Building Relationships with Children Who Have Challenging Behaviors

We always talk about how important it is to build relationships with children, but let’s be real. Some children are just really hard to build relationships with. I remember when I first went back to school to get my early childhood degree, one of my professors went around the room and asked why we went into this field. Of course, most of the answers sounded something like, “I love children!” She proceeded to tell us that we better have another reason for going into this field because that one wasn’t good enough. We all looked at her like she had three heads! She proceeded to tell us that of course, we should like children. But that alone is not going to sustain us through the challenging moments of being an early childhood teacher. She continued to say that one day we would find a child that we didn’t like….and then what? I thought that was just cruel…they’re just small children…what could they possibly do that would make me not like them?

Fast forward a few years when I was teaching first grade…I found the kid I didn’t like. It pains me to say it…but I just didn’t like her. Her behaviors were challenging, but that wasn’t why I didn’t like her. I could never quite put my finger on it…perhaps our energies were just conflicting. But I just didn’t like her. She, however, loved me. Which probably made my dislike of her even stronger. It was a tough year. I tried to make sure that I was building a strong relationship with her despite my personal preferences. I tried my best to learn to like her. It didn’t work always work, but over the year we did find some common ground. I can say honestly that she thrived in my classroom.

No matter how much you may love children, the same thing will happen to you at some point. You’ll find the child that challenges every cell in your body. You’ll find the child that makes it hard to build those positive relationships. Your challenge, then, is to push forward and continue to find a way to make a connection. Because it’s only through connection that learning occurs and behaviors change.

Challenging Behavior can appear in many different ways. It is also highly subjective…what one caregiver considers challenging, another may not. The important thing to remember with any type of challenging behavior is that the child is trying to send you a message in the only way that he/she feels capable of at the time. When you can look for the message, it becomes easier to respond in an appropriate manner. Responding in an appropriate manner can help you build healthy and positive relationships with the child. Stanley Greenspan talks about five specific types of challenging children.

The Highly Sensitive Child

Children who are highly sensitive tend to react more strongly to events than you might anticipate. Their perceptions of the world can be much more intense than the average child, and any type of change can be overwhelming to this child. They may be cautious, fearful, shy, worry a lot, or be anxious. As they grow, this may lead to moodiness, irritability, or depression. You might notice that highly sensitive children react more sensitively to touch, loud noises, bright lights, or change. They may also get easily overwhelmed by their own emotions.

Strategies:

  • Prepare children for upcoming changes as far in advance as possible and limit the amount of changes and transitions.
  • Use picture schedules or visual schedules so the child can anticipate what will be coming up in his/her day
  • Tune in to the child’s sensory system. Remember, he cannot control how his body is processing sensory information! If you notice the child reacting to bright lights, try dimming the lights in the classroom. If the child holds his hands over his ears at group time, give him a pair of headphones to wear.
  • Help the child label and talk about his feelings. Validate what the child is feeling and show empathy towards him.
  • Provide gentle but firm limits.

The Self-Absorbed Child

The child who is self-absorbed is caught up in her own world. She tends to be quiet, easily tired, shows little enthusiasm. You may find this child to be more passive and not as responsive as other children. Caregivers may need to show more enthusiasm and effort to engage the child.

Strategies:

  • Be sensitive to the child’s natural energy level, and do not expect the child to enjoy the same type of activities that others may enjoy.
  • Provide a quiet space where this child can get away from everyone for some alone time.
  • Children in this category can have vivid imaginations. Provide them with an outlet for imaginary play such as puppets or dramatic play areas and props.
  • Resist insisting that the child spend time with or be friends with the other children in the classroom. Respect the child’s speed and preferences when it comes to establishing relationships or spending time with others.

The Defiant Child

We all probably have experience with the defiant child….the child who is stubborn, always trying to be in control, and engages in constant power struggles with those in charge. Children who are defiant can swing from being avoidant and passively defiant to being angry and argumentative.

Strategies:

  • Don’t take it personally. As hard as it is, try to avoid getting angry and administering punitive punishments as this just makes the situation escalate.
  • Avoid power struggles. The key to avoiding power struggles contains 5 elements:
    • Say what you mean.
      Avoid saying things to the child that you don’t actually mean just because you are upset. Choose your words wisely.
    • Mean what you say.
      Make sure that you are only saying things that you actually plan to enforce. For example, telling a child that Santa Claus won’t come if they continue misbehaving isn’t typically something you actually mean. Be cautious when establishing limits and consequences.
    • Know what you can’t control.
      As much as we’d like to think we can control everything, we can’t. We can’t actually control children’s eating, sleeping, and toileting for instance. We can’t control IF a child picks up a toy. Think carefully about whether you actually have control over what you want the child to do, or if you just wish you had control!
    • Know what you can control.
      Think creatively about what you can control. You may not be able to control whether the child picks up the toys, but you can control what choices are available to the child UNTIL those toys are picked up.
    • Follow through.
      Make sure that you follow through on what you say you are going to do. This builds trust with the child. State your limit and the consequence one time, and then follow through on the consequence you established.

