Start Here: Roadmap to Behavior Support

Begin with building a stronger understanding of core concepts and process steps in behavior support

Behavior is a form of communication, and a child’s undesirable behavior is often a way of communicating about something that that he or she needs. The illustration shows the back perspective of five young children of various ethnic backgrounds walking with arms over each other’s shoulders. Two children are pointing upwards at the title and subtitle of the segment. The illustration is meant to highlight the topic of the segment and indicate pointing as a form of communication.


Welcome to the Making Access Happen Behavior Support learning community! Designed to support you in addressing behavior challenges with young children, each of the behavior support segments uses a video scenario of a challenging behavior to anchor the learning, discussion, and resources that follow. Feel free to personalize your experience by engaging with one or more segments as you consider what information to explore, how much information to engage with, and what tools and strategies to adopt in your experiences with young children.

Getting Started

Challenging behavior: What do we need to know?

A challenging behavior is any repeated pattern of behavior that 
- interferes with learning or engagement in social interactions
- can be significantly disruptive or dangerous
- is often unresponsive to appropriate positive guidance strategies

What is challenging behavior? It is any repeated pattern of behavior that interferes with learning or engagement in social interactions. Specifically, challenging behavior interferes with engaging in positive relationships, forming friendships, playing with others, and learning expected skills. Challenging behavior can be significantly disruptive or dangerous to the child, other children, and/or adults. Also, challenging behavior is often unresponsive to appropriate positive guidance strategies.

Is the behavior you are concerned about truly a challenging behavior?

Behavior is a form of communication

It is important to understand and be aware that behavior is a form of communication. A child’s undesirable behavior in particular often is a way of communicating about something that he or she needs. Behavior does not necessarily represent a deliberate or conscious act of communicating, but it certainly does convey a message. Our job as early care and education providers is to work to determine the reason for a child’s challenging behavior, and ways to help the child to appropriately get his or her needs met.

It is important to note that challenging behaviors during the preschool years constitute one of the strongest predictors of later, more serious problem behaviors including delinquency, aggression, antisocial behavior, and substance abuse. [Challenging Behaviors and the Role of Preschool Education by Lisa A. McCabe and Ellen C. Frede. Preschool Policy Brief, December 2007, Issue 16, National Institute for Early Education Research, Rutgers Graduate School of Education.]

Planning for Behavior Support

The following roadmap describes the process in planning for behavior support. As you go through each Behavior Support segment, you will have the opportunity to practice gathering data, determining the functions of behavior, and building a hypothesis toward developing a behavior support plan and putting in place your personalized intervention strategies.

In the Behavior Support Roadmap, the ABC Chart, Functions, and Hypothesis lead to Intervention Strategies that include Preventing Behavior in Activities, Task, People, and Environment; Teaching Positive Ways; and Responding to Behavior. Download the print version: Behavior Support Roadmap [PDF]

Gather information and collect data

An important first step in the behavior support roadmap is in gathering information and collecting data.

When you’re observing a child with challenging behavior, it is important to gather information and collect data to help you devise appropriate intervention strategies. Collecting data is necessary in order to verify the hypothesis about the purpose that the challenging behavior serves for the child.

ABC Chart

The ABC Chart is a recommended strategy for collecting data about behavior, where A represents Antecedent, B is for Behavior, and C stands for Consequence.

The ABC Chart is a recommended strategy for collecting data about behavior. The ABC Chart has three blocks: A — B — C, and is a visually helpful tool for both problem solving and developing a solution or intervention plan for the behavior. The three blocks in the chart represent the antecedent, behavior, and consequence.

  • Antecedent: what is happening before a behavior occurs
  • Behavior: description of the challenging behavior
  • Consequence: what happens after the behavior occurs

After all three blocks of the ABC Chart are completed for several occurrences of the behavior, the team supporting the child can determine whether their identified function for the behavior in the hypothesis was correct.

