Coping with Challenging Behavior during Challenging Times

Angela teaches three-year-olds in a program affiliated with a local hospital.

Her class normally has ten children in it, but currently several children are

staying home with their families. Lately, there have only been four children

attending regularly–their parents are health care providers in the hospital and

are working long, grueling hours. Under normal circumstances, a smaller

class means fewer behavior challenges, but lately it’s been the opposite. The

children are quick to lose emotional control, more likely to lash out at each

other, and less independent in their play. Children who had been using the

toilet without problems for months are suddenly having regular accidents, and

naptime is a daily struggle.

Angela also has a two-year-old son, Joshua, spending his days at home with

her husband who is teleworking. They are seeing many of the same

challenging behaviors in him, along with more frequent night waking and



Stress often translates into an uptick in challenging

behaviors. What can caregivers do to help?

The current COVID-19 crisis has drastically changed daily life for many

children and families. Children who once spent much of their days in early

childhood programs are home with their parents who may also be coping with

teleworking or sudden unemployment. Children who remain in the early

childhood setting because their parents’ work is deemed essential, may also

have big changes both at school and at home.


Those of us who work with young children know stress often translates into

an uptick in challenging behaviors. Tantrums, meltdowns, sleep disruptions,

and regression are all ways that children may show that they are having a

hard time. So, what can parents and caregivers do to help? Here are three

ideas for supporting children’s emotional development and managing

challenging behaviors during challenging times, whether you are at home

caring for your own children or working in early childhood programs

supporting parents in vital roles in your community.


1. Create a predictable, flexible schedule that minimizes transitions.

In Angela’s classroom, children are used to following a schedule. She has

pictures posted of them doing everyday activities like playing outside and

eating lunch, and she often directs their attention to their visual schedule

when they ask about what comes next. Lately, she has been emphasizing it

more, talking lots about what is happening now and what they will do

afterwards. She also added long blocks of free play and outdoor time, even

eating lunch outdoors when the weather permits.


Seeing how much Joshua is also struggling at home during transition times,

she makes a similar visual schedule for him. She takes pictures of him getting

dressed, eating breakfast, playing with toys, taking naps, and getting ready

for bed, and prints them on her home printer. She and her husband hang the

pictures up where her son can see them and point them out when it is time to

move from one activity to another. Together, they also brainstorm some ideas

for playtime that keep him engaged and busy for longer stretches of time.

(For example, Joshua loves baths – her husband begins offering a morning

“play bath” after breakfast, working on his computer on the floor while Joshua

plays in the water as long as he wants to.)

Young children aren’t planners–under normal circumstances, they don’t think

much about the future unless they are worried about it. But, when daily

routines are drastically changed, children’s worries about what comes next

may show up in their behavior.


A predictable schedule with enough flexibility to accommodate your daily life

can help! Children love to know what comes next–when you do the same

things in the same order as consistently as you can, it helps them to relax.

Make sure your schedule includes long stretches for free play, either with you

or on their own, minimizing how often you ask them to switch from one task

or location to another. Whether at home or at school, keep this routine

streamlined, providing extra time for activities that reduce stress for children,

like gross motor and sensory play. If children seem engrossed in an activity,

see if you can extend it, even if it shifts your schedule a bit.

Tell children what is happening and what will happen next, offering more

reminders than you usually might during this unusual time, and when there

are changes to the usual order of events, be sure you let children know in

advance. For preschoolers and older children at home, a visual schedule can

also help them understand what to expect. It doesn’t have to be anything

fancy–if you have a printer, you can print black and white images of your own

child eating breakfast, brushing their teeth, or doing other daily activities, and

then arrange them in sequence in a place they can see them. You can even

draw pictures if you don’t have a printer! Then, point out the pictures as you

prepare to move from one activity to the next.

Visual schedules help children both at home and at school.

2. Adjust your expectations—accommodate regression and meet

children where they are.

Art time has long been a favorite activity in Angela’s classroom. Earlier this

year, it was an activity most children could participate in independently,

allowing her time to spend time with individual children or jot down notes to

share with families. Lately, art time has been a disaster. Arguments over

supplies are constant, children are easily frustrated with their projects, and

spills are frequent and disruptive. After a few challenging days of art time,

Angela decides to change up the art center. She puts away the paints and

glue, leaving out crayons and a few colors of paper. In their outdoor play

space, she adds sidewalk chalk and introduces children to “painting with

water,” giving them brushes to make designs on the wooden fence that

quickly dry, allowing for new creations to replace them. With more space and

less structure, the children are able to enjoy art time again.

