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Dealing with Challenging Behaviors: Making the Whole Child Connection

“We must allow teachers and students to interact as whole persons, and we must develop policies that treat the school as a whole community.” Nel Noddings

Seeing the Whole Person

Nel Noddings, a professor of education at Stanford and widely-published author, pushes for teachers to take a view of the “whole person” of a child. On the surface, it seems simple. Children are humans. Humans are people. People have needs and desires that need fulfillment in order to both survive and thrive. However, when it comes to actual classroom implementation, there may be a disconnect between teacher belief and practice. I have overheard the following explanations for asserting teacher authority over children’s behavior:

“They are just children, and we are the adults. They need us to tell them what to do and how to behave so they can learn.”

“We have to prepare them for grade school/college/life. Their other teachers/bosses won’t let them have as much freedom.”

“I was taught that way, and it made me into a successful adult.”

While I agree that children are still developing and do need guidance, we should also realize that adults are still developing too. Society is constantly changing, including the way that schools and workforces are designed. So, instead of imposing on children the need to learn or behave a particular way, we first need to look at them as a person with needs. Those needs – hunger, different levels of stimulation, friends, more sleep, understanding and sympathy, gentle guidance, choices, space to fail – affect a child’s behavior and how they react to different situations.

Freedom to Access What Each Body Needs

When dealing with challenging behaviors, such as meltdowns and tantrums, thinking of children as “whole people” is especially helpful. I remind myself of the freedoms an adult would have when they get upset, overwhelmed or frustrated. When faced with stressful situations, many adults know themselves well enough to choose a course of action that helps them cope. They may walk away from a problem and come back to it, talk with a friend about the stress, or go for a run. We trust adults when they decide to handle their emotions with actions, but oftentimes, we do not let children do the same and the behaviors escalate.

Edward is struggling to sit still during circle time. He starts by rocking his body back and forth and accidentally bumps into Ellie. “Ouch,” Ellie cries. “Edward hit me!”

“Edward, remember that you need to sit still in circle time. Look what you did when you didn’t listen. You hurt Ellie,” the teacher tells him, trying to be gentle in her rebuke.

Edward tries to sit still again, but he really needs to move, so he gets up to move to a new space. Then, he gets up again and lies upside down over the couch, head towards the floor. Finally, his body was calming down.

“Edward, I’ve told you to sit still, and that is not how you sit on the couch. If you can’t sit still with us in the circle, you can sit on a chair.”

Think back to the last time you were in a workshop or training. Did you get up to go to the bathroom when you needed it? Did you stand behind your chair when you got restless or doodle on your note pad? Probably at some point, you took charge of your own needs, and you were given the freedom to do so. We need to give children the same options.

In the scenario above, Edward tried to respect his needs. His body needed to move to help him stay focused. Boys Alive! founder Janet Allison speaks to children’s (especially boys’) need to process learning through movement and how to read and respond to such body signals (such as moving, wiggling, tapping, and needing to get up for water, etc). When we view these actions as indicators about what the child really needs in the moment instead of distractions and misbehavior, then we are in a better position to meet their “challenging behaviors” and even stem them off before they begin.

Giving Children Space to Choose What They Need

In the words of one of my former professors, “What’s the harm?” If the teacher in the above scenario had let Edward lie upside down on the couch, what harm would it have caused him or the other children? His body was finally able to calm down that way. Research shows that many children with sensory processing disorders or sensitivities respond well to the blood rush to the brain. As a result, they seek it out through actions like, fast movement, bodily inversions and spinning in circles.

By the end of Edward’s circle time, not only was he deprived of caring for his needs, he was also forced to sit away from his peers. The most disheartening part of the scenario is that the teacher felt she was offering gentle support and constructive solutions for Edward for the future. Most teachers approach such situations with the best of intentions. But in treating them as opportunities to teach discipline, rather than attend to the child’s needs, they miss the opportunity to help children learn important self-regulation strategies.

A better option would have been to offer Edward (and even the whole class) a variety of coping choices, such as, asking him if he would like to move to the back to have plenty of wiggle room, allowing him to stay inverted, or letting him know that chairs are available if he would like to bring one into the circle. He could have also been offered the chance to get a drink of water and return to the circle, which would have given him opportunity for movement and helped decrease the cortisol flowing through his body. These options (plus many more) would have respected his needs and helped him learn coping techniques for the next time he struggled to sit still. And, with the right supportive coaching, he would be better able to know and ask for what he needs, which would help cut off disruptive behavior before it began

Disruptive and challenging behavior will often go beyond wiggling too much in circle time. Sometimes the situations aren’t as simple, and the solutions are much more complex. However, whether dealing with children who just have to move or dealing with children who are prone to meltdowns or even violence, the core question still remains for teachers. Am I seeing them as a person? Am I meeting their needs or allowing them the space to meet their needs?

Over the coming months, I will dive into more depth on the issue, including how to pick your battles, more ways to decrease challenging behaviors and attitudes, and what consequences are and should be. Until then though, I challenge you to find the disconnects between your own beliefs and actions. We all have them, and when we find them can become more intentional in our teaching.


Alison, J. (2014). Boys Alive! helps parents and teachers raise better boys. Retrieved from

Noddings, N. (2005). What Does it Mean to Educate the Whole Child? ASCD,63(1), 8-13.

Sensory Processing Disorder - STAR Institute. Retrieved from

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