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Managing Severely Challenging Behavior

Dear Debi,
My 4-year-old son has become really aggressive with other children. He’s been hitting, kicking & shoving them. What should I do?
Brian Johnson
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Seriously challenging behaviors interfere with your child’s development
  • Persistent or severely challenging behavior should be assessed
  • Early intervention is important
  • Consistency with early intervention strategies is critical
Expert Advice
Nancy Franklin
Nancy Franklin
Behavioral specialist
When we refer to “severely challenging behavior,” what we are most likely talking about are behaviors that we don’t understand. One clue is when the behavior seems to happen “for no apparent reason.” Behaviors that challenge us, as adults, fit into the category of we didn’t see it coming and it is behavior that includes going beyond the boundaries that we set for our children. For instance, being angry about something would be considered “OK,” but throwing toys? No, that one goes beyond the boundary since it is unsafe.

Some severely challenging behaviors would include biting, scratching, hitting, throwing objects, or screaming -- behaviors that the parent or caregiver is seeing daily or several times each week. These behaviors interfere with social relationships and learning opportunities. If the child’s behavior seems “unpredictable,” then sometimes parents or caregivers will actually take the child to fewer play dates and outside activities. Such behaviors sometimes limit the parents or caregiver’s sense of the child’s abilities and they may expect less from that child. In addition to behaviors that may be described as “acting out,” some children withdraw and may refuse to participate in activities in playgroups or preschool.

We need to be courageous as parents in order to get the kinds of support that we need and our children need. I would ask parents to work on being good detectives together. Behavior has a function, so figure out what this young child is communicating with that behavior.

One way to find out is to start collecting some information about what is happening before the behavior and what is happening afterwards. It helps if both parents are able to continue to talk about observable behavior. You need to know what has happened before the throwing and what happens afterwards. For instance, does their child throw toys when he has been told to clean up? When he wants to get attention? This information will help identify some strategies to deal with the aggressive behavior.

If you suspect your child has severely challenging behavior, you should ask for a partner in this. There is such a great deal that you can do as members of a “team” rather than thinking that you have to go it alone. Find someone that you can trust who can help you to look at things such as:

  • Current routines and schedules – Is the child dealing with an inconsistent schedule that they don’t really understand?
  • Physiological reasons – How is your child’s diet? Sleeping? Stress level?
  • Expectations – Do your expectations match your child’s developmental level and are they clear to your child?
  • Mixed signals – Do different caregivers allow different behaviors leading the child to not understand what is and what is not OK?
When you have addressed such things as the above, you have a better “snapshot” to give to an expert. For instance, you can contact the director of your preschool and ask to problem-solve with someone from your school district. You might check with your pediatrician. Is there an outreach program from a Regional Center? Is there training through your local school for pre-school parents? You might read on the internet or check out a book from the public library. Early intervention is a key component for success.
Child Care Provider Comments
Rosa Rios
Rosa Rios
Grandmother of three
My grandson is very hostile and aggressive with his classmates. We know he gets easily frustrated, so we pay extra attention to him and we let him know that it’s important to communicate with us, his mom and dad and his teachers. His parents and I also use a point/reward system. When he is good, he gets points. When he isn’t, we take them away. For example, when he earns 10 points he gets to do something really special.
David Cooley
David Cooley
Father of one daughter
My daughter is behind in her language skills, so she gets frustrated very easily. She can go from 0 to 60 in no time at all! We sought help by getting her an evaluation through our local regional center and also through a developmental psychologist. To help manage her behavior, we work together with her occupational therapist and her preschool so that we’re all on the same page and using all the same strategies with her. It’s important for us all to be consistent with her and communicate constantly with one another about her progress.
Darlene Patterson
Darlene Patterson
Family child care provider for 22 years and mother of three
I care for a child with severely challenging behavior. By the time he was 3-yrs-old, the parents finally came to a realization that their child needed help. Once the parents decided to start the process I directed them to the proper channels. I actually gathered the information for them. We were consistent in everything we did with him at the center and at home.

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Managing Severely Challenging Behavior
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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