At home, Angela notices Joshua is also struggling with some things that used

to be easy for him–bedtime in particular. After several nights of long,

frustrating bedtime struggles, she decides to pull out some of the books they

read at bedtime when he was a younger baby and offers him his special

blanket, which had been in a drawer for the last few months. Tonight, instead

of kissing him goodnight in his bed, she rocks him for a few minutes after they

read a book, letting him get sleepy in her arms before putting him to bed.

With the extra support, their bedtime routine begins to get easier–for Joshua

and for Angela!


Many families are dealing with enormous changes in their daily lives, juggling

the responsibilities of working and schooling from home while trying to

manage the stress of sharing spaces in ways they are not used to. Children

and adults alike miss their friends and their daily routines. Living with

uncertainty and anxiety around the pandemic takes a toll on our emotional

energy. We are all doing the best we can in very challenging times.

Children don’t necessarily understand what is happening in the adult world

around them, and they may not have the language to express their worries.

But, they are exquisitely sensitive to the tenor of adult emotions, and even

infants may know that something isn’t quite right.


A very common response to stress in children is regression. Some common

areas for regression include sleep, toileting, problem-solving, and

independence. Children may be clingy or demanding, or revert to behaviors

you haven’t seen in awhile, like climbing in bed with you at night. Even

language might regress–you might hear “baby talk”, or find that early literacy

or math skills seem to have suddenly disappeared.


Try not to worry about these changes. Instead, meet children where they are.

If your three-year-old suddenly wants to be rocked to sleep again, try to

accommodate her if you can (or offer a compromise: “I can rock you for five

minutes, and then I will tuck you into your bed and kiss you goodnight.”)

Forgo structured academic activities–instead, spend more time reading

together and talking about things you see and do together, building language,

literacy, and math skills in your everyday interactions instead. Offer familiar

foods, keep your days simple, and offer lots and lots of opportunity to play.

Take the opportunity to nurture your little ones and hold them tight just a little

longer. Over time, most children will go back to their more grown-up ways as

things start to feel more normal.


Doing art outside allows for more space and less structure.

3. Attend to your own emotional well-being.

Author and advocate L.R. Knost wrote, “When little people are overwhelmed

by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” This can

be exceptionally difficult to do when we don’t have much calm to share!

During challenging times, it is critical that adults caring for children also care

for ourselves so that challenging behaviors don’t overwhelm us when they


The best way to attend to your own emotional well-being varies widely,

depending on your temperament and circumstances–there is no one-size-fitsall

solution. For most people, extra attention to good sleep, nutritious food,

and healthy movement are a good start. Reaching out with phone calls or

video chats to people who can support and nurture us emotionally is also a

great strategy for maintaining emotional balance, as is limiting time spent on

social media. No matter which strategy you choose, the most important thing

is that you take time daily to recharge, even if just for a few minutes.

Here are a few good places to look for ideas for self-care:

Young Children at Home during the COVID-19 Outbreak: The

Importance of Self-Care from ZERO TO THREE

Stress and Coping from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Fifty Ways to Take a Break – a free printable infographic you can hang

up at home!

Take good care of you–your work with children is so important, and your wellbeing

matters, too!

It’s Friday and it has been a long week for Angela—she is looking forward to

time to rest and recharge over the weekend. In the evening, she and her

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husband cook a special meal and put on a favorite cartoon for Joshua while

the adults eat together and reconnect. Afterwards, her husband puts Joshua

to bed while she takes a long bath, listening to her favorite music and letting

her body relax. She heads to bed early, catching up on much needed sleep

so she’s ready to be fully present with her family the next day.

Reference List

Fiechtner, J., Forrester, M., & Albrecht, K. Five parenting strategies to support

emotional development. (2018). Tomball, Texas: Innovations in ECE Press.

Forrester, M. & Albrecht, K. Social emotional tools for life: an early childhood

teacher’s guide to supporting strong emotional foundations and successful

social relationships. (2014). Tomball, Texas: Innovations in ECE Press.

By Jennifer Fiechtner

Topics: Social Emotional Development, Professional Development

Date: May 12, 2020



Jennifer Fiechtner is a writer, editor, and educator. She is

the author of Five Parenting Strategies to Support

Emotional Development and the editor of Social

Emotional Tools for Life: An Early Childhood Teacher’s Guide. You can

find out more at