Background information

In order to determine the reason behind a child’s challenging behavior, several steps in a process must be followed. Where do we begin? First, it is critical to start with gathering information about the child’s background. Interviewing parents or family members is of equal importance. They know their children best, and are a wealth of information about child needs, strengths, challenges, successes, and behavior patterns. Our virtual coaches share some important points to think about when gathering background information:

  • Look at the setting
  • Gather information from multiple resources
  • Collect relevant data
  • Use data to establish a baseline

Learn more about how to use the ABC Chart and collect background information:

Determine the functions of behavior

Possible functions of challenging behavior can be categorized into 4 types:

  1. Escape/avoidance: trying to get away from a particular setting, person, or activity.
  2. Attention getting/seeking: trying to get attention from an adult or peer or particular person.
  3. Gain an activity or object: trying to get a toy or something they are fixated on; or trying to get an activity such as center time.
  4. Sensory: trying to gain some type of sensory stimulation or input; or a negative reaction to too much stimulation, such as in a gym or where acoustics are challenging. At times this function of behavior can be unrecognized or overlooked.
Reasons for a challenging behavior can include trying to escape a person, activity, or setting; trying to gain attention from adults or peers; trying to gain an activity or object; and trying to escape from or gain some stimulation. Download the print version: Functions of Behavior [PDF]

For each possible function of behavior, we need to collect and analyze data on the behavior to verify whether our hypothesis is true.

Use the following interactive to explore the potential reasons for a challenging behavior and what a child may be communicating with that behavior.

Build a hypothesis

What is a behavioral hypothesis? It is really our best thoughtful guess about why a child behaves the way that he or she does. It is important for us to build a hypothesis about what might the child be trying to communicate through the behavior.

Identifying behavior: Looks like / doesn’t look like

After gathering information about the child, write a description of the challenging behavior that is being observed. A description of challenging behavior should be written in objective terms. In other words, what exactly is the child doing and saying? Use of verbs, quotes, and descriptive words keeps the behavior description objective. In contrast, use of labels and judgment words does not help those who are working to support the child’s success to get a clear picture of what the behavior looks like.

A description of challenging behavior should be written in objective terms. To keep the behavior description objective, use verbs, quotes, and descriptive words. Avoid labels and judgment words. Download the print version: Definition of Behavior [PDF]

Hypothesis statements

Next, based on the behavior description and information gathered about the child, a hypothesis, or educated guess about why the challenging behavior is occurring can be determined. A behavioral hypothesis includes the behavior, its purpose, and the caregiver response or consequence as a result of the behavior.

A hypothesis statement should include the setting, antecedent, behavior, the response of others in the situation, and the consequence as a result of the behavior. Download the print version that includes the guide as well as a blank template: Hypothesis Statement [PDF]

According to Coach Mark, a hypothesis can help us determine why the child is behaving in a certain way:

Coach Shella reminds us to go back to the data collected to review the hypothesis developed:

Let’s look at how we could begin developing hypothesis statements for challenging behavior:

Put in place a Behavior Support Plan

The Plan should include strategies for prevention of the challenging behavior, replacement skills to teach the child as substitutes for the challenging behavior, and strategies to reinforce the child’s use of the replacement skills instead of the challenging behavior. Also, the Plan should include steps for keeping track of the child’s progress and determining whether it is working or needs to be adjusted — this involves deciding who will do what to carry out and keep track of the Plan.

When is a team approach appropriate? A team approach is important if:

  • You are in a center or a school and have access to other professionals who work with the child, administrators, mental health or behavior specialists, and/or other experts who could be helpful, and
  • The child’s behavior is truly challenging, which means it is persistent and not responsive to positive behavior guidance strategies.

The Behavior Support Team works with the teacher or care provider and family to reflect and brainstorm about the behavior they are observing, background information available, a behavior hypothesis, possible prevention strategies, replacement skills to teach, and ways to reinforce and track the child’s progress.

Everyone has important information and expertise to share, and ways in which they can play a role in the Behavior Support Plan. Here are some points to consider:

  • Look at how the behavior is affecting you as a teacher
  • Group reflection can help a team clarify roles and support

Check out some ideas and resources for putting together a Behavior Support Plan:

Practice Opportunities

Ready to proceed? Let’s practice applying the roadmap in a variety of behavior scenarios. Start with any one of the segments on the MAH Behavior Support page.