This blog post was contributed by Carla Peixoto (inED).
Preschool teachers often worry about how to manage children’s challenging behaviors, such as throwing objects, disrupting other children’s activities, hitting, etc. While in some cases challenging behaviors are brief and easy to manage, in others they are persistent and intense. The latter may interfere in a significant way with children’s learning and engagement in prosocial interactions with peers and adults [1, 2]. Indeed, research has documented variability in socio-emotional skills (e.g., emotion regulation, cooperative behaviors) of preschool children [3, 4]. Some children actually enter elementary school with a disadvantage and may face serious difficulties in adapting to the demands of the new formal educational context [2, 5]. Also, if weaknesses in preschool socio-emotional development persist over time, children may experience later school and social problems [1, 2].
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
Contrary to a more traditional view of intervening only when problems arise, I think we agree that prevention pays off! With this agenda in mind, I will share some universal preventive practices related to aspects of the classroom environment that preschool teachers can use intentionally. These practices intend to increase the likelihood of prosocial behaviors and to decrease the occurrence of children’s challenging behaviors, and the need of additional and more intensive interventions.
1. Organize an engaging and well-defined classroom environment
The physical layout of the classroom and the materials available are important features of the classroom environment that can affect children’s behavior and peer interactions. Thus, teachers can prevent the occurrence of challenging behaviors, and promote children’s prosocial behaviors and engagement in activities by:
(a) defining clearly the boundaries of each learning area;
(b) separating active play areas from quiet play areas;
(c) avoiding overcrowding of space so that movement in the classroom does not interfere with activities;
(d) including sufficient, diverse, and significant materials for children in the classroom .
Consistent and predictable schedules of daily events, which includes balanced small and large group activities, active and quiet activities, as well as free play and structured activities, can also increase the likelihood of children engage in positive behaviors [1, 6].
As the transition between activities or routines is one of the occasions when challenging behavior is more likely to occur, teachers can reduce the waiting time between activities or routines and ensure that children know what to do at these specifics moments. Transitions can also be facilitated by visual (e.g., a poster illustrating the sequence of activities and routines throughout the day with pictures of the children themselves,) and verbal cues (e.g., warning 5 minutes before transition; using a familiar song as a warning and preparation for transition time) [6, 7].
2. Define and teach children what is expected of their behavior
Some children may exhibit inappropriate behavior because classroom expectations have not been clearly outlined. The definition of classroom rules is an essential tool to promote children’s learning of appropriate behaviors. Considering the classroom behavior expectations and the challenging behaviors that usually arise in the classroom, teachers can establish, ideally with children’s participation, three to six behavior rules, which need to be simple, positive and easy to follow (e.g., Play safely; Use kind words; Put toys back after play; Have fun). After class discussion, the behaviors associated with each rule must be modeled. Rules should be displayed in the classroom (with pictures of children demonstrating desired behaviors) and revisited regularly with children, particularly before moments that challenging behaviors are most likely to occur. It is important not to forget the need to acknowledge positively and specifically the children who are demonstrating the appropriate behavior (e.g., “Mary, I really enjoyed the way you shared the puzzle with Michael”) in order to increase the likelihood of such behavior being repeated [1, 6, 8].
What is the role of teacher-child relationships?
The success of any approach to manage children’s challenging behaviors inevitably depends on one basic condition: the existence of a positive and trusting relationship between adults and children, characterized by warm, sensitive and responsive interactions . In several studies, it has been documented that children who experience positive interactions with adults are more likely to demonstrate more social skills and fewer behavioral problems . In this sense, creating a classroom environment where all children feel welcome, comfortable, and safe should be a priority!
Food for thought…
What do you usually do intentionally and systematically to prevent the occurrence of children’s challenging behaviors in your classroom? Here are some questions for reflection:
– Are there visual clues in your classroom to prevent challenging behaviors, such as pictures that indicate where each child should sit at circle time or symbols representing the maximum number of children per corner?
– Can you easily monitor all children anywhere in the classroom?
– In your classroom are there three to six simple rules stated positively? Are the rules illustrated and posted at children’s eye level?
References Powell, D., Dunlap, G., & Fox, L. (2006). Prevention and intervention for the challenging behaviors of toddlers and preschoolers. Infant & Young Children, 19(1), 25-35.  Coleman, J. C., Crosby, M. G., Irwin, H. K., Dennis, L. R., Simpson, C. G., & Rose, C. A. (2013). Preventing challenging behaviors in preschool: Effective strategies for classroom teachers. Young Exceptional Children, 16(3), 3-10.  Boyd, J., Barnett, W. S., Bodrova, E., Leong, D. J., Gomby, D., Robin, K. B., & Hustedt, J. T. (2005). Promoting children’s social and emotional development through preschool. NIEER Policy Report (March 2005). New Brunswick, New Jersey: National Institute for Early Education Research, Rutgers University.  Rimm-Kaufman, S., Pianta, R. C., & Cox, M. (2000). Teachers’ judgments of problems in the transition to school. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 15, 147-1669.  Cadima, J., Gamelas, A. M., McClelland, M., & Peixoto, C. (2015). Associations between early family risk, children’s behavioral regulation, and academic achievement in Portugal. Early Education and Development, 26(5), 708-728.  Hancok, C. L., & Carter, D. R. (2016). Building environments that encourage positive behavior: The preschool behavior support self-assessment. Young Children, 71(1), 66-73.  Hemmeter, M. L., Ostrosky, M. M., Artman, K., & Kinder, K. (2008). Moving right along… planning transitions to prevent challenging behavior. Young Children, 63(3), 1-7.  Coleman, J. C., Crosby, M. G., Irwin, H. K., Dennis, L. R., Simpson, C. G., & Rose, C. A. (2013). Preventing challenging behaviors in preschool: Effective strategies for classroom teachers. Young Exceptional Children, 16(3), 3-10.  Dunlap, G., Wilson, K., Strain, P., & Lee, J. (2013). Prevent-teach-reinforce for young children: The early childhood model of individualized positive behavior support. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.