Problem Preschool Behaviors

preschool behaviors

Today, we’re covering problem behavior in preschoolers, including behaviors that impact learning and development because of participation in preschool activities. Every preschooler, family, and classroom is different. With the uniqueness embedded into an Early Childhood Classroom, it isn’t uncommon for teachers to have some run-ins with concerning behavior. This blog will teach you the five steps to creating a behavior plan for managing preschool behaviors, which encourages positive interactions with parents and children. 

Problem behaviors in preschool and what's the behavior trigger for preschoolers

The uniqueness of every family and child plays a role in each preschool classroom. Every teacher has expectations. All classrooms are set up differently, and the environment can change, based on the activities and people who are present. Understanding how to support children and their families, while teaching children academic, social, and emotional skills, can be daunting for preschool teachers. 

examples of challenging preschool behaviors

Some of examples of challenging behaviors in preschoolers include:

  • Hitting, scratching, slapping, grabbing
  • Biting, spitting, chewing on non food items, licking
  • Kicking others
  • Bolting out of the classroom or other setting
  • Refusing to work, refusal to cooperate, talking back
  • Yelling, screaming, crying
  • Tantrums – Check out this post on the OT Toolbox to better understand meltdown vs. tantrum behavior

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Do any of these behaviors sound familiar? 

What causes challenging behaviors in preschool?

Before covering strategies to address behaviors that impact learning and the development of skills, it is important to understand why we may see challenging behaviors in the preschool setting.

Based on these Kindergarten readiness standards of emotional readiness, 5-6 year old children are expected to know how to calm down, listen to teachers, follow directions, take turns with peers (this is a great resource on turn taking), and transition between activities throughout the school day. 

When a child enters preschool, they typically haven’t had much experience with some of these tasks. Some young children adapt well to the social and emotional expectations of a large group situation, while other children need extra support. 

Preschool behavior triggers

Behavior Triggers

There can be a multitude of reasons why problem behaviors occur in the preschool setting. Just some of the behavior triggers that lead to common issues in the preschool setting include these causes:

  • Having a new routine (potty training, time change, or differing work schedules of parents are some examples) throws off the child’s ability to self regulate
  • Experiencing a change in home environment (a new baby added to the family, moving to a new home, or other home changes)
  • Not getting enough sleep (check out this article on sleep hygiene)
  • Too much screen time
  • Developmental changes in the preschool age range

Breaking these underlying areas down, it is possible to see three common factors that may trigger a behavioral response between the ages of 3-5 years.

Three common triggers of preschool behavior outbursts:

  • Basic needs (hunger, sleep, thirst, temperature) Is the child hungry, tired or overwhelmed? Is it close to snack time or nap time? Did the child drink enough water while they were playing outside? Basic needs affect everyone differently. Children tend to be sensitive to bodily changes. Medical issues may affect basic needs. Make sure to be in contact with parents about any sort of change in a child’s health. This includes toileting challenges (constipation), new medications they may have been given, and allergy concerns.
  • Environment (changes to routine of the environment, home situation, transportation, changes to the classroom environment: lights, sounds, smells, temperature, distractions, unexpected changes).
  • Behavior of others (behavior of peers, behaviors and actions of adults, parents, caregivers, educators, and behaviors of others in the classroom: other children making noise, someone provoking them, someone else having a tantrum).

Triggers of challenging behavior in the preschool age range can be compounded by several of these considerations occurring at one time. Additionally, preschoolers can struggle with communication to let others know what is happening in their world.

How to support challenging preschool behaviors

How to support challenging preschool behaviors

Children learn best from consistency. This pertains to social and emotional expectations, both at home and in the classroom.

Talking to families about concerns regarding their child’s behavior, is one of the hardest conversations that a teacher can have.

By creating a 5 step behavior plan with the family, educators can support children, while also demonstrating to families that they are there to help by teaching their child how to interact and engage with their peers. 

