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10 Behavior Management Strategies for Early Childhood

Feb 1, 2024
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Managing your young child’s challenging behavior can be stressful and overwhelming. Children under the age of 5 are still learning to communicate their wants and needs, and to regulate their emotions and behaviors. Common problem behaviors include tantrums or meltdowns, screaming, falling to the floor, kicking, hitting, biting, and throwing toys or other objects. 

While children with diagnoses like autism, ADHD, and other developmental disabilities may engage in these behaviors more frequently or with more intensity, all children, whether they are neurodiverse or neurotypical, will likely engage in these behaviors at some point in their development. 

Regardless of what your child’s behavior looks like, it likely functions to secure one of the following outcomes:

  1. Access to attention from you, another caregiver, your child’s siblings, or friends in the form of eye contact, talking, hugs, etc.
  2. Escape from a non-preferred activity or situation (e.g., going to school, brushing their teeth, putting on their shoes)
  3. Access to a preferred item or activity (e.g., watching TV, iPad/video games, toys, ice cream)
  4. A sensory experience that is physiologically soothing or regulating in some way (e.g., hand flapping, singing/humming, rocking) 

If you want the behavior management strategies you choose to use to be successful, observe the circumstances around your child’s problem behavior and make an educated guess about how your child is using their behavior to communicate. Good behavior management strategies attempt to address the why behind the behavior so you can help your child get their wants and needs met in an appropriate way. It’s not just about getting the inappropriate behavior to go away. It’s also about teaching your child what they can do instead.  

Following these simple behavior management strategies below can help you navigate your child’s challenging behavior with less stress and more success! 

1. Catch your child “being good”

When you’re dealing with frequent episodes of problem behavior, it can be easy to focus on what’s going wrong and overlook when things go right. To encourage your child to engage in appropriate behavior, reward appropriate behavior when you see it! This use of positive reinforcement will increase the chance your child will engage in a more appropriate behavior in similar situations in the future. 

For example: Maybe you’ve been struggling to get your 4-year-old to put his shoes on before leaving the house without a major meltdown that makes you late. To use positive reinforcement, praise your child on the days he puts on his shoes without tantrums. Also, provide praise when you see him independently putting on his coat or doing other tasks when asked! Over time, your child will notice all of the positive feedback for following directions without resistance, and his cooperation will improve. 

2. Change the order of events

We know schedules can be hectic when you’re trying to juggle activity pick-ups/drop-offs, grocery shopping, work, etc., making it difficult to structure time at home with the kids. One of the simplest ways to use positive reinforcement in the home environment and increase your child’s cooperation is to order events so less preferred activities happen before highly preferred activities. 

For example: If you let your child watch television before you eat dinner, but you find turning off the television leads to tantrums, try changing the order of events so that your child has to participate in dinnertime before they are allowed to watch TV. You might offer toy play/reading time as an alternative activity before dinner. Simple, proactive tweaks to your daily routines such as this can effectively reduce the number of triggering situations, thereby reducing episodes of problem behavior. 

3. Use visual schedules and timers 

Young children are still learning to process auditory information in the form of spoken instructions from adults. To help your child understand what’s expected and anticipate what’s coming next, use visual schedules and supports. A “First-Then” visual can be a great way to communicate to your child what they need to do to access a reward. 

For example: “First clean up, then snack.” Visual schedules can be used to represent any period of time. You could create a visual schedule that outlines the child’s entire day, a couple of hours (e.g., time before school), or steps to complete a single activity like washing hands. Verbal warnings (e.g., we’re going to turn off the television in 5 minutes), especially when combined with timers and/or countdowns, can be incredibly effective in helping your child navigate a difficult transition. 

4. Offer choices 

For adults and children alike, sometimes hearing a harsh “no” can trigger a strong emotional response. In young children, this often manifests as challenging behaviors like meltdowns and hitting. To proactively avoid such situations, use choice-making in multiple ways. First, offer choices throughout the day as much as possible (e.g., “Do you want to wear your blue shoes or your red shoes?” “I can make you a waffle or scrambled eggs. What do you prefer?” “Would you like to go to the park or watch your sister’s soccer practice after school?”). Allowing your child to exercise control over their day can contribute to a sense of autonomy. 

Second, instead of allowing your child to choose from an unlimited number of choices, some of which you may not approve of, offer a closed choice of available options. For example, when dining at a restaurant, instead of immediately telling your child they may not have soda, give a fixed choice: “The choices are juice or milk. Which one would you like?” If your child asks for soda, you can remind them, “Soda is not a choice this time, but you can order milk or juice.” If your child makes a selection that you didn’t offer but would be appropriate (e.g., “I just want water”), be sure to reinforce their good decision! 

5. Respond to precursor behaviors  

Most children don’t escalate from 0 to 100 without some indication they’re becoming frustrated. If you observe carefully, you can usually identify a handful of precursor behaviors that your child does before a tantrum or major outburst. 

For example: Your child might whine, throw their toy, or make a grumpy face before they try to hit you or start crying. To proactively avoid a major meltdown, make a change to the environment or prompt a functional communication response or coping strategy as soon as you observe the precursor behavior(s). Let’s say your child struggles with turning off the iPad. When told to give it back, she whines first (the precursor behavior), and when you insist she turn it off, she escalates to throwing the iPad. To respond to the earlier signs of agitation, you might prompt her to ask for one more minute on the iPad when she whines, thereby avoiding her throwing the iPad. 

Using this strategy can also look like proactively giving your child a break before they’ve reached their tipping point. For instance, you notice that your son has a difficult time with the noise level and bright lights at his brother’s basketball game. After about 30 minutes of sitting in the stands, he gets upset and starts screaming. You realize that before he starts to melt down, he starts flapping his hands and whining. To respond to these precursor behaviors, you might take him for a short walk to get a drink of water or visit the concession stand after 15 or 20 minutes of being at the game. Additionally, you might use this opportunity to teach your son to request a break before he becomes very upset. 

6. Control the environment

Controlling the physical environment is a strategy most parents use when their children are infants to keep them from harm. Installing baby gates, corner bumpers, outlet covers, toilet locks, and door pinch guards are just some of the ways you might modify your home to prevent your small child from getting injured. This same rationale can be applied as your child gets older and you need to control your child’s access to items and activities within your home. Here are some easy ways to implement this strategy: store healthy snacks in child-level drawers or shelves and sugary snacks/treats on higher levels or in closed cabinets; rotate toys into your child’s playroom seasonally and keep the rest of the toys in storage; control access to electronics by keeping tablets and remote controls in locked drawers. When using this strategy, think, “Out of sight, out of mind.” You will likely have significantly more conflict over not being allowed to have ice cream for breakfast if the ice cream is stored where your child can’t see it. This may require some creative storage solutions, but avoiding a daily tantrum is well worth it. 

7. Withhold attention for inappropriate behavior

If you think it’s likely your child engages in a challenging behavior to get your attention, sometimes the best strategy is to ignore the behavior until it stops, provided it’s safe to do so. Many behavioral episodes are triggered by the child being told “no” or being asked to do a non-preferred activity, but change to an attention function at some point during the tantrum. Has your child ever started a tantrum because you said they were not allowed to eat their powder doughnut on the couch, and the next thing you know they’re, threatening to dump grape juice on your new rug? In these instances, scolding, talking to, hugging, or moving your child can be reinforcing for them, even though we might consider these to be “negative” consequences. It’s best to ignore the impulse to engage with your child and wait until they demonstrate calmer behavior. However, we’re only ignoring the behavior, not the child, so you should intervene if it’s necessary to keep your child safe and avoid serious injury (e.g., blocking your child from running into the street, scaling a bookcase, etc.). 

8. Redirect

Redirection involves refocusing your child’s attention to an alternative, expected behavior they should do in lieu of the problematic behavior. Redirection is a powerful proactive strategy that helps to prevent further escalation when a child becomes frustrated. Redirection can involve distracting a child or cueing a functional alternative. To shift a child’s focus away from the triggering event, activity, or person, provide a simple instruction to participate more appropriately (e.g., “Let’s play with our blocks on the floor instead” or “I need a helper in the kitchen right now”). Alternatively, you can prompt your child to use a coping strategy (e.g., “Let’s take some deep breaths like we’re blowing out a candle”) or choose a different activity (e.g., “If your brother isn’t playing the way you want to, you can go play outside on the trampoline instead”). 

9. Consistency is key

One of the most important factors influencing the success of any behavior change protocol is consistency. Children and adults need repeated practice opportunities to build new habits and change learned patterns of behavior. If you want to be successful in managing your child’s behavior, you and other caregivers must use a strategy consistently over time and across environments. Doing so will communicate to your child, “This is the new expectation” and they will rise to meet the new contingency. If you’re using a strategy like withholding attention (see #7 above), keep in mind that behavior may get worse before it gets better. Your child may become upset that the tactics they used before to gain your attention are not working and will escalate even more to try to achieve the same outcome. But if you remain consistent, they will learn that their old ways are no longer functional, and the new, socially acceptable alternative behaviors you have shown them are more effective in getting their wants and needs met. 

10. Patience 

Lastly, remember to be patient with your child and yourself! Changing behavior and learning new skills takes time. Practicing these strategies requires you to change your own behavior, which can be challenging. Waiting out a 20-minute tantrum can be physically and emotionally draining. Give yourself grace if you don’t follow the plan exactly as you intended. Remember, there are many variables influencing your behavior as a parent and it’s simply not realistic to expect that you will respond perfectly to every challenging situation that arises. But if you stick with it you can influence your child’s behavior by simply changing the environment around them! 

Getting Started

If you’re ready to start addressing your child’s problem behavior, start with using positive reinforcement by “catching” your child being good. If you simultaneously withhold attention for inappropriate behavior, you can likely increase your child’s appropriate behavior without using punitive measures like reprimands, time-out, or spanking. Support this with visual schedules, First-Then language, strategic ordering of daily activities, and frequent opportunities for choice-making, and you will likely see a noticeable improvement in your child’s level of cooperation with you and other caregivers, as well as physical and emotional regulation, and participation in important social and academic activities. A focus on proactive measures like managing access to high-value toys and food (e.g., iPad, sweets) and responding to early signs that your child is becoming upset can go a long way to avoid triggering or escalating meltdowns. 

Have you tried some of these strategies already, but want additional support?

Early ABA intervention, recommended as early as age 2, offers excellent outcomes. When seeking ABA services, look for Board-Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), who create individualized intervention plans to address your child’s unique needs. These masters-level clinicians use empirically validated assessments and ongoing data collection to make data-based treatment decisions. Look for an ABA treatment package that includes caregiver training so that a BCBA can meet with you 1:1 to personally guide you in implementing behavior management protocols and support generalization of your child’s skills to the home environment.

If you’re ready to learn more about ABA therapy for your child, reach out to us today. We have compassionate  expert-level clinicians ready to support you. 

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