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Early Childhood Years and the Cycle of Challenging Behavior

I am a recent graduate from the University of Washington with a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Early Childhood Education and Family Studies.  Of all of the subjects that I studied in the program, I found the knowledge I acquired on “Positive Behavioral Support” to be the most valuable and directly applicable to the classroom.  Positive behavioral support however can be extended outside of the classroom and applied in the home, or even in the work place.  Simple approaches can be effective in order to help your children respond with the behaviors you would like to see from them.

To begin, I must define challenging behavior. Challenging behavior is defined as any behavior that is undesirable, such as crying, hitting, and whining.  It is important to understand that children, and human beings in general, behave for two reasons:  to obtain or to escape.  Either the child is trying to obtain something, usually attention, or they are trying to escape and avoid something, usually a responsibility.

Young children often do not have the verbal skills in place to address their needs appropriately, so they respond behaviorally, and often in undesirable ways.

For example, after Monisha has her nightly bath, dad says, “it’s time for bed”, and then Monisha throws her nightly tantrum.  Dad then responds to the tantrum and pays attention to Monisha by arguing with her or trying to calm her down.  What Monisha really wants is time with dad, since he has been at work all day, but she doesn’t know how to say it, so instead she gains his attention by throwing tantrums and avoids going to bed.  The behavior continues night after night because Monisha is obtaining attention and escaping bedtime.

Instead, Monisha needs to be taught a replacement skill.  Something that enables her to get what she wants just as effectively, but in an appropriate way.  You may start by opening up a conversation and asking, “Monisha, were you wanting time with daddy before bedtime?”  You can then teach your child to say, “Dad, can I have a story with you before bed time?”  It is very important that the replacement skill serves the same purpose as the challenging behavior.  After Monisha asks for her story and dad tries to say goodnight, Monisha might very well try throwing a tantrum again. It is critical that this undesirable behavior is ignored to ensure it does not work for her anymore.  The child will eventually give up, when they see their behavior is not getting them what they want.

If your child is strong-willed, the challenging behavior may even get worse for a short while, as they figure that they must try harder to get what they want, but you must ensure the behavior still does not work for them.  Remember, attention is the most precious resource to children, and anything you pay attention to will manifest.

It is then important to consider the value of praise.  Most often, parents intervene during what we call “red arrow moments”, the times when Monisha is having her tantrum or the child is showing undesirable behaviors.  Children are gaining negative attention in these moments, yet they are still gaining attention, and a child will accept it in any shape or form.

To combat challenging behaviors, parents need to focus on giving positive attention during the “green arrow moments” to encourage behaviors that are pleasing.  For example, “Monisha, I noticed you got ready for bed all by yourself!  You sure are a big girl!  I know after you have story time with daddy, that you are going to be able to go to bed quietly, just like the big girl that you are! I’m so proud of you!”  or “Krish, I noticed that you cleaned up your blocks.  Thank you for taking care of your toys!”

Positive statements that praise children for desirable behaviors that you would like to see more often, communicates to children what is pleasing to you and helps them self-regulate their own behavior.


You can think about it as it applies to you.  If your boss tells you, “thank you for taking extra time for working on that report.  I could tell you paid extra attention to the details and it made the difference in our meeting today,” would you be more encouraged to apply the same extra effort the next time around?  What if your boss, wife or husband were always correcting you, telling you, “don’t do this…  we don’t do that…. you need to do better…”?  How would that make you feel?  How would you act?  What if they instead focused on all of your strengths and all of the good choices you make?  How would that change your feelings and consequently, your behavior?  The same principles apply to children.

Visual supports are also very valuable to children and can be defining in breaking the cycle of challenging behavior.  I often hear complaints about having difficulty with daily routines.  Making posters for your children to help them follow the routine is tremendously helpful to them.  In Monisha’s case, I would create a chart with pictures that show Monisha brushing her teeth, putting on her jammies, having story with dad, and then a picture that shows her happily in bed by herself.  The visual supports remind Monisha of her behavioral expectations and support her in the development of her self-regulation.


These are just a few strategies, to name the least.

If you are experiencing challenging behaviors at home and would like added support, I am available for home visits by appointment.  With over 15 years of experience in the field, my mission is to help families reach their full potential, especially in the early childhood years, when it can be most challenging, yet the most effective.  Parenting is difficult enough as it is, and it is much easier to change your parenting approach and intervene when your children are young, as opposed to when they are adolescents.  Please email me at, if you would like an individual consultation.

Author: Ashley Thompson

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2 thoughts on “Early Childhood Years and the Cycle of Challenging Behavior

  1. Very nice article Ashley! I am a mother of 2 kids and also a Montessori teacher.
    Very true that young children needs time and attention from atleast one of the parents. I believe that 0-5 years are the most important years for any child .
    I had to take a bold/tough decision of being a SAHM after I had back to back kids. But I can proudly say that those five years were the best years in my life . I never had any problem with either setting the routine for my kids or potty training or with their speech. And I truly feel that’s only because I had all my time devoted to them .
    If one of the parents can devote time ,then parenting is a pleasure!


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