5 Step Behavior Plan for Preschoolers

Here are the 5 steps to complete when creating a behavior plan for a child. Going through these steps, you’ll see that addressing emotional regulation, getting to the root of underlying causes and considerations, creating an age-appropriate plan, including play-based strategies or tools to support development in these areas.

As always, the concept of the “iceberg” of underlying considerations is upheld.

1. Determine the cause of the behavior

There are many different causes of a child’s behavior. Parents and teachers can track the behavior of a child, gathering data using an ABC chart. This refers to antecedent (what happened before the behavior started), behavior (what that child did), and the consequence (how did the child and adult respond to the behavior.) 

When observing children to understand the cause of their behavior, make sure to pay close attention to the common behavior triggers addressed and listed above. Getting clear on what’s causing the visible behavior is essential.

*Keep track of children that are known to have sensory sensitivities (Here are some questions to ask yourself when monitoring the environment:

  • Have you changed anything in the room?
  • Has the weather been different (humid, rain, snow, extra cold or hot)?
  • Is it really bright and sunny, or gloomy and foggy?
  • Does the child have any sensory sensitivities such as clothing, sounds, being touched?
  • Have you changed the classroom routine?
  • Has the child touched or engaged in a sensory rich experience they may not have liked (finger-paint, sensory bin, slime, play dough)?
  • Is the classroom too loud or very busy?
  • Check if the child is wearing something new/uncomfortable (do their shoes fit? Is there a scratchy tag on their clothes? Is their diaper too tight?)
  • Here is a great post on working with children with sensory differences.

2. Talk to parents and caregivers

Once you have narrowed down the cause of the behavior, make a plan to meet with the child’s caregivers (parents, grandparents, daycare staff) to go over your findings. Include any member of their team who spends a great amount of time with this child.

Documented evidence and observations from the ABC chart will give you concrete examples of what is happening, and why. 

When starting the conversation with the family, begin by describing the child’s strengths. Share their child’s favorite activity to do at school, who their friends are, and one great thing they did that week.

Next, show the family the ABC chart, explain what behaviors you want to change, and what new behaviors you would like the child to do instead.

Encourage the family and other caregivers to share their observations of the child at home, and out in the community. 

3. Create goals to improve preschool behaviors

After sharing what you are going to work on with their child, include the team in goal setting, allowing caregivers to share what they would like their child to do. As you write these goal, phrase the goals in a positive way, showing what you expect from the child.

As with all goals, make sure they are measurable and attainable. For goal setting tips, check out this post on using a goal ladder.

Make an appointment for a follow up meeting with the family, so you can check in on how the child is doing at home, at school, and out in the community. 

For example:

  • Jackie will use her words when she wants to use a toy 80% of the time. 
  • Mark will participate in circle time for 10 minutes with supports such as breaks, sensory fidgets, alternative seating without leaving the area.
  • Trent will transition from outside to inside time on her own without maladaptive behaviors or needing to have physical support. 

Next, it’s time to come up with a way to support the child in meeting these goals. 

4. Establish interventions for challenging preschool behaviors

As you determine the interventions to be used at school, share them with the family, encouraging them to use the same interventions at home and in the community.

Children thrive on consistency. When receiving the same messages and intervention techniques at home and school, children will learn the behavior faster. They will learn to carry over the behaviors from one setting to the next.

Three common interventions to include in a preschool behavior plan:

  • Create a calm down corner with tools for emotional regulation- Children tend to become overwhelmed, losing control of their emotions, when they don’t have a positive way to calm down. Soothing Sammy teaches children how to calm down, using visual and tactile tools, while supporting a positive image of feelings. As children learn how to manage their feelings, they are able to communicate and problem solve in different situations.
  • Sensory diet for the classroom – When children become frustrated due to sensory difference, a sensory diet for the classroom and home works wonders, by giving children the tools to cope with their struggle. This list, created by occupational therapists, includes practical strategies easily implemented in any preschool classroom.
  • Utilize Visual and Auditory Cues for Transitions- Children who are overwhelmed or frustrated, don’t always hear what others are saying to them. The use of visual schedules, visual prompts, and auditory cues remind children what is expected of them, when they aren’t able to process what is said. Using visual tools such as a picture schedule, first/then chart, or picture exchange cards (PEC), while keeping directions clear and simple can help. Adding an auditory prompt, such as a bell or clapping, to signify it is time to clean up, gives children multisensory ways to receive a direction. 

