Challenging Behavior in Young Children in Day Care

It's the phone call every parent dreads. Your little one is hitting, biting or otherwise misbehaving at day care. Before you panic or assume that you've somehow ruined your child, remember that these behaviors are common in young children -- particularly in a day care environment. Little ones simply lack the emotional and verbal skills to consistently negotiate the social dynamics of day care in appropriate ways. There's always a reason for behavior, so spend some time unraveling possible causes, rather than punishing your child or going on a guilt trip. In some cases, a change of day care setting might be the answer.


Even the most easygoing toddler or preschooler has the occasional meltdown in day care. Tantrums happen when your little one is tired, hungry, overwhelmed or frustrated and can't express her needs verbally. Some kids find the bright lights, noise and clutter in the typical classroom overstimulating, which can also cause meltdowns. If tantrums are frequent, talk with your child's teacher about the possible causes. Perhaps your child tends to have tantrums late in the day when she's tired or during the chaotic transition before lunch. By pinpointing the cause of tantrums, the teacher can anticipate and prevent them. For example, if transitions set your child off, ask the teacher to give plenty of warning beforehand. If the room seems busy and loud, encourage the teacher to offer a quiet corner or let your child walk down the hall if she seems overstimulated.


Defiance in young children can make adults see red, but it's not entirely a bad thing. Defiance is a sign that your child is struggling to become more independent. Encourage teachers to set reasonable, fair boundaries and to consistently enforce them. Sometimes, children are defiant because adults are wishy-washy or ambiguous in their expectations. An adult's tone can also determine the outcome. A respectful, kind request usually gets better results than sarcasm, yelling or criticism. At home, follow a similar pattern. Offer choices and encourage independence whenever possible. Set simple rules and consistently, but kindly, enforce them. Kids need and want secure boundaries, says early childhood development expert, Faith Golden, M.A., owner of Its Apparent, a behavioral and parenting support service in Encino, California 1. According to Golden, "Toddlers and all children need to know that you mean what you say and say what you mean. This is part of a secure attachment where the child knows that the adult will take care of him and keep him safe."


In a day care setting, young children are expected to interact and play together for eight hours or more each day. This expectation is completely unrealistic for most toddlers and preschoolers. Sharing, taking turns and getting along are advanced skills with which even some adults struggle. If your child is hitting in day care, work with the teacher to offer some social skills training. Teachers can use puppets or role playing to model how to ask for turns and share. Teachers should also observe children and intervene when conflict brews. Smaller class sizes and a balanced program of active and quiet activities can also reduce stress. At home, talk with your child about his frustrations. Say, "I can see how mad you get at Brandon. You may not hit or kick though. When you're mad, you can talk to the teacher or go to the cozy corner for a minute."


Perhaps more than any other behavior, biting is the one parents and teachers fear most. Biting is actually an extremely common toddler behavior. In fact, up to half the children in day care settings under age 3 have been bitten by another child, according to the American Psychological Association 2. Biting is simply a way of expressing feelings of frustration and anger. The most effective way to curb biting is by providing more supervision and intervening before a child reaches the boiling point. Some schools even hire additional staff for toddler rooms if toddlers are going through a biting phase. When a biting incident occurs, talk with your child about what happened. Don't scold or punish, but articulate your child's feelings for her. "I bet you were really mad when Lucy took your toy. That would make me mad too. It's not okay to bite, though. Biting hurts 2. You can ask your teacher to help you instead."