9 Strategies for Managing Challenging Behaviors during COVID-19 Health Crisis


Signs that a Child is Struggling:

  1. Separation Anxiety is common and depending on its intensity, is a normal part of children’s development.

What it could look like:

Difficulty saying goodbye/tantrums when faced with separation, overwhelming need to know where parents are, and physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, dizziness.

Try this:

  • Acknowledge the child’s feelings, “You really miss your mommy,” “You will see her soon”
  • A quick goodbye is best, make sure parents/caregiver say goodbye but avoid sneaking out as that is not helpful for the child feeling safe and secure
  • Establish a routine in which the same person greets the child ever day upon arrival, creating a pattern is important: include eye contact, touch, presence and playfulness between the greeter and child
    • ’I love you rituals’ book provides additional examples
  • Important for you to remain calm to facilitate the child’s return to a calm state
  • Post a visual schedule so the children can see how close they are to the end of the day
  • Read books like ‘The Kissing Hand’, ‘Llama, Llama Misses Mama’ or ‘Bye Bye Time”


  1. Attention Seeking means they are connection seeking (love, support &care). Needing help might appear like a negative behavior.


What it could look like:

Disruptive behaviors such as outbursts, tantrums, teasing, throwing things or other ‘annoying’ behaviors


Try this:

  • Do not ignore the behavior, instead try: Verbalize what is occurring, “You are throwing all of your toys across the room, it seems like you are really angry.”
  • Show empathy, “I’m sorry to see you are having a hard time right now.”
  • Give children options on positive ways to get your attention, ex) gently tap my shoulder or ask to tell me something
  • Increase praise for the positive behaviors you want to see, “Thank you for helping to clean up the toys.”

Strategies for Managing Challenging Behaviors and Intense Emotions:

  1. Name It to Tame It: Ways to talk about COVID-19

Naming children’s feelings helps them tame big emotions. Our brains have two hemispheres. The right is responsible for feelings and emotions and the left for logic and words. Young children are right brain dominated. As adults we can help children integrate their two hemispheres by putting their right brain experiences into left brain words. “Research shows that merely assigning a name or label to what we feel literally calms down the activity of the emotional circuitry in the right hemisphere.”- Daniel Siegel, M.D. Talking with kids about COVID- 19 in a developmentally appropriate way provides a sense of reassurance.

Try this:                            

  • Try labeling a child’s emotions about COVID- 19 and provide them with a narrative. E.g. “You are scared. This is not where you usually go when dad is at work. Being in a new place can be scary.” If you’re not sure how a child feels, try guessing. They will usually correct you if you are wrong. E.g. “I wonder if you are feeling…. Remember to first connect to children with the right brain and name what they feel. Having a conversation with them needs to wait until they are calm.
  • Help children manage anxieties about the virus and/ or their parents’ safety. e.g. “It is the adult’s job to solve this problem and your job as a kid to play and have fun. I am here to keep you safe.” Or e.g. “You love your mom and worry about her because she takes care of sick people. Your mom knows how to keep herself safe and wants you to have fun while she is at work.”
  • Remind them of the things they can do to stay healthy such as hand washing, covering their cough, and resting when sick.
  1. Prepare Kids for New Routines

The brain thrives on predictable patterns. Right now, we are all trying to cope with unpredictability. This is especially challenging for children. Creating rhythm to our day and knowing what to expect next provides a sense of safety.

Try this:

  • Explain your class routines to children so they know what is similar or different from their typical childcare routine.
  • Use a visual schedule to teach transition.
  • Be mindful of how many times in a day you are asking children to transition.
  • Have predictable rituals like morning circle and transition songs and verses.


  1. Give Children a Sense of Control

In times of uncertainty children might feel powerless and try to exert control in a variety of ways including being rigid, noncompliant, attention seeking, or exhibit some other form of challenging behavior. Kids need to have a sense of control while also not being overwhelmed by options.

Try this: 

  • Give a child two positive choices. E.g. “It’s circle time. Would you like to sit on the blue or green square?” “Would you like to pick out the book we read or the song we sing.”
  • Name it- “so many things in your life have changed and you don’t feel like you have a lot of choices. That is so frustrating.”
  • Tell children what they do have control of and what is consistent. “You can pick where you want to sit at lunchtime.” “Mom always picks you up.”


  1. Communicate with Parents

To best support children it is important you and the child’s parents communicate about the child’s day.

Try this:

  • Do some frontload work with new families to help ease everyone’s transition. Ask parents what typically soothes their child when upset and what remains consistent in a child’s life so that you can remind the child of this. Find out what is being said at home about COVID- 19 and if a child is exposed to the news.
  • Be specific about your concerns for their child. Don’t just say the child had a rough day.
  • It can be hard to find time for these conversations. Might you and the parents send a notebook back and forth? Would your center support you in making contact weekly in the form of a phone call or email?


  1. Self-regulation

Working with young children and managing challenging behaviors can be hard and exhausting. Without your own self-regulation and self-care, it will make modeling and teaching self-regulation to the class a very difficult task. Self-regulation involves the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses, to think before acting or cheer yourself up after disappointments.

What can I do that helps promote self-regulation?

  • Schedule your own self-care strategies into your day in order to take time for it.
  • Cognitive reframing: changing your thought patterns from negative thoughts to positive thoughts, “I’m bad at____” to “This isn’t a strength of mine but I handled _____really well today.”
  • Ask for help when you need a break


  1. Self-compassion

This is a very stressful time and a lot is changing rapidly. Thinking of all the what-ifs associated with the future can generate stress and anxiety. Take it day by day and take time to acknowledge that you are doing the best you can and realize the positive things you are already doing every day!


  1. Reach out to your Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant

We are here to support directors, teachers and parents during this challenging time. We love to help problem solve whether it is related to a specific child, family and/or concerns about your classroom functions (ex. daily structure/routines) or if you’d just like a listening ear. We also have access to additional resources and can make referrals as needed.



Call our Warm Line at (303) 245-4418, for additional support.

Sources: Siegel, D. J. & Bryson, T.A. (2012). The whole-brain child. New York: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks

Bailey, B. (2020). “Discipline Tips”. Conscious Disciple.  https://consciousdiscipline.com/free-resources/discipline-tips/