Check out this visual cue resource for use in daily activities, sensory diets, PECs, and visual supports.

5. Preschool Behavior Plan Follow through 

When following through with a preschool behavior plan, the next steps are important. This follow through looks like many things.

Talking with parents and caregivers, make sure that you follow up with a second meeting to discuss the child’s progress. This is important, as it gives the parents the ability to weigh in on the next steps, the teachers to provide parents with constructive feedback of how their child is doing, and an opportunity to discuss a referral to specialists if needed.

Some of the most common specialist referrals are:

  • Audiologist for a hearing evaluation
  • Occupational therapist for sensory, behavior, motor skill concerns
  • Speech therapist for language delays
  • Early Intervention for developmental delays
  • Behavior therapist for more intensive behavior needs
  • Pediatrician for concerns about medically based delays (including autism, ADHD, nutrition, sleep, or gastrointestinal issues)
  • Note: teachers need to be cautious when suggesting referrals to other professionals, offering possible diagnoses, or alarming caregivers.

check out these other great resources from the OT Toolbox to support behavior

Creating a behavior plan helps parents and teachers work together regarding preschool behaviors. Providing an environment that includes consistency, open communication, and sensory supports, will give every child a supportive environment they need to thrive. This five part behavior plan blueprint includes strategy ideas, goal creation tips and resources for behavior tracking. A behavior plan is an essential component of a healthy classroom.

Jeana Kinne is a veteran preschool teacher and director. She has over 20 years of experience in the Early Childhood Education field. Her Bachelors Degree is in Child Development and her Masters Degree is in Early Childhood Education. She has spent over 10 years as a coach, working with Parents and Preschool Teachers, and another 10 years working with infants and toddlers with special needs. She is also the author of the “Sammy the Golden Dog” series, teaching children important skills through play.

How to Support Sensory Issues with Hair Brushing

Sensory hair brushing

For many children, hair brushing is a challenging task due to difficulties with sensory regulation. Using tools such as a sensory brush or a sensory diet can help support sensory issues that impact hair brushing. Individuals with sensory challenges related to their scalp can be further exacerbated by knots, pulling of hair, shampooing, or daily stress when it comes to this hygiene task. Fortunately there are some tips to help sensory needs and hair brushing.

NOTE: The information and strategies in this blog post on sensory hair brushing will not be appropriate for all types of hair and all sensory issues.

Sensory Hair Brushing

Individuals with sensory processing sensitivities may feel that getting their brushed hurts, or may find it overstimulating.

Other children may have challenges with hair brushing as it signals the morning routine is almost complete. They associate hair brushing with having to go to school or daycare, which increases their anxiety. Whatever the reason your child dislikes having their hair brushed, it can be very disruptive to your child’s routine, and anyone else in the home as well.

Sensory Hair Brushing Tips

Check out the tips below to help alleviate stress with hair brushing. 

Tip #1: Brush hair while in the tub or sink

When you brush your child’s hair in the tub or sink:

  • You can build on the relaxed mood to complete a stressful task
  • Warm water temperature offers calming sensory input.
  • Having probably just washed your child’s hair, the conditioner/oil (depending on hair type) will help to allow a comb to slip through your child’s hair with ease.
  • You will also be able to work out any larger knots they may have with your fingers much easier as the water runs in the direction of hair growth.
  • Your child will more than likely be distracted with toys that are in the tub/activity occurring around the sink area, keeping the focus off having their hair brushed.
  • Make sure to braid or put it into a top knot if your child’s hair is long, to prevent tangles in the morning. 
  • Bonus Tip! Don’t have time to wash your child’s hair every night, or don’t take a bath daily? Use a spray bottle to moisten your child’s hair, then brush it out. You can use a detangle to bring an extra element of fun to it too! 

