How to Address Challenging Behavior Taught By Parents

How To Address Challenging Behavior Taught by Parents

Teaching preschool exposes you to the good, the bad and, yes I’m going to go there, the ugly. Challenging behaviors in early childhood is a very normal part of early childhood development and one of the most daunting (and rewarding!) aspects of the job.

However, when challenging behavior is persistent and parents are not on the same page in terms of correcting them, it can turn into a pretty serious issue. This article will go over these problematic behaviors and what to do when you suspect that they are learned or event encouraged by parents.

Common Challenging Behaviors In Early Childhood

Problem behaviors come in different shapes and forms and can be disruptive in a classroom environment. Some common behaviors that teachers encounter in the classroom are:

  • Biting
  • Screaming
  • Hitting
  • Potty talk
  • Temper tantrums

Young children go through different phases when learning how to express themselves, regulate their emotions and understand their environment. It’s important not to label a child based on their behavior. More often than not, tantrums are a symptom of a larger underlying issue.

As an educator, it is important to have a good baseline for “normal behavior” and identify when a behavior needs to be addressed or worked on. Separating the child from their behavior is a helpful first step in coming up with a solution for repeated problem behavior.  

Let’s explore how home environments can influence a child’s behavior in the classroom.

How Parents Influence Bad Behavior

There are many sayings that align a child’s personality with their parents’. And to an extent, it is true, parents are their child’s first teacher and the home is a learning environment, like a classroom.

In line with that, teaching preschool can sometimes mean teaching parents too. Creating a safe space that is free of judgement is key to encouraging parents to open up with their struggles and work on a plan to understand and improve the cause of a child’s behavior both in the classroom and at home.

Building a better understanding of how the home environment influences the behavior of a child is a good first step. Here are some ways that parents influence their children’s behavior at home.  

Lack of consistent rules

Rules only work if they are enforced. Boundaries are important for children to learn how to set expectations and learn social etiquette. For example, if a child throws a fit every time they don’t get what they want, this might be a learned behavior from their home where making a fuss gets them their way.

Rules without consequences when they are broken can reinforce bad behavior in children because it teaches that boundaries do not matter. This is usually the case when new parents want to move away from traditional models of discipline such as punishment (we will get into that later). Parents naturally want to love their children, but being too lenient can contribute to problem behavior too.

Attributing the behavior to “a phase”

Sometimes it is easier for parents to deflect the issue instead of addressing problem behavior head on. Some parents (especially first time ones!) can be at a loss for how to handle problem behavior and understanding what is normal for their child’s developmental phase.

Labelling problem behavior as a phase like “Terrible Twos” can lead to compounding challenging behavior.  If parents are overwhelmed and think that a certain behavior will blow over eventually, it could mean that the behavior is not corrected in the home environment. These are parents that need some support and guidance from teachers!

Negative reinforcement

Tantrums are reactions to a child’s environment as they figure out their place in the world. Each parent will have their own unique way of working with their children. Challenging behavior can test our own limits as adults. Negative reinforcement such as threats and punishment is a very common traditional approach to correcting bad behavior.

Even as adults, we have our own specific triggers that could cause us to react out of frustration or anger. And while punishment can be an effective deterrent in the short term, it does not usually address the “why” of a certain behavior. While there is no turnkey solution to discipline, negative reinforcement can be the cause of children acting out.

If you suspect that a child is reacting to negative reinforcement in the home, try to see if there are patterns in their classroom behavior to pinpoint triggers and then use these observations to open up a conversation with parents.

Attention seeking

More often than not, bad behavior is a result of attention seeking. Children are programmed to get adult attention as a means of survival. In normal circumstances, adult attention validates children when they are learning a skill, being well-behaved, engaged and happy.

However, when a child does not get enough positive reactions, instinctual feelings of abandonment set in and children will develop negative tactics to get attention. This is not to say that parents are willfully ignoring their children. This is most commonly the case when parents may be overwhelmed at work or going through a tough time personally.

Understanding what is happening at home can give you some valuable insight into how to work with children displaying problematic behavior in the classroom.

Effective Strategies To Reduce Bad Behavior

Now that we’ve outlined the common ways in which parents influence their children’s bad behavior, let’s look at some strategies to remedy the situation and increase positive behavior.

Set boundaries

Children are constantly learning and boundaries are key to setting clear guidelines and expectations. While permissive parents might be most comfortable with the idea of letting their child “do their own thing,” this could very well be the cause for problem behavior.

Ensuring that there are clear limits in your classroom will help your kiddos know what to expect in the classroom environment.

Some simple steps to set boundaries are:

  1. Remain consistent
  2. Be precise
  3. Follow through
  4. Use “natural consequences” instead of punishment

Follow routines

Routines are another way to help children learn what to expect in their day to day. Transitions can be a highly stressful time for kiddos as they are very sensitive to their environments. Building a consistent routine is a great way to improve the child’s ability to develop the social and emotional skills that they need to succeed in their daily life.

The day can be broken up into blocks of time: free choice time, outdoor play, group activities, naptime, lunch, snack, quiet time – you know the drill.

Start by noticing your classroom. Each group of children is different and some kiddos settle into routines easier than others. For the ones that might be struggling, try to see if there’s a certain step in your routine that needs to be modified or clarified.

A classroom routine should flow well and that requires teachers to teach it to the kiddos! Go slow, use visual supports, song and dance – routines don’t need to be boring, take a chance and make it fun!

Develop self-control

Just as routines are taught, exercising self-control is like exercising a muscle. Self-regulation skills are fundamental to helping children process and express their feelings in a healthy and appropriate way. This includes learning how to tolerate sensations, controlling impulses and boosting emotional development. These skills eventually lead to heightened concentration that translates into their latter years.

Some fun games that you can play to develop these skills are:

  • Simon Says
  • Red Light, Green Light
  • Musical Chairs
  • Ready, Set, Wiggle
  • Follow The Leader    

Model good behaviors

Children are more perceptive than adults give them credit for and learn a good deal from observation. They see how adults respond to stressful situations, how they treat others, and how adults process feelings.

How you respond and approach a child that is misbehaving sets the tone for your entire classroom. Modelling a reasonable and fair approach will not only benefit one child, it will have an impact on your entire classroom. For example, if a child is throwing a temper tantrum, staying calm and pausing before reacting is a good way to model emotional control.

Just like there are games to promote self-regulating, showing how it is applied to real situations is a good learning opportunity for children. Responding calmly also helps reassure the upset child that you are in control (though it might not feel that way sometimes!).      

Redirect instead of punish

A misbehaving child is trying on an adult’s patience. Scolding, nagging, yelling and punishment are traditional ways of addressing misbehavior. It has also been proven that negative reinforcement can cause undesirable side effects.

While people often equate discipline with punishment, they are very different. Discipline focuses on teaching and developing the focus required to follow rules and is forward looking. Punishment is a consequence that involves suffering for an undesired behavior. Getting to the root of why a behavior is undesirable will have a more reliable and lasting impact on how a child responds to their environment than punishment.

Punishment can also be seen as modeling how to use superiority to intimidate and get your way!

Building A Strong Parent-Teacher Connection In Preschool

The saying that it takes a village to raise a child cannot be understated. Parents and teachers are very much partners in this process!

If you are struggling with a child’s challenging behavior in your classroom, it is a good idea to involve their parents as soon as you notice their behavior.

Documenting a child’s mood so is useful to help you notice certain trends, stressors or patterns in their behavior. Use this as a launching off point for conversations with parents and always approach the conversation without judgement. The more documentation you have, the easier it will be for parents to understand the full extent of what is going on and be more willing to work with you to address the challenging behavior.

You never know what you might find once a family opens up to you about what they are going through. Do you have tips for addressing challenging behavior taught by parents? How do you approach the conversation?

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Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!


  • Sue Schlembach says:

    I appreciated reading the blog Addressing Challenging Behavior Taught By Parents. I wish to add to that the language and mindset I learned from Dan Gartrell’s work, and now share with my early education students. If we look at the roots of challenging behaviors–observed in children as well as adults–through the lens of “mistaken behaviors” then we can work with children and adults/parents in a respectful productive way towards positive change. The idea of mistaken behaviors comes from what the interdisciplinary field of early childhood understands about human development, and developmentally appropriate positive guidance and discipline strategies. For more information on guidance vs. punishment see

    Kind regards,
    Sue Schlembach, PhD
    Faculty, Early Childhood Education Online Program
    University of Cincinnati

  • Bambi says:

    I love this information. We are currently dealing with a child’s challenging behavior and the family is denying that anything needs to be done. Their pediatrician has told them that it is just normal behavior. Is there any way that I can print this out to share with the teachers? I have subscribed to your program and look forward to sharing what you teach us. Bambi

    • Michael Keshen says:

      Absolutely, just select File > Print in your internet browser and you should be able to print the article!

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