Voices’ Blog

Young Children’s Challenging Behavior and Virginia’s Early Care and Education Programs

Posted:  -  By: Ashley Airington

A recent report from the National Center for Children in Poverty, “Learning about Young Children’s Challenging Behavior and Impacts on Programs and Families: A State-wide Survey of Virginia’s Early Care and Education Teachers” report presents the efforts of the Early Childhood Mental Health Advisory Board (ECMHVA) to learn more about teachers’ experience with children who demonstrate challenging behavior in Virginia’s childcare settings. The ECMHVA Advisory Board partnered with the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) to design and implement a survey of Virginia’s early care and education (ECE) teachers that serve infants, toddlers and preschoolers in group settings. The survey and analysis of responses examined the following questions:

  • How common are different types of challenging behavior?
  • How many children with challenging behavior, in different age groups, do teachers have in their classrooms or childcare homes in the course of a year?
  • What are the consequences of challenging behavior, and how often does removal from the ECE setting occur?
  • What are the family circumstances of children with challenging behavior?
  • How do teachers address challenging behavior and what barriers do they face?
  • What factors contribute to the incidence of children with challenging behavior and removal from programs?
  • What supports do teachers believe will help them address the needs of children with challenging behavior?

This survey and subsequent report highlights key findings:

  • A high percentage of teachers (90%) reported having a least one child with challenging behavior in their classroom; on average teachers reported having 4 children with challenging behaviors.
  • About half the teachers rated two types of disruptive behavior (extremely active, unable to engage in activities and refuses to cooperate as very common; Over one-third identified hitting, pushing and biting as common; and about one-quarter rated sadness and withdraw behaviors as common.
    • Serious challenging behavior increased with the age of the child (89% preschoolers, 67% toddlers, 36% infants).
  • 40% of teachers reported that children with challenging behaviors live in families facing serious difficulties (parent health, mental health, substance use, domestic violence).
    • 1 out of 3 live in families monitored by Child Protective Services.

What are the consequences of challenging behavior?

  • Rates of removal of children from classrooms due to challenging behavior varied across programs, with the highest rate found in licensed child care; across different types of programs, almost half of the teachers reported that children did not move into another regulated setting.
    • 86% of teachers request a meeting with parents; 46% request assistance from other staff; 37% request consultation from a mental health specialist; 36% refer to Early Intervention or Early Childhood Special Education; 28% refer to child’s pediatrician and 27% request parent pick up child early.

What supports do teachers believe will help them address the needs of children with challenging behaviors? 

  • More than half of the teachers  (63%) recommended increasing access to early childhood mental health consultants; increased supports for families (54%); increasing opportunities for group training linked to on-site coaching (52%).



The results of this survey point to greater need for Virginia to invest in prevention efforts that specifically impact early childhood mental health. Luckily, there are policy solutions that specifically address the challenges this survey/report highlight. The recommendations my colleagues and I developed are policy solutions Virginia can invest in:

1.State-wide Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Program: 

Given that a large number of children (0-5yrs) are expelled from their child care/preschool setting, Virginia should build on the strengths of Virginia’s current Early Childhood Mental Health consultation program to support the healthy development & school readi­ness of young children, 0 to 5 years, in early childhood settings throughout the state. Expansion of early childhood mental health consultation should aim to serve children birth through age five and ensure that it is available at all ECE programs. Furthermore, Virginia could partner with the National Center for Excellence in ECMH Consultation to build capacity using evidence-informed strategies.

2. Professional Development:

Given that a high percentage of teachers cited the need for training focused of social-emotional development, Virginia should expand professional development and coaching opportunities to focus on practices that promote children’s social-emotional growth and align these supports with a state-level Infant/ECMH consultation program.

3. Establish a process for further development of Virginia’s Expulsion Policy, building on the existing Guidelines for the Prevention of Suspension and Expulsion of Young Children(2017).

4. Help Me Grow: Establish the Help Me Grow (HMG) system in Virginia to help address the needs of families of children with challenging behavior. Help Me Grow connects families and providers to services for young children through a centralized help line and resource specialists.

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