When it comes to brushing, the most important thing is to set up a routine, using the hair brushing techniques that work for the child’s hair type. Stick to that routine. Consider using a visual schedule, written schedule, or checklist.

Tip # 2: Turn hair brushing into a Game 

Using humor and distraction in the form of a game is another great way to help your child feel less stress and sensory issues during hair brushing. You can have them “earn” points for each stroke or set of strokes, have a countdown, or sing a silly song.

Tip # 3: Use Role Play in Hair Brushing 

Children learn best through play! Practice with a doll or let them brush your hair. As you do this, talk about how they are feeling and acting when they are brushing your hair. Are they being gentle? What can they do if they hit a knot? 

It will also be helpful if you talk to them about how you’re feeling or how the doll might be feeling while having their hair brushed. Do you feel calm? Is getting your hair brushed hurting you?

Make sure that you emphasize the positives as well! You can use real terms such as sensory issues with hair brushing, and explain what is happening.

Share with your child how good it feels to have your hair brushed, that it makes you feel clean, and that it makes you look ready for the day. 

Tip # 4: Let Your Child Do it Themselves

When you give your child control of an activity, you take away fear of the unknown, or in this case, give back control over what you are asking to be done.

This works well for children who say that you’re pulling too hard, their scalp is super sensitive, or they dread having to work out knots. By letting them brush their own hair, they are in charge of the pressure, pace and how they work through knots in their hair.

Your children may also be more willing to participate if they know that they are in control of the situation. Be on standby in case they need help! 

If the whole hair brushing process can’t be done by the child, let them participate in some aspect. That might be applying conditioner/oil. It might be that they hand the brush or comb to the person brushing. The main concept here is taking ownership in the task through active participation.

Tip # 5: Use a Wide Tooth Comb 

A wide tooth comb will slide through hair much easier, and with less resistance than a traditional brush.

Another perk to a wide tooth comb is that it doesn’t have bristles, which many kids find irritating to their scalp, and often gets caught easily in long hair. 

Amazon (affiliate links) has several different types of brushes and combs for sensitive scalps. They also have detangling brushes. Just type “sensitive scalp brush” into the search box.

Or try a comb with wider teeth, depending on the hair type.

Tip # 6: Hold Hair Close to the Scalp 

Whether your child has long or short hair, holding hair close to the scalp or placing your other hand on their head can help to limit the amount of tugging they feel during hair brushing.

Limiting the tugging sensation by keeping their head stabilized will also prevent activation of the inner ear, which can be alerting or cause dizziness. If they are particularly sensitive to the tugging sensation, or have poor head/neck control, they may be compensating by letting their head drop back with the slightest of tugs. 

This is particularly important for children with long hair, as brushing down the back can elicit the startle reflex.

Tip # 7: Use a Timer 

Using a timer is a fail safe tip for working on tolerance of any activity. Set the a timer to see how long your child can tolerate having their hair brushed as a baseline, then add 5 seconds once a week until you are able to thoroughly brush their hair.

A countdown timer is very effective. You can use the timer on your phone or you can look for a visual timer app to add an extra layer of fun. Many visual apps have surprises at the end or turn colors as the app is counting down. 

If you do not want the added input of electronics during this calming time of day, a separate timer is best.

Tip # 8: Use a Social Story 

A social story is a book created about any activity that your child has challenges with. The story talks about what’s going to happen, how it will feel, and the appropriate social responses that your child should have with the activity. Read the story to them right before completing hair brushing to maximize its effect! 

Don’t have a social story? Ask your therapist to help you create one. You can also find free social story generators online, or use a premade one. 

Bonus Tip! If a social story is too long or advanced for your child, try using a visual schedule! This is a simplified version of the social story and can be adjusted based on your child’s abilities. 

Implementing Tips for sensory issues and hair brushing

These tips can help to break any negative behaviors or emotions that may surround your child’s sensory issues with hair brushing, and give you a foundation to start a fresh routine.

Start by trying one recommendation that you think will work for your child, give it a week, and if it’s still not working, try another.

