Home    |   SEL & Behavior   |   Challenging Behavior   |   Challenging Behaviors: The Brain Science Connection

Challenging Behaviors: The Brain Science Connection

When young children are faced with difficulties, they often express their frustration with aggression, temper tantrums, and other challenging behaviors. Responding effectively to children during these stressful moments is never easy, no matter how supportive and caring we feel. Information about early brain development can give us some insight into why children’s challenging behaviors occur, and provide us with the ability to respond with empathy, rather than frustration. In this article, we explore the relationship between early brain development and behavior, and offer tips for helping young children navigate through frustration and anger.

A Look at How the Brain Develops

Brain development starts before a child is born, and continues throughout life, with its most rapid changes happening during early childhood. During the first 36 months of life, as many as 1 million new neural connections are formed every second! 

In an article written for Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, neurologist Anisa Kelley, MD, explains that these important neural connections take place at different times and at different rates, depending on the area of the brain in which they are occurring: “Children’s brains develop from the ‘back’ of the brain (the occipital lobe) to the ‘front’ of the brain (the frontal lobe). The occipital lobe is important for vision and visual integration….as the brain develops forward in the first year of life, children begin learning language and motor skills. Finally, the frontal lobe is developed, a process that continues until early adulthood. The frontal lobe is involved in higher cognitive functioning such as motor planning, behavior, personality, impulsivity and executive functioning.” 

The Prefrontal Cortex & Executive Functions

A key element of early brain development takes place in the prefrontal cortex, which lives in the brain’s frontal lobe. This area of the brain houses complex thinking processes, such as working memory, the ability to shift tasks, and the ability to recognize, control, and regulate our emotions. These skills, also known as executive function skills, develop most rapidly between the ages of 3 and 5, and continue to develop throughout childhood and adolescence. In its working paper, Building the Brain’s Air Traffic Control System, Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child explains that acquiring the early building blocks of executive function is one of the most challenging tasks of the early childhood years, noting that “having executive function in the brain is like having an air traffic control system at a busy airport to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of plane on multiple runways.” 

The Prefrontal Cortex & Behavior

The frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex, home to some of our most complex thinking processes, is not the first part of the brain to develop, and it requires a relatively long time to reach maturation. This means that while infants and toddlers seem to discover new things and learn new skills on a daily basis, they don’t yet have the capacity or social-emotional skills to regulate their emotions or understand the needs behind those emotions. 

Another role of the prefrontal cortex is to process self-awareness and self-control. An article published in Zero to Three’s research journal describes the relationship between the timing of prefrontal cortex development and early behavior: “For young children, one of the hardest aspects of self-control is resisting an emotional impulse—for example, refraining from grabbing the candy despite wanting it or refraining from hitting a peer despite feeling angry. Children may know the rules and be able to think about them logically, but they still may be unable to resist their impulse.” 

This behavior starts to change between the ages of 3 and 6, when executive function skill development begins to accelerate, and children begin to show improved ability to control their impulses, shift their attention flexibly, and wait for a reward. 

Responding to Challenging Behaviors: A Brain Science Approach

Because challenging behavior can be frustrating, our first response to a child acting out might be to ask “Why did you do that?” or “What are you upset about?” However, those questions are impossible for young children to answer, since they don’t yet have access to logic, reason and other frontal lobe functions. To really connect with young children who are behaving from a place of anger or upset, it is best to focus on helping to calm their big feelings. 

Utilizing the 4 S’s

In his book, Whole Child Brain, Dr. Dan Siegel recommends focusing on helping children feel safe, cared for, and soothed during challenging moments. Dr. Siegel created a framework of support called the “4 S’s”, summarized below from an article by Dr. Peg Oliveira for Gesell Program in Early Childhood at Yale: 

  1. Soothe: Focus your attention on the child’s feelings, rather than their behavior. Try out a calming exercise, such as taking deep breaths to soothe the reactive lower brain. 
  2. Seen: Honor that the emotion is real by acknowledging and empathizing with what the child is feeling. You might say something like, “It makes you really mad to have to share that ball.” 
  3. Safe: Make physical space for the child to safely and fully experience their feelings. Remind the child that emotions are acceptable, though some behaviors (such as aggression or hurtful language) may not be. Remind the child that you are there to keep them safe, along with all of their peers. 
  4. Secure: Be there during the challenging behavior and after. Remind them it will all be ok. Rather than punishing the child by disconnecting or ignoring practices, remind them that they are cared for and they are always welcome to play with their peers as long as they engage in safe and respectful behavior. 

Practicing Your Own Self-Care

Challenging behaviors can test our patience, and it is helpful to have our own self-soothing strategies ready to use so that we can show up for children with a calm energy. Check in with your co-teachers, administrators, or other support systems in your program to talk about how you might be able to support each other when one of you needs to take a quick break to self-regulate. 

Remember that the little ones in our care are always watching and learning from us and from our responses and behaviors. When we model caring for ourselves in moments of intense emotion, we demonstrate to children that they can do the same thing during challenging situations. 

Related Articles & Posts

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This