can be helpful in reframing the way we feel about the behavior. Viewing challenging behavior in this way also reminds us that one of our jobs as caregivers is to teach children the skills and strategies they need to be successful in the world.