Working through hair brushing challenges takes time, and is a trial-and-error process. Hopefully you will find these tips helpful!

Looking for more resources?

The OT Toolbox has a great resource called The Sensory Resource Handbook for tackling sensory issues related to hair brushing and creating a sensory diet for the many difficulties you are your child may be facing.

One of our new bloggers has a great resource on Amazon called Seeing Your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes. This is a new manual for parents, therapists, and caregivers to understand, accommodate, and treat tricky sensory situations and community settings with real life strategies, tips, and understanding.

Contributor: Kaylee is a pediatric occupational therapist with a bachelors in Health Science from Syracuse University at Utica College, and a Masters in Occupational Therapy from Utica College. Kaylee has been working with children with special needs for 8 years, and practicing occupational therapy for 4 years, primarily in a private clinic, but has home health experience as well. Kaylee has a passion for working with the areas of feeding, visual development, and motor integration.

ADHD Tools for Parents of Children with Attention Difficulties

ADHD tools

Here you will find a number of ADHD tools and supports for individuals with ADHD, including ADHD resources for parents. The statistics of the number of people with Attention Deficit Disorders (ADD) is staggering.  These numbers are compounded by the fact that attention deficit is difficult to diagnose.  The market is flooded with ADHD resources, and strategies to support attention needs, but what are the right ones? Doctors and other professionals could be over or under diagnosing due to this difficulty in gathering accurate data.

ADHD tools for kids and parents of children with ADHD

Yes there are ADHD checklists, surveys, and questionnaires, but they are not scientific or 100% accurate.  They are often based on opinion and observation versus data.  This is a stark contrast to diagnosing down syndrome or hearing loss, that is tracked by concrete data or genetic testing. 

ADHD TOOLS

When it comes to specifically ADHD tools, my advice is to take these diagnoses with a grain of salt.  Look more for symptoms, behaviors, skills, and difficulties rather than relying on a label.  It does not matter as much that this is called ADD, ADHD, or ABCD, but what are the struggles the learner is having? 

To best support any diagnosis (attention diagnoses being one), focus on the struggles, creating measurable and relevant goals, instead of focusing on the label.

To best support a child with attention challenges, find ADHD resources you can trust to provide useful information and strategies.

Having any label, diagnosis, or list of symptoms can feel overwhelming. The number of attention related resources available on the internet are astounding.  But which are accurate?  Who can you believe?  There are no easy answers unfortunately.  

Which way to turn for ADHD TOOLS?

When there is an overwhelming amount of data presented at one time, the best jumping off point is to rely on the feedback of others.  Sometimes it is a trusted doctor or friend, but more often than not, it can be a large crowd of strangers. 

When looking for the perfect resource to share with parents, I usually turn to Amazon and start reading the reviews.  I read a ton of reviews before making my selections.  This is time consuming, however I do not have time to read something that is not a good resource, has incorrect information, or written in a terrible format.

Attention Resources from Amazon

There are some solid attention resources from Amazon available, including ADHD audiobooks, and other formats that have good reviews. I have not personally read them, but have taken the time to research them and read the long reviews.

Amazon affiliate links are included below.

Amazon has some great ADHD audiobook resources for parents and professionals available on Audible and other formats. Audiobooks are a great alternative to paper books, as they can be listened to almost anywhere.

There are tons of resources on attention and ADHD in audiobooks. I tried to find ones that had good reviews, were accurate and easy to read/listen to, and provided useful strategies.

If you are an Amazon Prime member, You’re eligible to claim 2 free titles from our entire selection (one title per month thereafter) with a free Audible 30 day trial. A standard trial includes 1 credit for an audiobook download. After the Audible trial period, all members receive 1 credit per month.

Click here start your free Audible Trial Period.

Delivered From Distraction: Getting the most of out Life with Attention Deficit Disorder.  This book is written for teens or adults with ADD.  This may be helpful for parents as well, as attention deficits tend to run in families.  It can be read cover to cover or in sections.  The author says, feel free to skip around.

You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?: A Self-help Audio Program for Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder  As with most books I have found, there are going to be people who do not like the book.  This is to be expected.  However, more people say they liked it than the few who did not. I like that this is available in audio, as some people are more auditory learners than visual. Finding an hour in the car to listen seems much easier than trying to carve out that same hour reading on the couch.

Taking Charge of ADHD, Third Edition: The Complete, Authoritative Guide for Parents This book is available in several formats. Audible is one that may be easier for parents to listen to, as their couch time is limited. This book takes a real look at ADHD.  Most people found this book helpful. The few that did not, found this book too straight forward or maybe “depressing.”

The ADHD Advantage: What You Thought Was a Diagnosis May Be Your Greatest Strength. This book came as a recommendation from a reviewer who needed a positive spin on ADHD after reading all of the devastating facts and figures about ADHD. 

Organizing Solutions for People with ADHD, 2nd Edition – Revised and Updated: Tips and Tools to Help You Take Charge of Your Life and Get Organized  This book points people in the direction of real life solutions. It is fine to spend time researching the “what” and “why” of a diagnosis, but without real solutions, the research just leaves people frustrated. It can be used for adults and adapted for children. 

The OT Toolbox has a great post on Organization and Attention Challenges.

Smart but Scattered Teens: The “Executive Skills” Program for Helping Teens Reach Their Potential Positive reviews praise this book for its information about working with teens with attention issues or decreased executive function.  It gives doable strategies that work for teens.  The strategies are motivating for modern teens. Critical reviews cite that this book is more about the “what and why” rather than the “what to do about it” side of this diagnosis. Much of the advice centers around driving, and using technology to help teens.  On a positive note, this is what motivates teens to perform.  On the flip side, not everyone has a driving teen or wants to encourage use of electronics.

Books for younger learners:

Marvin’s Monster Diary: ADHD Attacks! (And I Rock, Big Time): St4 Mindfulness Book for Kids Written in the Wimpy Kid book series, this is a cute motivating book series for children who struggle with attention issues to relate to.  It is available in several formats including Audible.  This might be a good book to buy in print and listen to Audible at the same time.

Marvin’s Monster Diary 2 + Lyssa!: ADHD Emotion Explosion (But I Triumph, Big Time!)  This second book in the Monster Diary series proves to be a winner as well.  It has several positive reviews about it’s entertainment value, readability, and writing style. Again because it is a graphic novel type of read, it would be excellent paired with the written version as well as Audible.

A Dragon With ADHD: A Children’s Story About ADHD. A Cute Book to Help Kids Get Organized, Focus, and Succeed. (My Dragon Books 41) This is another great series to keep children interested while learning about ADHD.  This series covers a multitude of topics.  The nice thing about series is if you buy into one, it sets the reader on a whole journey of discovery. This is written for children, however reviewers say that adults, therapists, and parents will enjoy this book as well.

Focused Ninja: A Children’s Book About Increasing Focus and Concentration at Home and School (Ninja Life Hacks)   This book is part of a Ninja series teaching children valuable lessons in an entertaining method. If you were a fan of the Mr. Men book series, you will like this one.  Each ninja is named after the skill he lacks or is trying to gain.

The OT Toolbox ADHD and attention resources

The OT Toolbox has become a trusted resource for many of you reading these posts and subscribing to the website. The OT Toolbox does not disappoint and has wonderful articles, activities, and resources to fill your “toolbox”, not only on topics such as ADHD and attention, but fine motor, sensory, gross motor, executive function and so much more.

Type ADD, Attention resources for parents, or ADHD activities into the search bar for a great list of archived posts. Just when you are overwhelmed with information and resources, try wrapping your head around the sensory connection between attention and organization challenges.

It is no wonder there is such misdiagnosis, confusion, and misinformation out there. Autism, ADD, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, Anxiety, and about a dozen other diagnoses have overlapping and similar symptoms. Keep your focus on how to help and move forward rather than where did this come from, or what is this called?

Happy reading, take a deep breath, one moment at a time!

Victoria Wood

Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.