In this brief, discover how all infant and toddler behavior has meaning, even if we may find a behavior challenging at times. Learn how to support children and yourself during those challenging moments. Find the most up-to-date information to answer three prompts: “What does research say?”; “What does it look like?”; and “Try this!” There’s also an accompanying resource, Connecting at Home, which includes easy-to-try tips to help families reduce children’s behaviors that may challenge them at home.
All behavior has meaning, even if we find some behaviors to be challenging at times. Behavior is a form of communication. Infants and toddlers use behavior to express their feelings, wants, and needs. But how adults interpret and react to behavior is personal. Past experiences, family, cultures, and beliefs all influence how adults interpret behavior. Taking time to pause and reflect instead of reacting to behavior, particularly those behaviors that adults find challenging, helps children feel valued and important. It also teaches children to communicate in a developmentally appropriate way.
The Take Home
- All behavior has meaning and is a form of communication.
- There are developmental reasons why children exhibit behavior that can challenge us.
- Pause and reflect when children act in a way that challenges you instead of reacting.
What Does Research Say?
- Behaviors that adults find challenging are often part of children's typical development. There are many developmental reasons why children exhibit behaviors that challenge adults. For example, they are still learning how and when adults will respond to their needs. This is part of their social and emotional development. Infants and toddlers do not have the language skills to communicate in other ways. They grab a toy out of a peer's hands or cry when they are hungry because they don't yet know phrases like "That's mine!" or "I'm hungry!" to communicate their feelings.
- Self-regulation is hard for young children. Young children are unable to control their emotions and behaviors on their own. Their brains do not have the connections to self-regulate. Adults should not expect children under age 5 to control their impulses on their own yet. The brain continues to build those connections through adolescence.
- Infants and toddlers need adults to help them regulate their emotions and behaviors. When a tired infant cries, he or she needs to be rocked or sang to in order to settle. Creating a nap or bedtime routine provides consistency each day. Consistent, calm responses teach children what to expect and that adults are there for them. With help and practice, children develop skills to regulate emotions on their own. Strong self-regulation skills lead to more positive behaviors and better school readiness.
- Children need emotional literacy to understand and express emotions in a healthy way. But they are not born with these skills. Children learn about emotions in the context of relationships. Adults teach infants and toddlers about emotions by helping them feel safe, secure, and nurtured. Labeling emotions and talking about them supports emotional literacy. Early talk about emotions also leads to better emotion understanding later.
What Does It Look Like?
- Every communicative behavior can be described by the form and function of the communication. Form refers to what the behavior is. For example, it might be crying, pointing, or throwing a tantrum. Function refers to the meaning or purpose of the behavior. It describes the message the child is trying to communicate, for example, "I'm hungry."
- Challenging behavior is personal; it looks and feels different for everyone. Culture, family, and unique experiences shape not only the meaning of behavior but how adults react to it.
- All adults feel challenged by a child’s behavior at some point. It’s how they respond that matters. It is important to practice self-care and find strategies to reduce stress and feel supported. It's not always easy, but it is important to act calm and be intentional with children. Nurturing and responsive relationships let them know adults are there for them. High-quality learning spaces are safe, consistent, and predictable.
- Adults already read children's cues and respond to their behavior. It is not an additional curriculum piece to add to planning and practices. Adults learn about children's temperaments, or how they approach the world. They pay attention to when children get tired, hungry, or fussy.
- The "Pause, Ask, Respond" strategy is helpful when responding to a behavior that is challenging. Pause to figure out the meaning of a behavior. Ask what the child might be trying to communicate. Respond to meet the wants or needs a child is trying to express. This response helps the child feel listened to and understood.
- Practice mindfulness. Be present in the moment. What is the child doing, saying, or feeling? Help families pay attention to a child's cues, emotions, and actions. These give us cues to the meaning behind a child’s behavior and can help us be more responsive in the future.
- Make time for self-care. Think about your own emotions and responses. When you feel calm and in control, it can help children feel the same way. Practice deep breathing. If you're overwhelmed, step away for a few minutes or go for a walk if you are able. Ask for support when you need it.
- Identify and talk about emotions. Help children put emotions into words. For example, "You feel mad because playtime is over." Learn key emotion words in the child's home language. Read books about emotions, being a friend, and helping others.
- Teach expectations. Teach children what to do rather than what not to do by modeling the behavior you want to see. Rather than say, "don't hit" use "be gentle" and model with a patting motion. Talk with families to understand what behaviors are acceptable in their culture and how to best support their children.
- Create a quiet spot to calm down. This is a safe place for children to go so they can work on regulating their emotions and behavior.
- Help families build and adapt routines to create a predictable day. Children do better when they know what to expect.
- Behavior Has Meaning 15-Minute In-Service Suite
- Early Learning Outcomes Framework (ELOF) Effective Practice Guides
- ELOF2GO Mobile App
Connecting at Home
Behavior is a form of communication. Infants and toddlers use their behavior to express feelings, wants, and needs. Sometimes those behaviors challenge us. We can help children learn and grow by making them feel safe and supported. Learning happens best in well-designed spaces with predictable routines. Here are some strategies you can try to reduce behaviors that may challenge you.
Young children want to feel like they have a say in everything from what they eat to what they wear. Let them feel independent by offering them two (adult-approved) choices. It lets them feel in control and boosts their confidence when you let them make decisions.
Create a "Yes!" Space
Find a place in your home where children can freely explore without you worrying about their safety or always needing your help. This is a "Yes!" space. The goal is to keep you from having to say "no" in response to your child's ideas and choices. Only keep materials in the space that are safe for children to use and play with on their own. Make materials easily accessible by using low shelves, baskets, or hooks. It encourages independence!
Start a Routine
Consistent routines teach children what to expect and make it easier for children to practice regulating their behaviors. If bedtime is a struggle for an older toddler, consider drawing a chart with pictures of the different steps. For example, it might have bath, brush teeth, books then bed. Stopping play to get ready for bed can be hard. Providing a five-minute warning before the next activity can help with transitions. Playing the same song as you get ready to transition can be a helpful cue for young children.
Make Time for Movement
Keeping children active and engaged can help reduce the frequency of challenging behavior. Have a dance party, pretend to move like different animals, act out a story in a book, or go for a walk. Make tunnels out of cushions and pillows to crawl through. Anything to get up and move!
Resource Type: Publication
National Centers: Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning
Age Group: Infants and Toddlers
Last Updated: December 30, 2022