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Behavior Strategies for Preschoolers

Instructor: Kathryn Lawson

Kathryn has a doctorate in clinical psychology and a master's degree in criminal justice. She has experience with college instruction and staff training.

In this lesson, you will learn about general principles for intervening in problem behaviors. You will also learn five specific strategies for combating a range of these sorts of behaviors in preschool students.

Scope of the Issue

Even in a well-managed classroom with appropriate seating arrangements and interesting displays, some students will engage in problem behaviors. These behaviors may include inattention to lessons, acting out for attention, disrespectful behaviors, defiance, or even aggression. Although these behaviors can be disruptive and exasperating, there are a number of strategies to address them. With consistent use of the strategies, problem behaviors should be reduced and eventually eliminated. Although in some cases, problem behaviors will need to be addressed with the parents and/or the principal, the strategies outlined below are ones that can be used by teachers in the classroom setting as undesirable behaviors occur.

General Principles

Consequences should occur as soon as possible after the undesirable behavior occurs. Students should also understand why they are receiving the consequence. This explanation should be as specific as possible so that the child knows what behavior was inappropriate and should not be repeated. Consequences must be appropriate for the age and developmental level of the child. It is also worth considering whether the behavioral expectations themselves are appropriate for the age and abilities of that child.

Try to get some sense of what triggers or seems to motivate the problem behaviors. This will help you decide what management strategy to use. Finally, and perhaps most frustratingly, understand that behaviors may not immediately respond to your interventions. It is important to respond consistently to problem behaviors and to appreciate that changing them will likely be a time-intensive process.

Specific strategies for behavioral intervention can be roughly categorized into preventative or reactive strategies, as described more fully below.

Preventative Strategies

These are strategies that can be used before a problem behavior occurs or reoccurs. It is also sometimes possible to use these strategies just as a problem is beginning to occur.

1. Redirection. With redirection, the teacher intervenes in the problem behavior by engaging the student's attention somewhere else. For example, if Maria knows that Todd has a particularly difficult time sharing a stuffed dinosaur in the classroom, she may approach Todd with a suggestion that he come work a puzzle when she notices an impending (or even ongoing) conflict with another child over the dinosaur.

2. Modeling. The modeling strategy teaches a child desirable behaviors through showing the child those behaviors. Modeling can be done by the teacher him or herself, or by an appropriately behaving peer. If students are expected to remove their jackets immediately upon entering the classroom, the teacher can remove his or her jacket immediately upon entering the classroom. Remember that students are watching you throughout the day, even when they don't appear to be.

3. Praise. Praise is positive verbal feedback communicated with a congruent tone of voice. Saying 'great job' while frowning will not feel like praise, but the same words with a smile and an enthusiastic tone will. In combating problem behaviors, it is effective to use when the child is not engaging in those behaviors. For example, Ashleigh frequently talks during quiet time. On days when she is not talking, Javier makes sure to praise her for her compliance with the rules.

Reactive Strategies

These are strategies that are typically more useful when a problem behavior has already occurred, both to calm the current situation and to reduce the likelihood of future problems.

4. Time-out. Time-out is used to remove the child from the situation in which problem behaviors are occurring and from the reinforcements in that situation. The general rule for time-outs is that they should last one minute per one year of the age of the child and should be monitored by an electronic timer. It is not uncommon for time-out strategies to fail when the time-out situation is accidentally more desirable to the child than the original situation. For example, if Jonas acts out when he is becoming overwhelmed by the noise of the classroom, putting him in quiet time-out is not a negative consequence. It's a reward! In contrast, if Stefanie acts out to draw additional attention to herself, being placed in time-out and away from all that rewarding attention may be an effective deterrent. The time-out strategy highlights the need to have some understanding of the motivating causes of problem behaviors.

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