Anxiety: A Signal of Challenging Behavior

Challenging and aggressive behavior often seems to come out of nowhere, but the truth is that if you look carefully you can see it on the horizon–in the guise of anxiety.

Anxiety in a child is a kind of early warning system that something is amiss, whether it’s the result of being left out of a group, stress at home, exposure to violence, even autistic spectrum disorder.

It’s hard to notice in a busy classroom because it’s internal; it doesn’t usually show much, and it doesn’t affect anyone but the child himself. But anxiety interferes with a child’s ability to learn and interact with his peers, and it can easily escalate to agitation and aggression if it isn’t addressed. We will certainly notice it then.

Become Sherlock Holmes

To see anxiety, you have to become a detective. To begin with, you must build a close relationship with every child and get to know all the children well–their temperaments, developmental levels, play skills, families, and cultures; what frustrates and frightens them; what makes them happy, mad, or sad.

You also have to learn to read the subtle physiological and behavioral clues the children display as they try to cope with their anxiety. For example:

  • Physiology. Tears, frequent urination, clenched teeth, blushing, pallor, rigidity, rapid breathing, sweating, fidgeting, vomiting, squeaky voice
  • Behavior. Downcast eyes, withdrawing, hair twirling, thumb-sucking, sucking hair or clothes, biting fingernails, hoarding, clinging, whining, being noisy or quiet, screaming, masturbating, smirking, giggling, crying

Figuring out what the child is thinking and feeling will help, too.

  • Thoughts. No one loves me; no one wants me; I’m no good; I don’t like it here; I don’t have any friends; no one will come to get me; I can’t do it; I’m bad; I want my mommy
  • Feelings. Distressed, troubled, afraid, nervous, excited, expectant, sad, irritable, grouchy, mad, insecure, frustrated, worried, confused, panicky

Reach Out

When a child’s characteristic clues appear, it’s time to connect–to smile, to sit nearby, to offer your help, to ask open-ended questions.

Pay special attention to your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, which all convey far more than your words. You’ll want to do whatever works for a particular child.

This tiny intervention delivered at just the right moment will save you tons of time and trouble later, and protect the child from learning that challenging behavior is the best way to solve problems.

PS. Many of these ideas come from the WEVAS program created by Neil Butchard and Robert Spencler. For more information go to

The More We Get Together: Thoughts on the NAEYC Annual Conference, 2012


I must admit that I find the NAEYC conference daunting: so many people, so many choices, so many lines.

This year Judy and I both made the trip. Our hotel was just a few blocks away from the conference center, and it didn’t take us long to figure out where to get breakfast and lunch without standing in line for hours.

Judy was amazed that although thousands of people attended—spread out in a variety of hotels and all converging at the conference center—we ran into almost every person we were hoping to see, in some cases more than once. We connected with  friends and colleagues, old and new, while we were having coffee, while we were eating dinner, at our book signing in the exhibit hall, in workshops, in hallways, even in the bathroom. We felt like members of a gigantic family.

Nothing I Do Works

The conference kicked off for me at 8:30 on Wednesday morning with my pre-conference workshop, “Nothing I Do Works!”, designed to help educators understand both themselves and children with challenging behavior, build relationships, and prevent and respond to inappropriate behavior.

Although participants dribbled in slowly (those long coffee lines and a late night watching the election results didn’t help), by the time the technician figured out how to separate my speaker from the sound system in the room next door, almost every seat was taken.

Presenting to a large group always has its challenges, but this workshop went extremely well. Everyone seemed to be involved and interested, and there was a great deal of interaction among the participants. Clearly the people who showed up really wanted to be there (except perhaps for the person sitting right in front of me texting the entire time).

Goose Bumps

Despite the overwhelming number of options, Judy and I succeeded in choosing some terrific workshops. I had goose bumps for 90 minutes listening to Barbara Sorrels of the Institute for Childhood Education in Tulsa, OK, share her experiences working with children exposed to violence. We all need to think about how children’s behavior is often a reflection of the lives they live outside the classroom and how we can help them to feel safe and ready to learn.

I would also like to thank Dr. James Coplan, child psychiatrist and pediatric neurologist in Rosemont, PA,  for his insights regarding children on the autism spectrum. Held in a very large but half-empty room, his session should have been filled to the rafters with folks who have kids with ASD in their groups or work with them in other settings. Coplan presented a wealth of clear and useful information that will help us to understand the needs and behaviors of children with autism and permit these children to participate more fully in classroom life.

The Culture Door

My conference experience ended with my presentation of  “Opening the Culture Door” which examined the influence of culture—the child’s, the educator’s, and the school’s—on expectations and behavior.

Culture often holds the key to developing meaningful relationships: When we understand and appreciate the culture of the children and families we work with, they feel recognized and valued.

Once the workshop got started, it became a real opportunity for the participants to delve into their own culture and experience, which is crucial to understanding the culture of others. My job in facilitating these sessions is to create an environment where people feel comfortable enough to share their own stories. I think they did!

You can get the handout for “Nothing I Do Works!” here 

You can get the handout for “Opening the Culture Door” here

If you have trouble with these links, you can email me at