Part 2: Reframing “Challenging Behaviour” in Kindergarten

Self-Reg for parents, photo of man and son sitting on the grass together

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 Gray 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 Gray 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.”

Dr. Stuart Shanker is a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Psychology from York University and the Founder & Visionary of The MEHRIT Centre, Ltd. Stuart has served as an advisor on early child development to government organizations across Canada and the US, and in countries around the world. Dr. Shanker also blogs for Psychology Today