Part 2: Reframing “Challenging Behaviour” in Kindergarten

Part 2: Reframing “Challenging Behaviour” in Kindergarten

Kindergarten marks a major transition in children’s lives: from being coddled infants to being treated as responsible individuals. They are students now, and as such they have to meet certain expectations, as noted in an article published on

  1. “He can follow the lead of a teacher and will honor the requests of authority figures.
  2. She treats people and materials with respect.
  3. He understands that there are class rules, and he follows them.
  4. She knows that hurting someone physically or emotionally is unacceptable.
  5. He has an awareness of time and can distinguish between work time and play time.
  6. She can follow two or three unrelated directions at a time.
  7. He can listen attentively for an appropriate amount of time.
  8. She knows how to take turns, share, and work in a cooperative environment.
  9. He takes on self-responsibility with toileting and mealtime needs.
  10. She does her best at all times.”

As important as these goals may be for a child’s education – and for that matter, their wellbeing – the big question every Kindergarten teacher and parent faces is: How do I help the child who is having trouble meeting these expectations? That question seems to apply to more and more children these days. It is almost starting to seem like “challenging behaviours” have become the norm and no longer the exception.

To answer the question of how we help the child who needs the most help, we need to keep asking “Why?” The problem is: Which “Why?” should we be asking?

If we believe it is up to the child to choose whether or not to respect authority figures or follow classroom rules, our thinking is strictly Blue Brain. If he violates these norms, we assume that he is misbehaving, and doing so for a reason: e.g., to get or avoid something. Accordingly, we feel that we have to be careful not to reinforce that behaviour, because the child has to learn that the behaviour is unacceptable.

But what if the child has regressed: and I mean really regressed, to the sort of Brown Brain state that we see in young infants? His action is neither rational nor irrational, but non-rational: i.e., driven by powerful and primitive sub-cortical brain processes that cause him to lash out or flee, and that shut down the prefrontal part of his brain that he needs to process our warnings and corrections. This leads us to a very different answer to our “Whquestion,” which is that his outburst is stress-behaviour and not misbehaviour.

With this way of thinking, we “reframe” the child’s behaviour. We recognize that the child is not “choosing” to act in a certain way that concerns us, any more than a baby is “choosing” to go red in the face when she is in distress. He does not have any sort of a “purpose” for behaving this way. And shouting at him may stop him by sending him into freeze, but that will not help him in the least to develop self-control.

What we are dealing with when a child keeps regressing into Brown Brain is a patterned response to excessive stress. The most pressing issue here is not why this particular behaviour pattern has formed but rather, why the child is so stressed. That is the real “challenge” posed by “challenging behaviour”: figuring out the answer to the right “Why question.”


By | 2019-02-25T11:46:29+00:00 March 5th, 2019|


  1. Renee March 13, 2019 at 10:31 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing these stories and insights will us! It is very helpful and perhaps even instrumental in supporting the work of leaders in education like school principals and programs staff, in that it relates to self regulation. How about the educator teams? and the parents who have a lot to offer in terms of the children learning alongside the of educator teams ? It meets up beautifully with the FDK Program, 2016, rolled out across the province of Ontario and HDLH – the pedagogy of the early years. Thank you for offering these thoughts to reflective practitioners and leaders everywhere. Best Regards,

  2. Larisa March 15, 2019 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    It seems to me like there is a gap between Early Childhood Education learning environment and Kindergarten program and expectations. It might be one of the answers to the question “WHY the child is so stressed in kindergarten”. There is no “bridge” that would connect between the two learning environments and make the transition smooth and less traumatic. Maybe collaborative work is required between ECE’s and the Kindergarten teachers, maybe we could incorporate some Kindergarten elements into Pre-school and Pre-K classrooms to make the transition more gradual… It’s a huge WHY that might be addressed to colleges that prepare early childhood educators, teachers, and educational leaders. …and as usual, research and science are our best advisers in exploring, finding answers, and create changes…

    • Abimbola March 17, 2019 at 5:53 pm - Reply

      As an early childhood educator working in a full day kindergarten classroom, I can honestly tell you one of the ways to reduces stress is to treat each child as the individual they are. One size fits all does the children a huge disservice.

      The structures for collaboration have been set up, but not necessarily successful in every classroom. This goes back to professionalism and if the teaching partners have established a great partnership for the benefit of their students.

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