Strategies for Internal and External Challenging Behaviors

June 26, 2023

Behaviors adults find challenging from children can come in many forms. The most common ones, or the ones we can actually see, occur when children are externalizing (acting out) their feelings. Hitting and destroying toys are just two examples. These are more obvious and usually get more attention. Many children use this type of behavior to express the complex emotions they have yet to understand because they need our help, more boundaries, more skills, and often more connection with the adults in their lives.

Another type of behavior that adults may see from children can come in the form of internalizing (acting in) feelings. Hiding under a table and refusing to speak are two examples. These moments happen when feelings stay inside and are expressed with more self-destructive or avoidant behavior. Internalized behaviors are often easily ignored, but they still require adult support and attention.

Here are just a few strategies to try out when working through either external or internal challenging behaviors with a young child…

For Externalizing Behaviors

  • Sensory Play: Provide sensory items that help children express and manage their feelings. For example, play a variety of music, offer play dough to knead and pound, set up warm soapy water with cups to dump and pour. Offer lots of choices!
  • Remind and Redirect: It can be difficult to stop yourself from reacting (such as saying “No!”) when you think a child is using or about to use an inappropriate behavior. As long as the behavior you think is about to happen will not harm another child, try redirecting the behavior instead.
  • Self-Talk: Children can learn to recognize and talk out loud about strong feelings (“I’m getting upset,” “I feel mad,” or “This is frustrating!”) followed by more self-talk to help calm themselves (“Stop,” “Settle down,” “It’s going to be OK,” “Be calm,” or “I can handle this problem.”) Teachers and families should model self-talk by working through their own strong feelings out loud: “This knot is tight. I am getting frustrated trying to untie it. I will stay calm. I will keep trying. I can do this!”

For Internalizing Behaviors

  • Scaffolding: Offer support at the level a child needs to make progress in mastering a skill. Reduce the level of support (or scaffold) as the child builds the skills needed to do the task or activity independently.
  • Encouragement: Take care to describe what a child says or does instead of making comments that are judgmental such as “Good job,” “Pretty picture,” or “You’re so smart!” Try instead: “Anna, you took Addie’s hand and walked her to the swings. Then, you helped her climb up on the swing and gave her a gentle push. What a kind thing to do for a friend!”
  • Perspective Taking: Talk with a child about what he is feeling and thinking. Put aside your own thoughts and feelings about the situation or how you might have handled things, and try to see it from the child’s point of view. Ask a child, “What are you thinking?’’ or “How are you feeling?”

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