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What Can I Do When Children Misbehave?

Updated: Aug 9, 2022

Black man weraing pink and blue horizontally striped shirt to show confusion about how to handing children when they don't listen at PlayfulLeigh Psyched.

It is likely that what brought you to this article is at least one of two really common truths,

  1. young children tend to have a hard time following directions the first time you tell them to do something and/or

  2. young children often engage in behaviors that you would rather they not.

These are two of the most frequently discussed topics from parents seeking support at PlayfulLeigh Psyched, they are frequent points of discussion when working with preschool teachers, and these sentiments tend to be the basis for frustration among adults who interact with young children. Now, what if I tell you that these two really common truths are usually, not always because absolutes tend to be unhelpful, more about adults and the environment than they are about children? Well, we're going to explore that using two examples, "Noncompliance/Oppositional at Home" and "Taboo Tongues at School".

Reflecting on Adult Reactions to Children’s Behaviors

A funny thing happens when you interact with babies and young children. Sometimes you find that you respond in ways that are more childlike than you would've expected. That is because when engaging with young children you are often reliving a childhood experience without even realizing it. If the experience was a positive one, you are more likely to respond in a way that is playful or positive. If the experience was a negative one, you tend to respond more negatively than you would like. It can be challenging to know from where your responses are coming without engaging in reflection. Therefore, here are some questions to help you on this part of the journey. (Remember, whenever possible, pause and reflect before responding. Pause and reflect after responding. There's a pattern.)

  • What am I feeling (emotionally and physically) when this child engages in this behavior?

  • When was the first time that I remember feeling this way?

  • What am I interpreting this behavior to mean?

  • Is my interpretation of this behavior age or developmentally appropriate for this child?

  • Who or what does this behavior bring up for me?

  • What am I afraid will happen if this behavior continues?

  • Is my fear realistic? To what extent? How far in the future would I have to look to know if my fear came true?

Oppositional: Why won't you just do what I tell you to do?!

Okay, so you tell your 4-year-old child that it's time for dinner and they refuse to go to the dinner table. In this situation, some parents might attempt to reason with their child "Oh, but you're going to be really hungry later." Others may try to engage in negotiations with their child, "Okay. You can have a few more minutes playing and then it will be time for dinner." Some may use a reward, "If you come to dinner right now, you'll be able to have a special treat after dinner." Still others may be caught in a moment of little patience and resort to what they think of as a punishment, "If you don't come to dinner now, I'm going to take away your tablet." And we have the caregiver who is on their last straw after having repeated, several times in a calm voice, that their child needed to come to the dinner table. This parent finds themself yelling, which isn't what they wanted to do but they were frustrated and the other approach "wasn't working."

While there are a plethora of other possibilities, we are going to stop with these five possible outcomes. Let's assume that none of the above scenarios worked or they worked but the parent had a problem with how long it took or how it made them feel. In each of those situations, that parent was likely misunderstanding key factors that played a role in the child's response.

First, let's identify the behaviors that we want to increase and decrease. If you want your child to come to the dinner table, that's the behavior that you are trying to increase. You want your child to comply when told to come to the dinner table. Therefore, the behavior that you want to decrease is their refusal to come to the dinner table, or their noncompliance.

Next, you need to figure out what is maintaining the current noncompliance. Stated differently, you need to learn why your child is being noncompliant in this situation. One way you can do this is by taking a S.E.A.T. That's a way to memorize the acronym for the four functions of behavior: Sensory (stimulation or doing something because it feels good), Escape (to avoid or get out of a situation or activity), Attention (access to social interaction), Tangibles (access to preferred items)

  • Are they already engaged in a more enjoyable activity than eating? (Sensory)

  • Does their refusal mean that they won't have to do something like clean up after themselves? (Escape)

  • Do they need more social interaction? (Attention)

  • Does their refusal mean that they will get access to something like their tablet, an extra dessert, extra cuddles with you, etc.? (Tangibles)

It's important to note that figuring out the answers to these questions takes time. It is preferable that you collect some data over at least a week to really start understanding what's happening for your child and your own behaviors. Notice how several of the functions are related to your behavior. For example, often a natural consequence of a child refusing to come to dinner is that the parent may eventually give up on the child cleaning up their toys because it's getting closer to bedtime. This means that the parent has inadvertently helped the child escape cleaning up and simultaneously reinforced the child's noncompliance for coming to dinner. The child learns that if they delay going to dinner, they don't have to clean up their toys.

"All behaviors have a consequence because consequence just means what happens after the behavior."

By now you're asking how in the world can you track data on this. Well, a simple ABC chart helps most people get a clearer picture of the behavioral pattern. The letters in ABC stand for antecedent (what happened right before the behavior), behavior (the behavior that you are targeting), and consequence (what happened directly after the behavior).






