Culture and Language

Dual Language Learners with Challenging Behaviors

Children communicate so much through their behavior. Teachers and caregivers will find this article useful in identifying strategies for working with dual language learners exhibiting challenging behaviors.

It can be difficult for any teacher to support a child whose behavior is disruptive, but a language barrier can certainly complicate the situation. Mrs. Atkins confronts one of the toughest questions facing early childhood educators: How can we distinguish challenging behaviors that are temporary reactions to language differences from those that indicate something else, such as a possible developmental delay or learning disability? And what should we do about it?

Children communicate so much through their behavior. Understanding what their behavior is communicating can be difficult. Children who are new to English may not be able to tell us what's going on. This makes it even more important for teachers to learn specific strategies to interpret the child's actions and plan effective interventions.

Mrs. Atkins describes 4-year-old Kwan as "hard to handle." She says, "Ever since he arrived in my preschool class, I've been at a loss. His parents claim Kwan knows some English, but he won't use it with me. The other kids stay away from him because they never know when he'll grab their toy or push them. At circle time, he just wanders around the room—no matter what strategies I use to engage him. How do I know if he is acting this way because he doesn't understand us or because he really has some behavior problems? I just don't know what to do!"

Factors to consider

There are no easy answers to these questions. Each dual language learner (DLL) comes with his or her own unique background that includes a variety of experiences and characteristics that can lead to challenging behaviors. In addition to language differences, there may be poverty, stress at home, or upheaval due to the immigration process and moving to a new country with a different culture. The child may have health issues such as allergies or chronic ear infections. Hesitancy or intensity may simply reflect individual personality traits. Even in monolingual children, language development and the ability to communicate can significantly affect behavior. For example, a child with a speech delay might act out due to frustration.

Finding solutions to challenging behaviors in dual language learners is like solving a puzzle because there are so many variables. In this article, we offer some helpful new resources and effective strategies that teachers can try right away. To lay the foundation for the approaches suggested in this article, two factors are important to consider.

Over- and under-identification

Spanish-speaking children are referred to special education in disproportionately high numbers, especially in schools where home language supports are withdrawn too quickly or not provided at all (Dray 2008). In other cases, dual language learners may be overlooked for special services because programs are unsure of their abilities because of language barriers. For children who exhibit challenging behaviors, educators must carefully consider the role of language differences, and the stress they can cause, before making a referral for assessment related to special education support and services. Determinations should be based on multiple measures, focusing on strong observation notes and interviews with parents. Use screening tools and standardized assessments with caution since some commercially available instruments are written only for children who speak English (Espinosa 2010). For more guidance on making these important decisions, see NAEYC's "Screening and Assessment of Young English Language Learners" (2005).

The case for supporting the home language

Key findings from recent research make a clear case for continuing to support young children's home languages while also helping them learn English (Nemeth 2009a). Last year the Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children released a revised position statement that addresses this issue with respect to children who have special needs:

Dual language learners, including those children with disabilities, should be afforded the opportunity to maintain their home language while also learning English as there is no scientific evidence that being bilingual causes or leads to language delay . . . Supporting a child's home language in fact acts as a linguistic resource and bridge to learning another language, even for children with disabilities. Research confirms that immersing DLLs fully in English when they are still in the active process of learning their home language actually has negative ramifications. (DEC 2010, 5–6)

Types of challenging behaviors

Generally, behavior is a form of communication. Children have reasons for engaging in challenging behavior, and it is part of an educator's job to try to understand what they are trying to express. A child may find that his behavior is effective in getting him something he needs or wants, such as leaving an activity that makes him uncomfortable or getting extra attention from the teacher. It takes time and good detective skills to determine the function of a behavior.

Children who are unfamiliar with the language of the classroom may exhibit some of the following behaviors:

