Andre, is 4 years old and lives with his mother, father, and 1-year-old sister Jemma. He is a dual language learner (DLL). His mother Giselle speaks English and Spanish, and his father Rico speaks Spanish. Andre hears and speaks mostly Spanish at home, but when he is just with his mother, she speaks mostly English to him. He understands what she says, but he is more comfortable speaking and responding to her in Spanish.
Andre was originally in the Head Start program's home-based option and recently transferred to the center-based program. The transition has not been easy. Within the first two weeks, Andre began exhibiting behaviors such as hitting and pushing other children to get toys or to try to join their play, and throwing and banging toys. He's also been crying loudly or screaming to get the attention of his teachers, Mel and Kris. Although Mel and Kris understand some basic words in Spanish, neither of them is fluent. Many of the other children in the classroom started to avoid him during outdoor play; some complained to Mel and Kris when they have to sit next to him during meals, morning gatherings, and small-group activities.
When the teachers talk to Andre's parents about what they observe, Giselle and Rico share that they had not seen him behave this intensely before. However, they have recently seen him push and hit his sister, making her cry, and play in a more rough-and-tumble way with his school-age cousins. Mel and Kris note they have not seen Andre smile or laugh much since he started in the class. Giselle and Rico say they noticed that at home, too; when they ask him how he feels, he just says, "OK." When they ask if he is making any friends, he says, "No," and shakes his head. Both his teachers and parents agree that Andre seems sad. Unfortunately, none of them know what to do other than give him the toys and attention that he wants no matter how he behaves, which at least calms him down for the moment.
Children are born ready to interact with the social world around them. Adults are there to interpret behaviors and help children learn to communicate their intentions, feelings, and emotions to promote healthy child development.1 Young children are learning a great deal in an incredibly short amount of time. They learn when we eat with our fingers and when we use spoons; when we wear clothing and when we wear pajamas. They learn all about the rules of our culture. Including, we share toys, but not toothbrushes; we laugh at some things but not at others; sometimes adults tease, and sometimes they are serious.
Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers learn what is expected of them through their relationships with family members and the adults around them, for example, education staff (teachers, family child care providers, and home visitors), family service workers, and bus drivers. However, staff and families may sometimes feel overwhelmed by a child's behavior. They may not have received information or training to interpret behavior or know what to do when a child behaves in a way that challenges them. Even when staff and families have received information or training, some child behaviors can still be overwhelming based on their intensity and frequency.
Because behavior is complex, Head Start and Early Head Start programs provide a variety of approaches and supports to help education staff and families understand and give the guidance young children need for healthy social and emotional development. The following Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS) provide direction:
- Suspension and expulsion, 45 CFR §1302.17
- Purpose, 45 CFR §1302.30 (Education and Child Development Program Services)
- Teaching and the learning environment, 45 CFR §1302.31(b)(i–iv) and (b)(2)(i–iii)
- Education in home-based programs, 45 CFR §1302.35(c)(1–5)
- Child mental health and social and emotional well-being, 45 CFR §1302.45
- Parent activities to promote child learning and development, 45 CFR §1302.51(a)(1–3)
- Training and professional development, 45 CFR §1302.92(b)(5)
Learning how to help young children manage their emotions and behavior and get along well with others requires training and support. Fortunately, education managers and other program leaders can work with education staff and parents to learn skills and strategies for helping children become competent and capable members of their families and community. This technical assistance paper uses stories about Andre and a toddler who appears in a later section, Anna, to illustrate a child's behavior and how a program addresses it. This technical assistance paper covers the following topics:
- Understanding Young Children's Behaviors
- Developmental Progressions
- Learning About Behavior Within Relationships
- Individual Differences
- Addressing Children's Behaviors and Building a Supportive Learning Environment
- Preventing Suspension and Expulsion
- Staff Development
- Reflective Supervision
- Mental Health Professionals
- Protocols for Problem-Solving
- Referrals and Evaluations
- Mental Health Supports for Adults
- Community Partnerships
1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Head Start, National Center on Early Childhood Development, Teaching, and Learning, Behavior Has Meaning (Washington, DC, 2019).
National Centers:Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning
Last Updated: October 28, 2020