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A Positive Start

How to manage misbehavior (and reduce teacher stress) by building the strong relationships preschoolers need
preschool teacher helping young girl with her drawing

When a preschooler repeatedly acts out — ignoring directions, throwing, hitting —  teachers may reach a breaking point, where bonds with that child weaken or don’t get established at all. Teachers may encourage less, berate more, or ignore the child, even though this is the very student who often needs the most support.

Finding ways to reduce teacher stress in these situations is a vital part of ensuring better outcomes for individual children — and more equitable school experiences for all. That’s because teacher support has a lasting influence on kids’ readiness to learn. When teachers withdraw from a student who misbehaves, the student absorbs the message that school is not a safe place; she continues to act out and becomes less willing and able to learn, a negative cycle that can continue for years. But a child who feels supported is more likely to be excited for school; she will persist amid challenges and make strides toward following expectations and absorbing academic content.

Positive reinforcement is especially important for a student who struggles with self-control, who may be accustomed to hearing only negative comments.

Clinical psychologist Amanda P. Williford offers two strategies for teachers to manage behavior problems — and reduce the stress these problems cause — by building strong, positive relationships with students. Williford, who teaches at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, presented these strategies at the latest convening of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Among other projects, Zaentz is convening a professional learning academy to support the development of early education leaders.

Managing Disruption — and Reducing Teacher Stress


Positive reinforcement — reacting to a child’s good behavior in a way that makes that behavior more likely to happen again — is a powerful tool for teachers. When an adult actively looks for actions to praise, she becomes more attuned to what a child is doing right, rather than wrong. The child, likewise, feels more supported by and comfortable around that teacher. This is especially important for a student who struggles with self-control, who may be accustomed to hearing only negative comments.

Reinforcement can improve a student’s academic performance, attention, cooperative play, and productivity. An emphasis on positive behaviors can also improve the greater classroom climate, by fueling a rapport between all students and teachers.

How to provide positive reinforcement:

  • Watch children closely — whether with peers, while working independently, or during transitions.
  • Provide positive feedback immediately after seeing a positive behavior.
  • Take the child’s preferences into account. If she likes sports, allow five extra minutes of basketball. If she enjoys being a helper, ask her to hold the door open for peers.
  • Make praise specific: “Great work cleaning up the blocks, Jordan,” or “I really appreciate how patiently you’re waiting, Damion!”
  • Praise persistence, practice, and improvement, rather than perfection, ease, or smartness. “I love how quickly you finished that puzzle!” may discourage children from trying when they’re struggling; “Nice job working so hard on that puzzle!” encourages children to continue to try to do their best.

Banking Time

“Banking time,” an intervention in which students and teachers get together for regularly scheduled, child-directed play sessions, helps build trust and comfort. In a randomized study of nearly 500 students, Williford found that this regular play — just 10 or 15 minutes, two or three times a week — lowered children’s cortisol levels and lowered the directiveness and negativity of teachers’ actions.

Four components of a child-directed play session:

  1. The teacher carefully observes the child’s words, behaviors, and feelings, and then copies them. If the student is making a pattern out of tiles, the teacher follows the same pattern.
    Why it’s important: It allows the child to take initiative and shows her that the teacher is interested in her ideas.
  2. The teacher narrates the child’s actions and repeats what the child says, with slight modifications. If a child picks up a tile and exclaims, “The blue one!” the teacher responds, “Yes, that’s the blue tile!”
    Why it’s important: It shows the child that the teacher supports her play, and it allows the child to “hear” her teacher’s voice internally at other times of the day.
  3. The teacher verbally labels the child’s emotional state — for example, “I can tell you’re getting frustrated trying to find the next color.”
    Why it’s important: It shows the child that her teacher understands her emotions, and that it’s okay to experience both positive and negative feelings. It also helps her pair words with feelings so that she can better express her emotions.
  4. Specific messages from the teacher can show the child that their relationship is important. For instance, the teacher might say, “I’m here to help” or “I’m interested in what you’re working on.”
    Why it’s important: These messages help the child define her relationship with her teacher and understand the positive role that adults play in her life

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