Talking to Families about Challenging Behavior - Early Intervention Technical Assistance Portal

Early Intervention Technical Assistance Portal

Talking to Families about Challenging Behavior

Discussing a child’s challenging behavior can be less stressful and more productive when you invest in relationships, stick to facts, and focus on solutions.

Talking to families can be intimidating. It can be made easier when it’s the child that constantly makes you laugh or you have a cute anecdote to share with the family member to break the ice. When talking with families about their child’s challenging behavior, often we either have the strong impulse to blame the parent for their child’s misbehavior’s or we avoid the interaction completely. Neither extreme is productive, more often it adds to the stress and escalates the situation. When it’s time for you to talk with a family about a child’s challenging behavior, these three things will help create a productive interaction. Make sure you have plenty in the “relationship bank” with the family, stick to data, and offer possible solutions and support. Boy at table with blocks holding one hand up and crying

So, how can you fill your relationship bank? Each person has an emotional “piggy bank” so-to-speak. Just like your real-life “piggy bank”, you must have money in the bank to successfully make withdrawals without causing damage. Studies show that children need 5 positives (Great walking feet! Hi-5! You’re working SO hard!), for every negative (No! Stop! Please don’t do that!). Now imagine the child whose name you say 634 times a day and multiply that by 5. That’s how many positives the child will need just to break even emotionally (that’s 3,170 positives in case you were wondering!). It is the same for families. If the first time you talk with them about their child is due to the child’s challenging behavior you are making a significant overdraft in your relationship bank. From your first encounter with the child and family find every way possible to make deposits into each family’s and child’s emotional bank. Then when you do need to engage in those challenging conversations, families will still have emotional “money-in-the-bank” to work with you on developing possible solutions.

Next, stick to the facts – just the facts. It is easy to wallow in the emotion challenging behaviors bring out in all of us. This emotion is normal and has its place, but not when you are communicating with the family. Saying things like “the teacher said he was hitting ALL day” is neither helpful nor productive (and probably not true). However, “At childcare today Brandon was really struggling with sharing” Is a much more productive statement that opens the doors for a problem solving conversation. First, it implies he is learning a new skill, which he is. Secondly, it creates an opportunity for the next question, “How does he do with sharing with his siblings? What strategies have you tried that you could recommend?” Remember, we are team members with the family. We want to help them make positive home-school connections. Stating facts removes emotion and blame from the tone of the conversation and will be more likely to help open doors rather than create walls.

Boy standing at table with nesting toys holding hands up in air with questioning lookFinally, be ready to share some solutions as well as ask for and offer ongoing support to the family.  Remember to ask families for their ideas. After the family shares strategies they use to support their child at home, you can share additional things for them to try and offer to work with the child’s teacher using those same strategies. Discuss how you will continue to communicate about this concern and any data you might collect. Don’t forget in this communication to keep adding to the family’s and child’s emotional bank by sharing their success. This will provide the traction for future challenging conversations.

Discussing a child’s challenging day will never be easy, but it can be less stressful and more productive when you invest in your relationships with families, stick to facts, and have some possible solutions ready as part of your ongoing support.


Check out this interaction for ideas and tips that will support your work with families.

Additional Resources:
Visit the Social Emotional topic of interest page where you will find resources to support both families and early childhood programs.

TACSEI Backpack Connection Series: How to Understand the Meaning of Your Child’s Challenging Behavior

CSEFEL What Works Brief: Building Positive Teacher-Child Relationships

CSEFEL What Works Brief: Acknowledging Children’s Positive Behaviors


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