  • acting out, aggression, frustration, anger, or resentment.
    • Three-year-old Carlos, born in Mexico, attends a public school pre-K program. He is still learning his home language and has picked up many new words in English. Carlos enjoys playing alone in the block area, but recently began striking his peers with the blocks. His teacher, Miss Vivian, uses a variety of positive guidance techniques to address this behavior, but Carlos's use of aggression only gets worse. Carlos has now stopped using any of his new English words and is starting to use aggression during other routines and activities during the day. Miss Vivian decides to call on a trusted colleague to help her find more effective solutions for Carlos (see p. 16).
  • self-directed signs of stress, such as refusing to eat, having toileting accidents, biting themselves, or pulling their own hair.
    • Parinita, from Sri Lanka, is new to the preschool class. She attempts to join in activities, but rarely seems to smile at mealtimes and eats very little. The teacher notices that there is a lot of table chatter that might make a child who is a DLL feel left out. She introduces the class to key words in Tamil, and the English speakers start paying more attention to their new friend as they practice speaking in her language
  • withdrawal, sadness, isolation, depression, or being mute.
    • Erek and Antoni, 3-year-olds from Poland, are both very quiet in their new American preschool. When their teacher reviews her observation notes, she realizes that neither boy has said a word in school for at least three weeks. Erek's parents report many lively conversations with him at home, so the teacher concludes that he is probably just experiencing a silent period as part of his transition to his new language. She notes that he shows progress in understanding what is said to him in English. Antoni is not only silent but also seems sad. He keeps to himself, at times just rocking back and forth in a chair. He participates very little in class activities, and his parents talk to the teacher about their concern. The teacher and family agree that Antoni seems to need more intensive intervention. The teacher refers him for assessment and he eventually receives special services.
  • ignoring directions, being rude or defiant, not listening or participating.
    • From his first day in the program, Jean-Pierre seems to be in a world of his own. When the other children sit for circle time, he is elsewhere, pulling toys off the shelves. When it is time to dress for outdoor play, Jean-Pierre is busy studying the class pet. When his teacher tries to discuss his behavior with his parents, she realizes they speak little English. Surprised, she double-checks the enrollment form and sees that the family had indicated English as the home language. She realizes that it might have been challenging for the family to accurately complete an English-language form. The teacher vows to make at least one phone call to each new family from now on to confirm the information on the enrollment form.

Any of these behaviors would cause concern in a preschool classroom. Whether caused by language differences or by more complex developmental or situational issues, behavioral problems often indicate that a child is unhappy and not doing well—and teachers want to help. Whatever may be going on with a particular child in distress, unaddressed language differences do not help. The situation creates challenges for teachers, but think about how that young child must feel—dropped off in a strange place for who knows how long with a room full of people he can't understand and who don't understand him.

Even before figuring out what may be causing the child's behaviors, a teacher can begin taking steps to ease the stress of language issues. If it turns out that language is the main cause of the problems, those steps will mean that progress toward improvement is well under way. If other factors are causing the problems, reducing language stress will make it easier for teacher and child to address those factors as well. Providing better language supports and working with the family to help the child deal with the stress of adjustment can result in a gradual decline of the problem behavior. If that doesn't happen, special education or social services may need to provide additional attention. If it seems that the child may have more significant issues, the educator may need to discuss with the family whether to refer the child for assessment. This may lead to a referral to specialists. The local early intervention program or school special education department can help determine if the child is eligible for an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) or an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which can include a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and a specific behavior intervention plan.

Prevent challenging behaviors before they start

Here are some ways to prepare a welcoming environment for each new child.

  1. Use a home language survey when each family enrolls, then get further details through meetings or phone conversations about the language(s) that are spoken by the child and family. This is the time to begin building a reciprocal relationship with the family so you can work as a team to support their child's development and learning.
  2. Prepare a list of about 10 to 20 "survival" words or phrases that will help the child feel welcome, safe, and comfortable on his or her first day. (See "Survival Words and Phrases in English and Spanish," p. 16.) Learn the words in each child's language before he or she joins the class.
  3. Provide materials that reflect the child's culture and/ or are written in the child's home language. Using books, puzzles, posters, games, dramatic play props, and music in the classroom helps children see themselves as important members of the community.
    • One teacher recalls how the children's faces lit up when they sang "Feliz Navidad" in December. It made her a little sad that she hadn't prepared to sing a Spanish song with them on their first day so she could have seen those smiles right away.
  4. Teach all of the children effective ways to communicate with their classmates who use different languages and have different abilities. Talk about being patient, speaking slowly and repeating, showing their friends what they are talking about, and learning their friends' language.
    • Tiffani approaches the newcomer and says slowly, "Hi! My language is English. Do you know English?" When the boy doesn't respond, she says, "That's OK, my other friend doesn't know my language either." Tiffani takes his hand and shows him the class pet.

