An adult embracing a crying child with the text "Managing Stress & Challening Behaviors in Early Childhood"

July 2022 – Published by 4-C

The first years of a child’s life can be challenging as they learn how to control their body, what behaviors are appropriate at a given time, and how to combine everything they’ve learned into action. In addition to these new regulation skills, children are also developing the ability to calm themselves when upset. As an adult or child, this process can present challenges at times.

Here are some strategies for parents and educators to help with challenging behaviors like crying, aggression, and defiance, and how to assist your child in developing self-control and self-regulation skills.

For Parents, Families, & Caregivers:

Limit Yourself

Keep in mind that your child’s feeling loved and affectionately cared for builds the foundation for their acceptance of the guidance you will provide as they grow. Children who feel loved want to please their parents most of the time and will respond to thoughtful guidance. Putting reasonable restrictions on your child’s behavior is part of loving them, just like feeding them vegetables, comforting them when they’re sick, playing the same game a dozen times in a row, and responding to their curious questions.

Show Empathy

Make use of what you know about your child’s temperament, rhythms, preferences, and sensitivities. The issue is not the feelings themselves, but the way they are dealt with. When you validate feelings, your children are better able to self-regulate.

Be Clear

Clearly explain to your child what you want them to do or not do in a given situation. By doing this before an event or outing occurs, or even as it is happening, you model clear communication skills and establish expectations. If your child acts against your wishes, ensure they understand the expectations you set for them prior to reacting to their behavior. Regardless of the success of your expectations, ensure your child understands that they are loved.

Observe Carefully

When your young child is playing with other children, keep an eye on the situation but try not to hover. What might begin as gentle playing could escalate to a battle between children and they might need you as a “referee.” However, there are times when you can let young children work things out among themselves. If you do need to intervene, try to model or explain your expectations and name the behaviors that aren’t appropriate in the situation.

Use Redirection

If your child is being aggressive in a way you don’t like, try stopping it by giving them a task or opportunity that is more appropriate. You may either suggest and help start a new activity or It might be a good idea to steer them toward a place where they can express their feelings in a more constructive or less destructive manner.

  • If a child is throwing blocks, try taking them outside to throw balls, instead. Can they hit that tree? What about the plastic bottle you’ve balanced on top of the fence?
  • If they are pushing furniture or shoving inappropriately, try giving them a laundry basket full of books to push across the floor. Can they push it all the way across the room? What about when you add another set of books?

These redirections can help the child discharge energy and re-regulate their feelings in a way that doesn’t harm others.

Be a Coach and a Role Model

When time permits, demonstrate how to handle a situation in which there is a conflict between children. Parents are the most important models for behavior and how to use aggression in a healthy way. Children need specific guidance and demonstration from adults so that they can learn that physical attacks and retaliation are not acceptable ways to handle disagreements.

Avoid Spanking

Think about the very real disadvantages of physical punishment for your child. Children often arouse anger in adults when they provoke, tease, behave stubbornly, or attack others. If your practice is to hit or physically punish your child in some other way for such behavior, you need to think very carefully about what is learned from that.


Remember that learning takes time. Your child’s learning to love and live in reasonable harmony with others comes about only gradually and over many years. There will always be ups and downs as parents, but it is important to remind yourself about the positive developments they are making.

A child screaming in the foreground with an adult in the background covering their ears with text stating, "Ways to Manage Stress & Challenging Behaviors in Early Childhood"

For Educators, Teachers, & Providers:

Communication is Key

As an educator, it is worth speaking with parents to understand what is working for their family. Ask about different activities the child enjoys and what are some challenges that might be expected. This transparency will help you in the long term.

Support Their Needs

All children are different and some may not always be happy in environments that might overwhelm them, such as a playground. Find ways to make the classroom as inclusive to their needs as possible.


When watching over a multitude of children, it might get overwhelming. Many children might want the same toy and their impulse is to take it for themselves. Consider games that require turn-taking to practice how to wait and share. If there is a ball, have them roll it back and forth to each other. This provides an opportunity to have them wait and control their impulses.

Be Active

Ensure that active play is every day. If an issue arises where a toddler bites or hurts another child, do not punish them by losing out on “recess” time. This may make the problem worse and they often need that active time to let out any built-up energy or aggression.

Is your child struggling with challenging behaviors while in child care? Is there a child in your classroom or program that could use additional behavioral supports?

4-C is partnering with Behavior Help Wisconsin to offer one-on-one coaching to child care providers and programs in Dane County. For more information check out this page.

Additional Resources: