Tantrums and Challenging Behavior in Early Childhood

Challenging behaviors might feel all-too-familiar to many early learning professionals. The crying, screaming, yelling, whining, or dropping to the ground can sometimes become an unfortunate routine in group care.


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Rutgers University’s Boggs Center on Child Development defines challenging behavior as a “persistent pattern of behavior, or perception of behavior [that] interferes with or risk of interfering with optimal learning [or] engagement in pro-social interactions,” and reports that about 1/3 of preschool age children engage in persistent patterns of challenging behavior. Other examples of challenging behaviors might include (but are not limited to) hitting, biting, or other aggressive behaviors, distracting or repetitive movements, and refusal to comply with classroom rules or routines. The tantrum fits into this group of behavior. Florida’s Positive Behavior and Support Project’s presentation explains that a “‘tantrum’ can be defined as any of the following: (1) crying and throwing objects, (2) laying on the floor, stomping feet, (3) screaming at everyone in the room.”

Reflective Practice

WestEd’s article, Helping Early Childhood Educators Deal with Challenging Behavior, shares how reflective practice can be a practical and useful approach for addressing these behaviors. Reflective practice incorporates observation and reflection to identify patterns and understand the root of behaviors.   

For example, if children are regularly demonstrating challenging behaviors in the classroom, the following questions can be asked: “When are they the loudest and most unruly? At what points do they seem to be the most engaged? What might they be telling us with this behavior?” Through observation and reflection, these questions can be answered in order to make important changes that will lessen the challenging behavior.

An Approach to Managing Behavior


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A webinar with Early Childhood Investigations, hosted by Ellen Galinsky and Erin Ramsey on February 6, explored autonomy support as a new approach to managing challenging behavior (click here to view a recording of the webinar or click here to download slides). Autonomy support refers to an adult:child interaction in which the adult gives just enough support to a child’s learning to improve their skills. These interactions improve executive functioning skills, meaning that children are better able to problem solve, think critically, engage in deeper learning, and self regulate.

For example, if a child is having trouble standing in line, a teacher might find some time to talk with the child, to figure out how to approach the process. The teacher might say, “I notice that you are having trouble standing in line. But we have to stand in line before we go outside to make sure everyone is together. I’m wondering if you have ideas to make that part of the day feel easier.” The teacher can act on those ideas and try to implement them the following day. This will give the child an opportunity to take part in the problem solving process, building an autonomy supportive relationship.

Preventative Practices

An article from Infants & Young Children: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Early Childhood Intervention emphasizes  the following as potential a models of prevention for challenging behavior:

  • Relationships between teachers and parents: “When staff in child care programs and parents form warm, respectful relationships, they are better able to communicate openly about children’s behavior and experiences and to respond to children’s individual needs. In the context of mutually supportive relationships, parents are more likely to share information about family and home situations and stressors, and about their child’s development and behavior.”

  • Classroom routine and environment: When made with intention, decisions about classroom layout, scheduling, and routines can have a significant impact on the children’s overall mood and behavior. “Within classrooms, early childhood teachers can make deliberate use of setting variables to prevent problem behavior and promote prosocial learning…Children who are fully involved in classroom activities are less likely to engage in disruptive behavior.”

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