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Strategies to Help Children with Behavior Issues

Strategies to Help Children With Behavior Issues

Every child tests limits sometimes, especially as they begin to learn, explore, and develop autonomy. But if your child repeatedly engages in behaviors that negatively impact their relationship with you or others or prevents them from being able to go to daycare or other public or community settings, early intervention could help. You don’t have to struggle with challenging or disruptive behavior alone. A behavior therapist can help teach more appropriate behaviors, address skill deficits, and build a stronger connection with your child. Below are a few strategies they may suggest.

Distraction or Replacement

When your child is told “no,” an item is removed, or it’s time to leave a preferred activity, try using distraction or replacement. For example, if your child is climbing on a table, you can replace this behavior with appropriately climbing a mountain of pillows, climbing up a slide, or even jumping around in a ball pit. If your child is seeking active play, replacing unwanted actions with another form of active play will teach acceptable ways to engage in physical activity. Another example would be if your child is putting an inappropriate item in their mouth, replace it with a snack, a teether, or a sensory-based chew toy. 

Another strategy is using an enthusiastic, fun voice to increase the “buy-in” for the child, to change direction, and to decrease the likelihood that unwanted behaviors will occur. For instance, if your child wants to go outside and that’s not a current option, provide a distraction by getting excited about another activity inside such as engaging in water play in the bathroom tub. Providing a novelty element also helps with this approach such as adding a new, colorful kitchen sponge to absorb and squeeze out water. There is no need to buy a new item. Using a current item you already own that is typically not used in this way creates an element of unexpected fun.   

Planned Ignoring

Children learn they can gain our attention and access to preferred items or activities by engaging in undesirable behaviors. Children often access our attention more immediately when they are not following boundaries or expectations. For example, when you tell your child they can’t have a toy from the store and it results in crying and yelling behaviors. Planned ignoring is when direct attention is not provided to your child but you are still discreetly watching for safety or a need to change the behavior strategy. Children will learn over repeated exposure to this technique that they are not going to gain access to our attention, desired items, or activities by acting this way and their behaviors will stop or be significantly minimized. Once your child is calm, positively re-engage with them. Children do need our attention and providing it when they are engaging in more appropriate behaviors will increase our meaningful connections with them and promote positive social-emotional growth. 

Engaging in inappropriate behaviors often can’t be ignored, especially when safety is a concern. Planned ignoring is best used when your child already knows the boundaries and providing a replacement or distraction is not the best approach given the circumstances. You shouldn't ignore behavior that might hurt your child, such as touching dangerous objects, running into the street, or self-harm behavior. In those cases, you should intervene immediately to protect them.

Positive Reinforcement

In most instances, children need guidance and meaningful teachable moments, not punishment, even when engaging in challenging behaviors. Young children are still learning right from wrong and need multiple practice opportunities to learn rules and how to follow directions, develop social skills, and positively interact with others. We want to promote good behaviors, not negative behaviors. It’s important to focus on and reinforce the behaviors you want them to repeat by complimenting them on the positive actions you see such as, “Good sitting in your chair,” and “That was so kind sharing your snack.” When you draw attention to their good decisions, children will try to repeat these choices to obtain your approval and praise. Receiving that positive feedback will make them feel good and want to do it again. Reinforcing appropriate behaviors promotes a natural process of learning about how to interact positively with others and their environment.


Redirection involves diverting your child’s attention away from an undesirable behavior or situation and directing their attention to a more appropriate action. Instead of directly addressing a challenging behavior, focus on guiding your child toward a positive action. For example, if your child is getting bored and antsy at the grocery store, invite them to pick out the best apples or type of cereal. If your child is getting irritable in the car, play or sing a favorite song, talk about what you see outside, or offer a preferred item. Redirection is a gentle way to guide children towards a positive choice during a difficult moment. It’s an effective strategy in guiding your child through a more appropriate action and also teaching your child how to think flexibly. Teaching your child positive thinking skills in adverse situations develops a healthy mindset and helps manage emotions.

Give Them Choices 

Providing choices can be an effective way to promote independence, encourage cooperation, and reduce power struggles between you and your child. Providing choices allows your child control over some decisions while providing clear boundaries. For young children, starting with two choices by holding up two items and asking them their preference works best. Some children don’t know how to make choices and providing a preferred choice and non-preferred choice helps teach this process. For example, if you know they want goldfish for a snack you could ask, “Do you want peas (non-preferred choice) or goldfish?” As children get better at making choices, you can gradually offer more options such as picking between three colors of chalk or choosing a cereal at the grocery store. 

Choices can also be a good strategy for children who are exerting their independence with their preferences. For example, if your child wants to wear a shirt that is currently in the washer, you can provide two other alternatives using a positive, cheerful tone. You could say, “Your red shirt is getting cleaned. Ooooh! Would you like to wear your Spiderman shirt or your dino shirt?” Choices can also be utilized if your child is not cooperating during a routine such as cleaning up. Using a calm, positive tone, ask, “Do you want to put away the block or car?” Modeling the process in a fun manner as well helps your child get interested in a less preferred activity and gives your child time to mentally shift gears to cooperate.

Providing Space

Providing space allows children to express their big emotions safely. Children have big emotions for a variety of reasons, such as coping with the word “no,” seeing a parent leave for work, transitioning inside after playing outside, or during a moment of frustration. Allowing children to express their big emotions and being available for a hug or other comfort supports children’s emotional growth. When children get overwhelmed with emotion, the best strategy is being patient, emotionally present, and keeping them safe. When children get overwhelmed, they shut down and enter fight or flight mode. They are not able to think logically or listen to you during these moments. They are stuck and need time to deescalate and regain control of their emotions. Once your child calms down, you can gently and slowly try to intervene. If they begin to escalate again, give your child space and try again when you think they are ready. Some children prefer to initiate this reconnection with you because it helps them feel in control.  

Early Intervention Can Help with Behavioral Issues

If your young child struggles with behavioral issues, they may qualify for free behavior intervention through the Early Intervention Program. In Pennsylvania, the first step is to make a referral online or by calling 1-800-692-7288. For Berks County, the local number is 610-236-0530. If your child qualifies and you’re located in Berks, Schuylkill, Lebanon, Tioga, or Wayne counties, please consider selecting Happy Hearts as your early intervention provider by emailing Jess.

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