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The Center for Child and Family Studies

Early Childhood Lab School

Guidance and Discipline Policy:

Working With Children's Challenging Behavior

Professionals who work with young children expect to be met with challenging behavior from time to time. During the first five years of life, children are just beginning to learn how to handle their own intense emotions and conform to the behavioral expectations of society. As parents know, this is a long and difficult process.

teacher and preschoolers with bubble wands in yellow tub
    In an early care and education setting, we define challenging behavior as any behavior that:
      • interferes with children's learning, development and success at play;
      • is harmful to the child, other children or adults;
      • puts a child at high risk for later social problems or school failure.
    It can be direct (e.g. hitting, pushing, biting, kicking) or indirect (e.g. teasing, ignoring rules or instructions, excluding others, name-calling, destroying objects, having temper tantrums).

The ECL staff sees working with children's challenging behavior as an integral aspect of our job. The word discipline has, as its root meaning, "instruction" or "training." This meaning, rather than punishment, is the foundation for our approach to guiding children's behavior. We accept that young children will sometimes display their emotions or try to achieve their goals in unproductive or immature ways. That is simply part of being very young. Much of children's most valuable learning, especially in a group setting, occurs in the course of behavioral problem solving. The approaches we use vary by age group, but have the following elements in common:

  • Adults model positive behavior. We show that we can accept, control and express feelings in direct and non-aggressive ways; we let children know that we are not afraid of their intense emotions and will not punish, threaten or withdraw from them.
  • Teachers design the physical environment to minimize conflict. We provide multiples of toys and materials for groups of children, define classroom and outdoor areas clearly to allow for both active and quiet play, and strive to maintain an appropriately calm level of stimulation.
  • Teachers maintain age-appropriate expectations for children's behavior. We attempt to minimize unreasonable waiting and transition times, and limit the length of large group and teacher-directed activity times according to children's developmental levels. We give children large blocks of uninterrupted time during which to make their own activity choices.
  • Adults closely observe and supervise children's activities and interactions. With our high ratios of adults to children and our emphasis on attentive observation, we can often intervene to guide children before situations escalate.
  • Adults help children verbalize their feelings, frustrations and concerns. The staff will help children describe problems, generate possible solutions, and think through logical consequences of their actions. Even babies will hear their caregivers describing actions, problems, solutions and logical consequences. The adult role is to be a helper in positive problem solving. We want children to value cooperation and teamwork. We help them to learn peaceful approaches to interacting.
  • Children whose behavior endangers others will be supervised away from other children. This is not the same as the practice of using a "time out" (the traditional chair in the corner) for a child. An adult will help the child move away from a group situation. The child will then process the problem verbally with the staff member and any other concerned parties. An adult will stay close to any child who is emotionally out of control and needs private time to regain composure.
  • Discipline, i.e., guidance, will always be positive, productive and immediate when behavior is inappropriate. No child will be humiliated, shamed, frightened, or subjected to physical punishment or verbal or physical abuse by any staff member, student, or volunteer working in the ECL programs. Every member of the ECL professional staff understands and follows our disciplinary approach as well as the standards on guidance and management in our California State Licensing Regulations. We work intensively with our student caregivers so that they also understand and employ this guidance approach.
  • When a pattern of behavior persists that endangers self, others or property, or significantly disrupts the program, we will work with a child's family to find solutions, up to and including referral for outside services or exclusion from the ECL program.


Adams, Suzanne K., and Joan Baronberg, Promoting Positive Behavior: Guidance Strategies for Early Childhood Settings (Upper Saddle River, NJ, Pearson, 2005).

Gartrell, Dan, The Power of Guidance: Teaching Social-Emotional Skills in Early Childhood Classrooms (Clifton Park, NY, Delmar, 2004).

Kaiser, Barbara, and Judy Sklar Rasminsky, Challenging Behavior in Young Children: Understanding, Preventing, and Responding Effectively (Pearson Education, 2003).

Kaiser, Barbara, and Judy Sklar Rasminsky, Meeting the Challenge: Effective Strategies for Challenging Behaviours and Early Childhood Environments (Ottawa, Ontario, Canadian Child Care Federation, 1999).

Sciarra, Dorothy June, and Anne G. Dorsey, Developing and Administering a Child Care and Education Program (Thomson Delmar Learning, 2007).