Reduce Challenging Behavior in Preschool

By Celestte Dills


You have heard the saying, “Practice makes perfect.” No one is perfect and striving for perfection may cause feelings of anxiety, jealousy, or despair. Instead, we practice because we are in a constant state of growth. We are learning to be or do better than the previous day.


Let’s reframe the saying to say, “Practice means progress.” When we practice a skill, a little each day, then we build a new habit. Research has shown that it takes an average of 66 days to develop a new habit.


Here are five daily practice activities to reduce challenging behavior and increase prosocial behavior.


Practice Labeling and Role-Playing Emotions


Help children develop emotional awareness by role-playing emotions.


  1. Try to use synonyms for often used emotions (e.g., happy: ecstatic, joyful, giddy, delighted, etc.).
  2. Hold up emotion cards and invite children to role-play the displayed emotion.
  3. You perform (or invite a child to perform) an emotion. Other children try to guess the emotion.
  4. Play a version of “Simon Says” with emotions. Say, “(Your name) says, look scared (mad, sad, happy, etc.).” Encourage children to role-play the named emotion.
  5. Display an emotions poster. As children arrive ask, “What emotion are you feeling today?” Children can name or simply point to a picture. Follow up with, “Why?” (Take a few moments to comfort or console children who are feeling strong emotions. Celebrate with children feeling lighter emotions.)

Practice 5:1 Compliments


It takes five positive comments to undo the “damage” from one corrective comment.


Consider the following scenario:


You have spent all week preparing for a visit from an important visitor (licensor, accreditor, quality coach). You have cleaned everything, refreshed your learning centers, and replaced the bulletin board displays. You feel proud and accomplished, sure to pass the discerning eye of your visitor. The visitor walks the space and doesn’t say anything until leaving. On their way out they say, “It looks like one of the pictures on that display has fallen down.” How do you think you would feel? Disappointed? Angry? Couldn’t they find one positive thing to say? You worked so hard!


Children (especially children experiencing strong emotions) frequently experience this type of feedback. They will hear more corrective statements. Even statements phrased in a positive manner can feel like a negative call out.

For example:

  1. (Child’s name), use your walking feet.
  2. (Child’s name), play safely.
  3. (Child’s name), inside voice.

This doesn’t mean that we stop teaching children prosocial behaviors.

First, we should spend the majority of our interactions and communication looking for ways to catch them in the act of demonstrating prosocial behaviors. Then we call them out.


For example:

  1. I see how you hung your jacket in your cubby. Job well done!
  2. I like the way you walked safely into the classroom.
  3. Thank you for whispering while other people are concentrating.
  4. We want to reinforce the behavior which we want to see increase.

What do we do if we make a corrective statement? (It happens. Especially when a child might injure themselves or others.) When this happens, we use a ratio of 5:1. Five positive comments to every one corrective statement. Use the 5:1 ratio with your coworkers, and your family too! This simple strategy can help build self-confidence and a positive environment (work, home, school, etc.).


Practice Gross Motor Play for Strong Emotions


Prepare children for strong emotions by providing tools and teaching strategies. Gross motor play can be helpful in decreasing increased stress. Practice daily or more often!


Start by saying, “Sometimes, I feel so mad. When I am feeling mad, I like to (insert strategy). I’ll show you what it looks like and then you can try.” Use face and body to look like you are feeling mad (e.g., a furrowed brow, teeth clenched, tight lips, frown, clenched fists, etc.). Then model one (or more) of the following strategies:


  1. Squeeze or pound a pillow
  2. Throw beanbags into a laundry basket (or at a target on the wall
  3. Run in place (find space in front of a window and have the child describe where they are running)
  4. Stack and knock over cardboard boxes
  5. Jump or stomp on bubble wrap


Practice Mindfulness


We can practice these mindfulness techniques often so that everyone can tap into a feeling of calm when they need it. Add one or more of the following to your daily practice:


  1. Invite children to find a comfortable position (sitting, lying down, etc.) and to close their eyes. Read, My Many Colored Days, by Dr. Seuss using a calm steady tone. When finished, encourage children to share and role-play how they are feeling.
  2. Light yoga poses as illustrated in our Yoga Now! Card Set.
  3. Invite children to Take Five with this breathing technique (as demonstrated in our Instill SEL Curriculum):
  4. Stop (push hand forward to mime “stop”)
  5. Be still (lift other hand to meet it and point up)
  6. Take five breaths (Use pointed finger to trace the fingers on the opposite hand. Breathe in when tracing up and breathe out when tracing down.)
  7. Blow bubbles
  8. Sit outside and listen for nature sounds

Practice Respect and Understanding


Every emotion is an okay emotion. It is our reaction to the emotion that makes the difference. A strong reaction to emotion can be replaced by learning a new way to cope. The behavior will continue until someone, like you, sees the message behind it and invests time to teach a different way.


This little one has only been on the planet for less than five years. They are still learning! I am still learning! I didn’t know grief until my teen years. This child may be experiencing it now when they lack the ability to communicate those feelings.


Respect for and taking time to understand others can (and does) change lives.


What practices do you employ in the early childhood classroom to reduce challenging behavior?


Celestte Dills SEL Curriculum WriterCelestte has spent a life-long career educating young children. In her over thirty years of working in early childhood education, she has extensive and successful experience as a teacher, administrator, curriculum developer, and education consultant. She has used her talents to develop meaningful Social and Emotional Learning curricula and to provide educators with easy-to-use tools for teaching pro-social behavior.

The opinions, representations, and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and not of Becker’s School Supplies as a whole. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. The company accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.