The Inattentive Child

This child is highly distractible. He tends to be restless, fidgety, always on the go, and may quickly shift his attention from one activity to the next. Caregivers may find the child rarely finishes an activity that he started.

Strategies:

  • Be sure that your space is not overwhelming with distractions. Avoid covering every wall with something decorative. Avoid hanging things from the ceiling as this can be a distraction as well. Choose carefully when putting things on the wall to avoid “visual clutter”.
  • Provide the child with fidget toys during activities to help keep the child’s attention.
  • Allow for lots of movement and breaks. Avoid asking the child to sit for long periods of time, and offer lots of opportunities for active play.

The Active Aggressive Child

The active aggressive child tends to be more impulsive than most and may react physically to situations without even thinking. She may hit, punch, or kick to express her anger. She becomes frustrated more easily than most children, and has a hard time controlling her impulses. You may also notice that she has less sensitivity to touch, pain, or sound.

Strategies:

  • Be as warm and nurturing as possible. It’s sometimes hard to show this type of care with these children, but the less warmth and nurturing an aggressive child gets, the more her aggressive behaviors will increase.
  • Provide firm structure and limits for the child. Establish boundaries and consequences and be sure to follow through.
  • Help the child to express her feelings in appropriate ways. You may allow the child to push against a wall or squeeze a stress ball or twist a towel when angry. Avoid allowing the child to hit anything, even a punching bag or bean bag chair. Since the child has a hard time controlling impulses she might not differentiate in the moment between what is ok to hit and what is not.
  • Don’t give in to angry outbursts. If the child gets her way through this behavior, you have just reinforced that it works.

I’ll leave  you with this final quote by Ben Stein. “Relationships are the fertile soil from which all advancement, all success, and all achievement in real life grows.”

Building Positive Relationships

Relationships are an essential component of an early childhood classroom. One of my favorite quotes is by Jack Shonkoff, editor of the book Neurons to Neighborhoods in which he says, “Without relationships, there is no development.” If you think back on your own experiences, I imagine that the times when you learned the most were the times when you felt connected to the teacher. I love this video by Rita Pierson as she talks about building relationships with children:

I get so inspired listening to her. And then I think about the experiences that many children have when they arrive at school Another one of my favorite videos is this short video from Atlanta Speech School  called Every Opportunity. We have the ability to influence how children perceive their environment:

Here are some tips to help you get on the right start to building positive relationships with children in your classroom:

  • Greet each child warmly using his/her name. Consider using a greeter apron. A greeter apron has different symbols on it that represent different types of greetings, such as a heart for a hug, a hand for shaking hands, a happy face for a smile, or a #5 for a high five. Children can choose which way they would like to be greeted in the morning, including not having a greeting at all.
  • Learn how to pronounce (and spell) each child’s name correctly, even if you have to ask multiple times. No one feels special when his/her name is constantly mispronounced.
  • Allow for unstructured play time each day. Let children be the leaders when playing instead of making all of the decisions for them. This shows children that you value their thoughts, desires, and feelings.
  • Have casual conversations with children during free play time instead of always “testing” them or doing “teacher talk”. Sometimes we ask so many questions that children don’t think we are really interested in what they are doing.
  • Be consistent and mean what you say. It’s not mean to follow through on your word. It actually helps children to feel safe. When you set a limit with a consequence and then provide multiple chances, it can become very confusing to children what the boundary actually is.
  • Talk to children about their interests. Strive to learn what they did over the weekend, who they saw, what they liked most, etc.
  • Respect children’s feelings. It’s ok for children to be angry or sad or frustrated. Teach children that feelings are ok, and show them appropriate ways to express their feelings.
  • Limit TV and Other “Screen Time”. Electronic devices take time away from connecting with human beings. Use the time children are with you to make live connections.
  • Speak privately to children when an issue arises. Make sure that they don’t feel humiliated in front of others.
  • Play games in which children learn how to take turns. This prepares them for conversational turn taking.
  • Get on the child’s level when talking to him/her, and make sure you are using a pleasant and calm voice.
  • Acknowledge children’s accomplishments by using specific feedback about their actions.
  • Give children time to develop relationships with other children in the classroom.
  • Provide children with opportunities to practice skills such as how to get someone’s attention, how to solve friendship squabbles, and how to take turns.
  • Learn basic words in a child’s native language.
  • End each day with a warm goodbye, and start each day fresh with no leftover emotions from the previous day’s events.

What other ways do you build relationships with children?