A child is playing in the livingroom and the parent says that it's time to clean up for dinner

child refuses by starting to whine and keeps playing

parent negotiates for seveal minutes, child doesn't clean up, but eventually goes to the dinner table

Using the above example, I'll label them for you. A child is playing in the livingroom and the parent says that it's time to clean up for dinner (antecedent). The child refuses by starting to whine and keeps playing (behavior). Parent spends several minutes negotiating with the child to come to dinner until the parent gives up on (or forgets) the clean up part of it as the child starts settling down and goes to the dinner table (consequence).

Some might use the old adage here about picking and choosing battles as an explanation for why the parent decided to eliminate the clean up task. While that adage can be very helpful to people at times, it can be just as harmful when misused. Plus, battling with a child, is that really what you want? It's more likely that you want to reinforce prosocial behaviors instead of reinforcing escape ones.

Child sitting on steps next to pug dog to show taking a SEAT to reflect on how to help manage childhood behaviors at PlayfulLeigh Psyched

Once you have some clear data on your ABC chart, you can revisit your SEAT questions to help you determine the function of your child's behavior. Knowing the function allows you to get you ahead of the situation next time. You will be able to be more preemptive. Over time, you will be able to help your child decrease their noncompliance when being told to go to the dinner table.

Sensory - you'll need to help your child replace the sensory stimulation to something that can be done while at the dinner table.

Escape - make the task smaller and follow it with a reasonable reward (a reward is something your child likes, not something that you think would be a reward. For example not all children love stickers).

Attention - for the dinner situation only say it the first time and say it in a calm way. Then, if the dinner table is within view or sound of where your child is playing, go over to the dinner table and start dinner tasks like making your plate. If you are a single parent with just one child, talk aloud to yourself about your delicious meal. Mention how it would be so much fun if someone were eating dinner with you. If there are other people in the home, engage with one another like you're having the best dinner conversation in the world. Don't use your child's name. Just make your dinner seem fun and interesting. When your child comes to the table, and they usually will after a few seconds or minutes of secretly observing your super interesting dinner, adorn them with attention only after they sit down (or get to the table if they need help getting in a chair or anything like that).

Tangible - You'll start teaching them how to ask for the item they want and then only giving them access to the item after they have completed a simple task.

Taboo Tongues: What did you just say? Don't say that!

While this happens at home, some preschool teachers struggle with what to do when one child engages in a behavior that's maintained by attention from others (peers and adults). For example, this happens when a 3-year-old says a word that's not allowed in the classroom and the other children laugh. Using what you have learned about taking a SEAT and ABC data, you already know how to make sure you have a clearly identified function. You have already identified that this behavior is maintained by attention. The next step is twofold.

One, look for opportunities throughout the day to give the child positive attention. Many professionals call this, “catch them doing something good”. When you are trying to target a behavior, you naturally spend a lot of time focusing on the behavior that you don’t want and completely forget about the fact that every time that a child is not engaging in the target behavior they may be engaging in a perfectly appropriate behavior. Therefore, there are many more behaviors that can warrant positive attention and in-turn could decrease the target behavior.

Two, you can reward other children in your classroom who don’t laugh. You can do things like no-touch hive-fives, tell the students to give themselves a pat on the back for not laughing, let them choose a sticker, give them a thumbs up, etc. Notice that all of these rewards are COVID protocol friendly. You don’t need to call the child’s name because you are avoiding drawing any additional attention to the child while and directly after they have used the inappropriate language. What you are doing is diverting attention away from the target behavior and funneling it in the direction of behaviors that are appropriate for the classroom. To make this effective, make sure that as soon as the child who said the target behavior does the opposite behavior, such as when they use words that are good for the classroom, you give attention to that. For example, after the child says the words in question and you are doing air high-fives with the other children, you are listening/watching for the child to say something else - anything else that is appropriate. As long as what they say only contains appropriate words, you might give specific praise, “That’s such a great job using classroom safe words!” You would involve the other students by encouraging them to also give their classmate and air high-five for using classroom safe words.

Brown boy joy to promote laughter in the classroom

Bonus, while implementing the first two, you could also create joke time in your classroom and encourage children to say funny, but still appropriate, things to make one another laugh. You can frame it, “I noticed that sometimes it’s fun when LaTrice says something that makes us laugh. Let’s build in 5-minutes of comedy time today.”


There are a lot of gems in this article and all of them can be used both at home and in preschool. Here are a few of the key points from this read.

  • Adults need to change their behaviors when they want to decrease or increase a child’s behavior.

  • Adult self-reflection is needed to repair underlying challenges within parent-child and teacher-child relationships.

  • You need to take a SEAT when trying to discern the function of a child’s behavior.

  • Clearly define the target behavior that you want to increase or decrease.

  • Rewards are more effective over time than punishment.

  • It is only a reward if the child believes it is a reward.

  • Catch children doing something good so you can reward them and increase that behavior.

  • ABCs - antecedent, behavior, consequence. All behaviors have a consequence because consequence just means what happens after the behavior.

I hope you come back next week to continue learning about mental and socioemotional health and healing for people all ages. In the meantime, remember to spend time reflecting, sit in self-compassion, and make time for play.

PlayfulLeigh (playfully),

Dr. Dowtin


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Photo Cred:

Black man in stiped shirt by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash.


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