All behavior is communication, especially disruptive behavior but when you are working with very young children that communication can be hard to understand. As a preschool teacher, you have to manage the behavior at the moment while deciding what that child is trying to tell you. Here are my tips for how to handle disruptive behavior in a preschool class. As you will see in this list, most of the advice is about you and your actions, not the child’s because a child is an autonomous being, and no amount of fantastic teaching can change or prevent disruptive behavior 100%, but we can react to it appropriately, with love and kindness.
Before you can address specific behaviors look at your environment, have you set it up to be peaceful? Use these tips from this post I wrote about a peaceful classroom to create a supportive classroom environment for your students. When children know what to expect it’s much easier to be calm and engaged, they aren’t looking to control everything and everyone if they feel like they are in control. Using a class schedule like these visual schedules can help.
Remember that connection is key, you need to spend the time connecting with your students to build trust and a relationship with natural authority before you can expect to be able to get the best behavior out of the students with tactics other than fear. Anyone could make a preschool class behave with fear, but the consequences of that tactic are just not worth it. Have you ever noticed how children will act up for substitutes or after a few weeks of school the quiet, well-behaved child turns a corner and starts acting up? Those children need a stronger connection. Our first reaction after we manage the misbehavior should be to play with that child even more to build that connection.
But what about in the moment when a child hits, or just won’t stop running around, or screams in the middle of group time?
- In the moment stay calm. Even if the behavior rattles you, it’s your job to keep control, and the best way to do that is to stay calm. This child may be throwing your classroom into chaos for a minute or two ( it can seem like forever ), but it will return to normal much faster if you don’t raise your voice or show big emotions.
- Tend to any child who has been hurt. Encourage the hurt child to use their words to tell the child who hurt them that they don’t like it when they hit, bite, push… If the child who did the hurting can help you, have them get a tissue for the crying child, or some ice, having them help make the situation better is a much more productive action than saying sorry and running off to play.
- When a child runs in my class I remind them to use slow walking feet in the class by saying something positive like this “Let’s run when we go outside, inside we walk.” if the behavior continues I walk up to the child and say ” I see you are having a hard time walking in class today. Do you want to go play at the water table or with the play dough?” Often children who are running are just not engaged, helping them to find something to engage them can usually curb that behavior. I will also help them practice walking because for some children running is the default. Running is not defiance, it’s usually excitement, be gentle and try to figure out how to engage the child to stop the behavior instead of punishing them.
- Outbursts at group time can be addressed with proximity. If you have another adult in the room you can simply say ‘ Henry I see you need help sitting/ not touching your friends/ not talking at circle time, Ms.Robyn will help you.” Make sure that when you do this, you are not then treating sitting with the other teacher as a huge punishment; we are offering scaffolds for good behavior. The other teacher should welcome the child and quietly support them. If you are without another adult, you can do the same with your lap, a spot right next to you on the rug, or try moving the child to another area with positivity.
What about destructive behavior? Throwing toys? Writing on walls?
- If a child intentionally makes a mess like writing on a wall or pouring paint on the floor have them help you clean it up. This happens in our sensory area from time to time, and my go-to course of action is 1. Help me clean up. 2. You are done in that area for the day. I don’t make it a huge punishment I simply say something like “You need to choose another area to play, maybe tomorrow you will be ready to play with the sensory table appropriately, we can try again tomorrow.”
- When a child is throwing toys calmly tell them that when you go outside, they can throw some balls, and ask them if they would like to play catch with you when you go out for recess. Then ask them to help you collect the toys they threw. If the toy throwing was aggressive, clear the space of other children, who could get hit by anything and then remove anything the child can throw from their reach. Calmly say ” I can see you are really angry, I can’t let you throw toys at your friends, it could hurt them, and I need to keep everyone safe.” Offer the child an alternative outlet. The window for simply saying we can’t do that here and expecting compliance is long since passed. We need to calm the child before we can get them back on track. Playdough, squeezy toys, calm down jars… this is a great time for those types of resources. Many years ago I had a student who struggled with angry outbursts, and after months of trial and error, we discovered that bubble wrap was calming for him. Just keep trying.
What about potty talk? Playing with their private parts?
- Potty talk is an interesting one because every family has different levels of what’s appropriate and what isn’t. This is something I try not to get into power struggles over. If it’s persistent usually going up to the child and simply saying ” Do you need to use the potty?” They usually say no, and I return with “Oh I heard you talk about potty stuff so I thought you needed to go.” This normally does the trick. Teachers need to be careful about who you say this to and how they say it. I never say it in a threatening tone; the potty is not a punishment. I say it like I really think that’s why they were talking about poop with a positive tone of voice. Also, look at who the child is talking to, a solution could be as simple as separating two children for a little while until they have moved on from the potty talk. Never send a child to the potty as a punishment for potty talk, I have seen this and while parents can use this at home if they desire it’s not appropriate behavior management for preschool.
- The body is an amazingly interesting thing, and children have every right to explore their own bodies without shame. However, the classroom is not the place to do this. If a child is touching themselves I address it a few different ways; if they seem to be uncomfortable I ask them if they are ok, they could have had a small accident, or have a rash, etc… If they are simply playing, I will tell them that their private parts that are covered by underwear are private, meaning they are just for them to see and touch. They can go to the bathroom or wait until they are home to keep playing. Remember that a child’s motivation for this behavior is very simple, it feels interesting and good to touch themselves. Try not to assign the same reaction you would have if it were an adult, stay calm and positive.
After the disruptive behavior is addressed
- Evaluate what lead up to the behavior. Was there too much noise in the class? Is group time too long? Should we have our snack earlier? Is that child going through any big changes at home? Are the activities too boring? Too challenging? Does the child need help to establish friendships? Is there a pattern?
- If the same child is acting out consistently start a behavior log. Jot down when and where their behavior takes a nose dive. This will help you look for patterns. If you know that Henry always acts out at the sensory table, you can make sure an adult is there to help him make positive choices from now on.
- Keep parents in the loop. I don’t suggest every time a child is defiant or acts out you call the parents but if you are seeing a pattern make sure you are communicating with the parents. When parents and teachers work together the child benefits.
What about special needs?
I have used all the tactics above in classrooms with children with special needs however when a child has special needs that affect his or her behavior you often need very specific tactics for behavior management, and even the day to day can be varied. This is where working closely with parents, any other professionals in the child’s life, and of course, your administration is key. If you are in a public setting you should have a 504 or an IEP to follow but if you are a church, private, or daycare you may have to take the lead to advocate for the child’s needs in your class. I will say this, when you know the child’s needs surpass that of your school you must let the parents know, children deserve to be in an environment where they get their needs met and sometimes that is not our preschool classrooms. Part of our jobs as professionals is to find the programs that can meet our students needs even if they are not our, a great place to start is your state or provincial early intervention program.
What tips do you have for dealing with disruptive behavior at preschool? Tell me all about them in comments.