How to Address Challenging Behaviors Using High-Quality Guidance Policies

How to Address Challenging Behaviors Using High-Quality Guidance Policies

Article by Sarah Garrity, EdD, co-author of Effective Discipline Policies

Early childhood teachers and administrators often feel unprepared to deal with children's challenging behavior and report that behavior problems are the most demanding aspect of their work. The prevalence of high rates of suspension and expulsion and the troubling data that highlights racial disparities in suspension and expulsion rates of children of color and those with disabilities point to the need for a developmentally appropriate solution. Fortunately, a great deal of information, based on years of research, is available that identifies practices and strategies shown to prevent and address challenging behaviors in young children. High-quality behavior guidance policies are an effective way to support both teaching and learning and to prevent and address challenging behaviors in early childhood settings. To be considered "high quality," guidance policies first need to promote practices that are developmentally and culturally appropriate and, second, need to be grounded in research on evidence-based practices.

High-quality behavior guidance policies have seven essential features:

1. Intentional focus on teaching social-emotional skills

Behavior guidance policies for young children should reflect a proactive, instructional approach that supports the learning and practice of appropriate prosocial behavior of all children, regardless of individual differences and/or cultural and linguistic background. For example, a policy may state that one of the goals of the program is to assist children in learning to guide their own behavior. The role of the teacher is to help children learn to eventually solve their own problems and to provide children with the tools to do so.

2. Developmentally, linguistically, and culturally appropriate learning environment

Young children need a developmentally, linguistically, and culturally appropriate learning environment that is predictable, engaging, and relationship-based. A sample policy statement may look like this:

We foster and guide a child's choices so his or her behavior will reflect peaceful human relationships with other children and adults. We provide an age-appropriate environment and stimulating curriculum, and we carefully consider how to use children's cultural and linguistic backgrounds to engage the children in meaningful activities conducive to the development of a positive self-image in each child.

3. Setting behavioral expectations

Young children need clear and consistent expectations for their behavior. Program-wide behavioral expectations can be included in a behavior-guidance policy and may look like this:

Each class uses the same basic rules:

  • We keep ourselves safe. We listen to the teacher, and we stay with the group.
  • We keep each other safe. We use safe touches, and we listen to one another.
  • We keep our things safe.

4. Preventing and addressing challenging behaviors using a tiered model of intervention

Early childhood behavior-guidance policies should identify levels of intervention.


  • Primary: whole-group instruction in expectations and practice in prosocial behavior
  • Secondary: targeted-group instruction in expectations and practice in prosocial behavior
  • Tertiary: individual intensive instruction in expectations and practice in prosocial behavior

A behavior guidance policy may describe how the program utilizes the Teaching Pyramid to address each of these levels:

We use the Teaching Pyramid approach to provide a systematic framework to promote social and emotional development, provide support for children's appropriate behavior, prevent challenging behavior, and address problematic behavior.

5. Working with families

Early childhood behavior-guidance policies should reflect the family-centered nature of early childhood education, make behavior expectations clear to families, and engage them in supporting their children in learning prosocial behavior.

The home is the child's first and continual learning environment. Children come to school with different life experiences and skills that we acknowledge and draw upon as we plan for and facilitate new learning. Parents have an in-depth knowledge of their children. When parents share this knowledge, teachers can better understand each child.

6. Staff training and professional development

Early childhood behavior-guidance policies should indicate a commitment to providing ongoing staff training and professional development on implementing the guidance policy.

The Children's Center believes that ongoing professional development for teachers is key to the success of the guidance policy. All staff and families are provided with a copy of the guidance policy at orientation, and staff are provided with a brief training on the policy upon hire. In addition to the initial training, we provide ongoing professional-development workshops on evidence-based behavior-guidance practices that are promoted in the policy.

7. Use of data for continuous improvement

Early childhood behavior-guidance policies should include a data-collection system by which the relative success or failure of the behavior- guidance policy will be evaluated. Administrators should collect and review multiple forms of data to evaluate the effectiveness of the policy. Data may include referrals to the director, referrals to community services, incident reports, behavior reports, the number of parent conferences, and the number of suspensions and expulsions. A review of the behavior-related data should occur a minimum of once per year.

High-quality evidence-based behavior-guidance policies that reflect these seven essential features can help early childhood programs support the social, emotional, and academic success of all children. Importantly, these policies can also be used to address disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion based on race by supporting linguistically and culturally appropriate environments and experiences, providing ongoing professional development that ensures staff have a strong understanding of culture and diversity, and using data to ensure that decision making is fair and equitable.

About the Author

Sarah Garrity, EdD, is an associate professor in the Department of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University. Her research and policy interests focus on early childhood workforce development, educational leadership, and the socio-cultural and linguistic contexts of teaching and learning. She has more than 25 years of experience in the field as a classroom teacher, Head Start administrator, and literacy coach. She is the co-author of Effective Discipline Policies, and a presenter on topics related to best practice in early care and education settings.