Many times while working with preschoolers, I run into difficult or defiant behavior. I have to spend time with a child to sort out what is frustration because they can’t talk, and set a plan to help that child feel more in control of his communication, and less frustrated, while reinforcing his good efforts. Recently with a 2½ year-old who had just begun therapy, I began by reinforcing any vocalizations other than screaming.

Sometimes it means teaching them some simple signs to make their needs known, or single words that they can approximate to help family members or caregivers understand them: “help,” “more,” “want,” “me” or “all done.” Language empowers kids as they realize that they can make their wants and needs understood.

During my recent visit with a 2 ½ year-old, it was apparent that he had a melt-down (spoke in ultra-whiney voice leading to a cry) whenever he didn’t like something like having to go to bed, change activities, wash his hands after the bathroom etc. I usually tell kids they have to “use your words, talk like a big boy, or no whining,” to let them know what needs to be done before I respond. That didn’t seem to be working because he was already upset. So I said, “Take a deep breath,” and modeled it for him. This distracted him, broke the behavior pattern and calmed him down. Then I modeled what I wanted him to say and how I wanted him to say it, in a calm relaxed voice, “Sherry, I want my hands dry.” He repeated it with only a mildly shaky voice and we were good to go! Later throughout the afternoon we practiced taking a deep breath and talking like a big boy.

Modeling the language and manner of delivery is helpful to kids. When they are upset, their level of language diminishes—just like adults. When we are stressed or upset, we get flustered and don’t express ourselves as well either. You need to help kids by modeling and reinforcing their appropriate responses.

What phrases have worked with your students or children when their behavior gets challenging?