Five ways to lessen challenging behavior before it starts


Much has been said on this site and elsewhere about using positive feedback to prevent challenging behavior in students. This is very important, but if a student does not find the classroom to be a compelling experience, bad behaviors will continue.

Michelle Salcedo

Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., chief academic officer at the Sunshine House Early Learning Academy, presented five factors important to making the classroom a positive environment for young or young-minded students, in an webinar entitled “What You Can Do Today to Lessen Challenging Behaviors Tomorrow.”

Factor 1: Incorporate active learning

Young children learn by active learning, which can be remembered by the acronym “HOMES”: Hands-on, Open-ended, Meaningful, Engaging, and Sensory-oriented, said Salcedo.

  • “Hands-on” means that kids need to explore real things they can put their hands on, or at least see real pictures instead of cartoons.
  • “Open-ended” means that children should be able to decide design features in art, for example.
  • “Meaningful” means that the content should build on what the child is already connected to or familiar with.
  • “Engaging” means it should encourage thinking instead of rote answers. For example, instead of asking questions like “What color is that?” or “What sound does that make?” inquire “Tell me what you think”, “How did you make that happen?” or “What’s going to happen next?”
  • “Sensory-oriented” refers to the fact that when the senses are engaged, we learn a lot more. Think about what your classroom has to offer to the five physical senses. What is there that is interesting to touch or to listen to?

During circle time, challenging behavior can arise because of a lack of active learning and kids aren’t touching real things or doing anything that is open-ended or meaningful. Project art can be uninteresting to children if it is not open-ended, requiring children to all make the same thing.

Factor 2: Lessen sensory over-stimulation

If you have ever been to Times Square, you can appreciate all the sights and sounds, for a while. But you probably wouldn’t want to spend the entire day there — it’s too much. By the same token, classrooms that are visually loud and hectic with a lot of bright colors, and many things on the walls and hanging from the ceiling, can be overstimulating, making it difficult for children to focus.

Salcedo suggests having a mostly neutral palette with pops of bright color here and there, and some plants as well. She suggests thinking of how hotels are decorated.

Factor 3: Allow for movement

Children need to move. “Sensible children always run. Walking is slower and not much fun,” quoted Salcedo.

Forget the mindset that children must go outside to really move around. Sometimes it’s not possible to go outside if it’s too cold or there are other dangers. But there are things you can do to provide significant movement and redirect inappropriate movement while inside.

For example, many children like to throw things, which is not bad in itself, only bad if they throw bad things. So set up a throwing corner where children can throw rolled-up socks. To enable children to jump around, hang beach balls from the ceiling and let children bat at them. Running around the classroom is out of the question, but you can block off a mock treadmill on the floor and attach a timer to it to simulate treadmill controls. Salcedo said that at first, all the kids will want to use the treadmill, but eventually only those who really need it will use it.

Factor 4: Define expectations

Define precisely what children are to do. For example, when we say “rest time,” students may think it’s time to have a screen to rest with if they get one at home. Clarify what it means to have a nap in the classroom. Make a book about it with pictures, such as 1) go to the bathroom, 2) wash our hands, 3) get our blankets, 4) lie down, 5) stay still, 6) think positive thoughts. Similarly, make a book that shows how we eat at school, because it may be different than students are used to eating at home.

Salcedo has heard teachers say “No thank you” when students do something objectionable, but this is in appropriate — “No thank you” is better used when we appreciate the gesture but don’t want it right now.

Salcedo has also heard teachers say “We don’t hit our friends”…but not all classmates are friends. “We don’t hit others” would be better.

Factor 5: Be joyful and have fun!

“What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul.” Yiddish proverb

Children like to laugh and have fun. So make room for fun!

Monty Python’s Ministry of Funny Walks

For example, why do students have to walk in a straight line? Why can’t they hop? Or have the department of funny walks?

Clean-up time is a great opportunity for fun. Salcedo used to play Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” in her classroom and if students cleaned up before the song ended they would have a dance party. She also used tag-team clean-up, where children would sit in a circle and two people were tagged at a time to do clean-up.

Working with older students

The advantage of older students is that they are more able to communicate what is at the root of their behavior. So take advantage of that. You can also tell students that there is one rule — they are allowed to get their learning needs met, but they cannot disturb others. In Salcedo’s classroom, students were allowed to walk to the back of the class or have playdough on their desks if they needed to, as long as it did not disturb others.

If you have a child who only seems to respond to shouting, get in front of the child and whisper to them.

Sometimes students have deeper issues stemming from home life. It may take longer to make these children feel secure, but practicing the factors in this article will allow for more time to focus on the deeper issues.

To find out more, view the webinar and read Salcedo’s book, Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior, published by Free Spirit Publishing, which offers a variety of books on social emotional learning. Salcedo can be emailed at and her Twitter handle is @authorsalcedo.


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