Challenging behavior is any behavior that

  • interferes with children’s learning, development, and success at play
  • is harmful to the child, other children, or adults
  • puts a child at high risk for later social problems or school failure (Klass, Guskin, and Thomas, 1995; Ritchie and Pohl, 1995).

We do not call this behavior challenging because it summons you to a duel or battle but because it is threatening, provocative, and stimulating, all at the same time.

First of all, this behavior is challenging for the child. It puts him in danger by preventing him from learning what he needs to know to succeed in school and get along well with his peers. It is also challenging for him because he probably doesn’t have much control over it. Even if he knows what to do instead—and chances are he doesn’t—his ability to regulate his feelings and actions just isn’t up to the job yet. Improving matters will be an enormous challenge for him.

Perhaps more to the point, challenging behavior is challenging for us, the people around him, his family and teachers. In the face of this behavior, we often find ourselves at a loss. We don’t know how to turn things around, how to make the situation tenable, how to help the child get back on track, behaving appropriately and feeling good about himself.

Yet it is essential for us to rise to this challenge. The child’s future can depend on it—to say nothing of our own sanity and the well-being of the other children in the classroom. By its very nature, a challenge is difficult, but once conquered it brings incredible rewards. This is a challenge that is worthy of your very best efforts.

Any child can exhibit challenging behavior. To begin with, it is developmentally appropriate early in life, and all children continue to use it as they grow—once in a while, when they’re angry or having a bad day. Some even use it for an extended period when parents separate or divorce, a new baby arrives, a parent loses a job or falls ill, or the family moves to a different place. Children find such events confusing and difficult, and they often react with challenging behavior. Although most children eventually manage to cope with these experiences, they usually need extra support and understanding from their families and teachers for quite some time.

Then there are the children whose problems are more difficult, the children who have come to rely on challenging behavior as the best way to respond to a situation. Their behavior is challenging in all three aspects of the definition and demands very special care and handling. With the appropriate information and strategies, the adults in their lives can play a pivotal role, helping these children avoid serious risk and blossom into the fully functioning people all children deserve to become.

This book focuses on aggressive, antisocial, and disruptive behaviors because their impact is so dramatic and so vast. But many of the ideas here will work equally well with children who display timid and withdrawn behaviors, which certainly also qualify as challenging.

Isn’t challenging behavior sometimes appropriate for very young children?

Many children discover the use of physical aggression before their first birthday, as they become interested in controlling their own possessions and activities (Coie and Dodge, 1998). In one study, most mothers reported that their children grabbed, pushed, bit, hit, attacked, bullied, or were “cruel” by the time they turned 2 years old. Children with siblings exhibit more aggressive behavior than only children, and when there’s a brother or sister in the family, boys and girls behave equally aggressively (Pepler and Craig, 1999; Tremblay et al., 1999).

In the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, a random sample of more than 20,000 children living in Canada, researchers found that the use of physical aggression peaks between the ages of 27 and 29 months, when 53.3 percent of boys and 41.1 percent of girls are trying it out (Tremblay et al., 1996b). As Richard E. Tremblay of the University of Montreal points out, “The question . . . we’ve been trying to answer for the past 30 years is how do children learn to aggress. [But] this is the wrong question. The right question is how do they learn not to aggress” (Holden, 2000).

A Rose by Any Other Name

Challenging is not the only label that adults have affixed to problem behaviors or the children who use them. Here are some others:

  • High maintenance
  • Antisocial
  • High needs
  • Bad
  • Out of control
  • Hard to manage
  • At risk
  • Disruptive
  • Aggressive
  • Violent
  • Impulsive
  • Spirited
  • Oppositional
  • Noncompliant
  • Mean
  • A problem
  • Attention seeking
  • Willful

Labels are extremely powerful, which is why it’s wiser not to use them—or if you do, to apply them to the behavior rather than the child. Employing language carefully makes a big difference in the way you see a child and think about who he is and what he can and cannot do. Negative labels can all too easily become self-fulfilling prophecies. They prevent you from seeing the child’s positive qualities and may even cause you to lower your expectations of him. A child you’ve thought of as stubborn could just as easily be tenacious or persistent, important characteristics for success in school.

When you can see a child in a positive light, it helps him to see himself that way, and to act more positively, too.

Do children outgrow challenging behavior?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. From about the age of 30 months on, physically aggressive behavior gradually decreases as children learn to regulate their feelings and understand one another’s point of view. With the aid of families and teachers, they steadily get better at using assertive and prosocial strategies to communicate their needs and achieve their goals. They are also increasingly able to delay gratification and increasingly intolerant of one another’s aggressive acts (Coie and Dodge, 1998). By the time they enter kindergarten, most children are relatively pacific (Tremblay, Masse, Pagani, and Vitaro, 1996b).

But for an estimated 3 to 15 percent of preschool-age children, aggressive and antisocial behavior continues well beyond the age of 3 (Vitaro, De Civita, and Pagani, 1995), and about half of these children (Campbell and Ewing, 1990) are starting down a road that will eventually lead to a delinquent adolescence and a criminal adulthood (Coie, 1996; Webster-Stratton, 1997). The longer a child continues to use aggressive behavior, the more worrisome its fallout becomes and the more difficult it is to change his direction. It is therefore important to intervene as early as possible (Slaby, Roedell, Arezzo, and Hendrix, 1995).

Children with behavior problems often find themselves rejected by their peers—disliked, ridiculed, not invited to birthday parties or to other children’s homes to play. These experiences wound their self-esteem and self-confidence, leave them isolated and depressed, and deprive them of opportunities to develop and practice the social skills they desperately need. Instead they learn to expect rejection and may even discover that the best defense is a strong offense and strike out preemptively to protect themselves (Moffitt, 1997). Once rejected by a group, a child will probably continue to be rejected and will have an equally hard time joining a new group (Campbell, 1990).

Behavior problems can lead to trouble at school, too. Because of their problems with social skills, emotional control, and language development, many children with challenging behavior come to school unprepared for the most basic task of their early school years—learning to read (Coie, 1996). As a result, they struggle with virtually everything academic. It doesn’t help that they are also often hyperactive, inattentive, disruptive, and unable to concentrate.

Teachers sometimes exacerbate the problem. One study showed that they are more likely to punish children with challenging behavior and less likely to encourage them when they behave appropriately (Webster-Stratton and Herbert, 1994). Teachers also call on children with aggressive behavior less frequently, ask them fewer questions, and provide them with less information (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000). As a result, children with challenging behavior soon fall behind, and they’re likely to be held back or placed in a special class (Kazdin, 1987; Pepler and Rubin, 1991).

All of this primes them to band together with their like-minded peers, raising their risk for school dropout, delinquency, gang membership, substance abuse, and psychiatric illness. As adults, they are less likely to hold jobs or earn good wages and more likely to commit violent crimes (National Crime Prevention Council Canada, 1996). Their marriages are also more likely to be rocky. The boys may become batterers, and new research is finding that the girls, who are at higher risk for early pregnancy and single parenthood, lack parenting skills and may be mothering the next generation of children with challenging behaviors (National Crime Prevention Council Canada, 1996; Serbin, Moskowitz, Schwartzman, and Ledingham, 1991; Tremblay, 1991).