The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

For young children, experiencing conflict in the classroom is a normal part of growing up. It means they are learning how to interact with others and navigate the world.

That doesn’t mean it is easy to deal with.

Teachers have always had to manage misbehavior in the classroom, but for many educators, behavior has become an even bigger challenge since the pandemic disrupted schools and child care.

One of the most common methods used to manage problem behavior of young students is to threaten to take something away. For example, “If you don’t behave, you won’t get to participate in the pizza party,” said Lety Valero, who is an instructor with Conscious Discipline, a company that trains adults on classroom management and behavior. But often when we use those strategies, she said, we leave out an important part of redirecting student behavior: teaching them the skills they should be modeling.

Last fall, at the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in D.C., I attended a packed session led by Valero — “Transforming Aggression, Defiance, and Disruptive Behaviors with the Skill of Self-Regulation.” Because this session gathered so much interest, I asked Valero if she would talk with me about her approach to managing behavior problems in young children. Here are some of her tips, edited for clarity and length.

Student behavior has become a bigger challenge since the pandemic. Our focus should be on the adult response.

Valero: We are in a crisis in education. Many places where I go work, whether I talk to teachers or whether I coach teachers, you hear the desperation. If it was hard before the pandemic, after the pandemic, it became really, really hard. And many teachers are leaving the field of education to do other things.

We’ve got to move from ‘How do we change children?’ to ‘What do we offer to children?’ [from] ‘How do we change their behavior?’ to ‘What is it that we’re going to do as adults to impact children?’ And we tend to think that it’s about changing the child, but it’s about working on ourselves.

Children are more likely to model the behavior of adults. When we act composed during conflict, we show children they can act that way during times of stress, too.

Valero: For children to be able to be ready to learn, whether it is academic content, or social-emotional skills, they have got to be in this relaxed, alert state. The needs of their brain are to feel safe and to be connected, and that safety begins with an adult that creates a safe environment. An environment where with our words, with our actions, with our energy, we’re communicating in this space: you’re safe.

Be assertive. Give clear directions. And emphasize what children should be doing, rather than what they are doing wrong.

Valero: Something that’s very common — [there’s this] belief that if I tell you everything that you’re doing wrong, then you’re going to do it differently, which is a complete lie. If I tell you everything you’re doing wrong, then you don’t know how to do it differently. So, we’ve got to focus on what we want the child to do — what it looks like, what it sounds like. And even add pictures of the expectation that will make it much more clear for the child.

Children have got also to believe that they can do it. That they can accomplish things, that even though at times it’s difficult, they’re going to get there. So, the skill of encouragement is essential. Noticing and describing their achievements, and then accompanying them with: ‘You’re doing it — good for you.’

Practicing empathy means respecting and understanding that when children get upset over something small, it is big to them.

Valero: It’s not hard for me as an adult if I get red instead of pink. It is hard for you when you’re 3 years old. And when you’re 3 years old, the higher centers of your brain are not yet developed, so you don’t have the skills to problem-solve. The only thing that you know what to do is throw things. Throw a fit, yell and scream. That’s what you know, and we forget that their executive skills are underdeveloped at that time. So, we have to lend our pre-frontal lobes with our executive skills to children.

The difference between a punishment and a consequence is the intent. In punishment, my intent is that you feel bad about what you did. In the consequence, my intent is to motivate you to use the skills that you have. If I offer a consequence to the child that doesn’t have the skills, that consequence is not going to work.

Making time to care for the mental health of educators is good for teachers. It is also good for their students.

Valero: [We have to ask ourselves] what are we going to do to provide the teachers with that emotional well-being that they need? And when they have so many children with such huge behaviors. So, it’s time that we talk about mental health for teachers, too. And at times, a teacher is going to need someone to step into the class so they can step out, take a breath, walk around, make sense of what they feel and what’s going on. So that they can shift their perspective, so they can calm themselves, and go back into the classrooms. And that’s supporting teachers — knowing that at times, just like a child needs to go to a safe place to regain their calm, the teachers will need that, too.

I think everyone in education — children, parents, teachers, directors, principals — we need to surround ourselves with more compassion.

This story about behavior management was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *