Challenging behavior in preschool classroom

Anyone who has ever worked with young children knows that they are not all angels all of the time. However, few are naughty all the time, and positive guidance seeks to focus on the good, minimalize the not-so-good and give the child options that are acceptable.

Challenging behavior in preschool classroom

Common behavior problems in the classroom

A frequent concern is that the children do not follow directions. Circle time is frequently very frustrating as the children talk constantly. Is it because they do not speak English and cannot understand what the teacher is saying – maybe, but on closer observation, you may notice it is predominantly those who do speak English who chatter constantly.

Sometimes you get a child still wearing diapers, who does not speak beyond “No!” and does not listen/understand/follow directions. It may be appropriate to have his evaluated for developmental delays.

Some children are fascinated by the soap dispenser or the child-size toilets. As far as you guide them away from the object of interest, clean his hands and turn to clean the mess he has made, he is playing with it again.

Others may pick up things and put them in their pockets – toys, other people’s belongings, the bell used to signal clean-up. The child will need to be educated about belongs that are his and those that belong to the school, or classmates.

Sometimes you see a child who will not sit with the other children, either at circle time or lunch. If he does get close to others, he grabs an arm and pinches or twists it, so the others no longer will want to sit by him and move away.

Punishment or discipline

preschool classroom

The difference between punishment and discipline is that discipline modifies behavior, whereas punishment causes suffering and may or may not affect behavior. The phrase that comes to mind when talking about discipline is ‘self-discipline’. By disciplining children, we aim to teach them acceptable behavior. By punishing them, we make them feel bad but do not necessarily teach them how to modify their behavior. We may temporarily make ourselves feel better.

Why discipline children

We discipline children in order to teach them how to behave in an acceptable way – whether as members of a family, a class or society in general. We are educating them to be good citizens – whether it is in not hitting people, picking up after ourselves, or doing our homework/chores. Eventually, they will develop self-discipline, and regulate themselves.

Why do children misbehave

To misbehave means to act in a way that society, a teacher or a parent deems unacceptable or contrary to desired norms. This may include breaking the law, not following ‘rules’, acting in a way that is unsafe to oneself or to others, violating another person’s rights or showing disrespect.

There are seven reasons why a child may misbehave.

The most common reason is attention-seeking. The most effective way to deal with this type of behavior is to ignore it, but that is not always possible.

They may be imitating others, particularly influential adults or siblings. This is very common regarding language or hitting. If they have observed others engaging in this practice and not being chastised, it seems acceptable behavior.

They may be testing limits. In this case, it is essential to be consistent and follow through on threats or promises.

The perceived misbehavior may be due to a developmental shift. If the rule applies to three-year-olds, does the same rule apply to a four-year-old? In a school situation, it is not always possible or appropriate to differentiate, but it is something to consider.

He may not be feeling well – we all get cranky if we have a headache. He may be tired and ready for a nap. He may want to sit and read a book rather than join in a game; or not join a group a circle time.


He may be feeling threatened, afraid or frustrated. If he has been working on a puzzle and just cannot finish it, rather than ask for help or put it aside to try later, he may fling it across the room. If he has been building with blocks and another child destroys his construction, whether deliberately or accidentally, he may retaliate. Possibly there is something more significant going on: his parents may be divorcing, a new step-parent may be joining the family or a baby may be expected. All these things disrupt the preschooler’s world and may lead to disruptive behavior.

Occasionally, we find that a child has low self-esteem and so misbehaves. The best way to overcome this is to notice and reinforce the good behavior – after the child has been screaming for five minutes, if she pauses to take a breath, quickly compliment her on gaining control of her emotions. Set her up for small successes so that she can feel good about herself and the behavior will, eventually, improve.

Rules do not apply

A child may feel the ‘rules’ do not apply to him. Who decided the rules? Did the teacher say “Don’t run in the classroom?” or did a child say “When I ran in the classroom, I fell over a chair. I don’t think we should run in the classroom.”? If another child adds no skipping, no jumping and so on, the teacher might ask, “So how should we move around in the classroom?” Some children routinely run in the classroom and need constant reminders. They are always in a hurry to get from A to B – if they decide to read a book, they run to the library area; if they want to paint, they run to the art area; if they are told to wash their hands for lunch, they run to the sink.


Young children often feel overwhelmed by being told what to wear, what to eat, when to get up, when to go to bed, when to go out, when to go to school, and when to take a nap… it is not surprising if, occasionally, they rebel. Few adults live such regimented lives – most of us, at least, can choose what to wear or what to eat even if our workday is somewhat restricted. Sometimes children need choices. A child who throws his peas across the table might not like peas or might just want carrots today. It is not always possible to offer choices (“Do you want peas or carrots?”) but it is possible to say “If you try your peas, and don’t like them, you can leave them on your plate.”

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