Observe and understand language and behavior differences

Skillful and thorough observation is the best way to understand challenging behaviors and develop plans for reducing them. Ask yourself some of the following questions so you can make changes that can help everyone have a better experience.

  • Does the child engage in general and pretend play and interact like other children her age? If not, the challenges may be more developmental than language based.
  • Does the child talk when spending time with another child or staff member who speaks his language? Is he happy and talkative at home? As long as his language seems on target in some circumstances, you can be sure he does not have a pervasive speech or language delay.
  • Are other children teasing a child because she's different? Teachers need to be sure bullying is not a factor, since it has been observed in children as young as 4, and children who do not speak the majority language are more likely to be victims (Chang et al. 2007).
  • Is the child silent at school but talking happily when her grandmother comes to pick her up? According to Paradis, Genesee, and Crago (2010), a true language delay or disorder will affect both of the child's languages in about the same way. If there is a lag in only one language, it is generally due to variations in the child's exposure and motivation to learn one language over the other.
  • Can you detect any particular triggers for the child's challenging behavior, such as large group activities in which she may feel lost and out of place? Changing classroom practice to be more responsive to language differences often results in better experiences for all of the children.
    • Miss Vivian asks a colleague to help her learn how to chart Carlos's behavior to get the data needed to plan a response. They discover particular situations in which the behavior occurs and then hypothesize that the problem may stem from a language barrier in the class. Miss Vivian decides to develop a common classroom language—using pictures/symbols and words—to help Carlos and his peers communicate. She and her assistant work on facilitating positive interactions among all the children, and they continue to observe and document Carlos's behavior to see if this intervention is working.

      Understanding the triggers and results of the behaviors in question allows teachers to help the child learn replacement skills. Was the child really seeking help communicating with his peers? Try creating a common classroom language. Does it seem that the child is using his behavior to avoid an activity that seems intimidating? It may help to change the activity rather than changing the child's behavior.

Survival Words and Phrases in English and Spanish






La maestra


El baño









Take a rest.

Tome un descanso.

Do you need help?

¿Necesita ayuda?

Does that hurt?

¿Te duele?

Pleased to meet you!

¡Mucho gusto!

Your mom will be back soon.

Tu mama volverá pronto.

Adapting teaching strategies

Changing populations in early childhood settings require teachers to change their practice. It is not always easy for teachers to give up activities they have used for years, but what worked in the past may not be effective in classrooms that include children with language, behavior, or developmental differences. Here are some strategies that can boost the effectiveness of any preschool program that includes children with diverse abilities and language skills:

  • Reduce the use of large group lessons and find more time for small groups and one-on-one interactions throughout the day.
  • Speak slowly, avoid using slang, simplify sentences, and repeat key words often. Be patient, giving children time to process what you've said and respond.
  • Use lots of nonverbal cues—gestures, sign language, facial expression, and changes in voice tone—to enhance communication.
  • Add graphic organizers such as props and pictures that add meaning to interactions.
  • Assign language buddies. If there isn't another child in the class who speaks the same language, encourage a helpful, caring child to befriend the newcomer.
  • Group together children who speak the same language because of the support they can provide both in terms of language practice and social relationships.
  • Provide a comfortable place where a child can spend time playing alone without the constant pressure of trying to understand and be understood.
  • Maintain a predictable schedule. Children may not understand your words, but if a dual language learner knows what's coming next, she is more able to participate appropriately and learn more effectively.
  • Use lots of music and movement activities—in home languages as well as English—to engage all the children while building early language and literacy skills.
  • Make the effort to get to know the families of dual language learners. They can help you make the child more comfortable in the classroom, help you recognize possible signs of trouble, and support your efforts at home. Of course, they need your support as well.
  • Develop strong, collaborative relationships with ESL and bilingual teachers as well as special education professionals and specialists who work with the program. To be most effective, their supports should take the form of consultations with the preschool teacher so he or she can embed and blend their strategies throughout the classroom and throughout the day (Nemeth 2009b).


The strategies that work with dual language learners also can be effective with any child who exhibits challenging behaviors. All of these strategies align with intentional teaching and developmentally appropriate practice. With good teamwork, ongoing professional development, and plenty of patience, helping young dual language learners adjust and succeed can be one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching.


This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Young Children, the journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

It is posted on the Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center site with permission from NAEYC and other copyright holders. All rights are reserved.

Copyright © 2011 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
See Permissions and Reprints online at

For more information on Young Children, visit