How to Manage Difficult or Disruptive Preschool Students: Do You Have a Negative Nellie or Disruptive Dave in Your Class?

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The Teacher’s Role

As an early childhood educator, it is your job to ensure the safety and well-being of the students in your care. This means that it will often fall on your shoulders to come up with solutions to simple classroom management and behavior issues. Do you have a difficult student in your classroom that has exhausted your bag of tricks? Cast your worries aside, there are several simple classroom management and behavior modification techniques that you can try when you meet a challenging child.

Keep in mind that in order to effectively manage a disruptive or difficult student, it will be necessary to clear your mind of any negative thoughts or reports from his earlier teachers. Each child deserves a clean slate. Begin every day with a promise to yourself that you will not let any of the previous day’s incidents or behaviors influence the way you handle today’s challenges.


A simple behavior observation technique that works well with very young children is shadowing. In order to shadow effectively, a teacher must be available to run the rest of the classroom without your help for at least a few hours. With shadowing, a teacher follows a consistently disruptive student through her entire day. The teacher can take notes on specific triggers that seem to cause the negative behaviors, other students that the disruptive child has difficulties with, or any particular activities that are difficult or tantrum inducing for the child. Careful observation and using the documentation to create anecdotal records will give you a firsthand look at any patterns that may emerge that will shed some light on a difficult student. Once the shadowing is complete, a plan to modify the child’s behavior can be researched and put into place.

The Parent Meeting

Many teachers dread parent meetings. They may be afraid that the parents will be unwilling to hear any of their concerns, or worried about disappointing the parents or not meeting their expectations. Whatever the reason, meetings with parents do not have to be confrontational, difficult or scary. Parents want what is best for their child, and you are their partner in meeting that need.

Approach the parent meeting prepared with observations, documentation, pictures, artwork and other materials that you can share with the parents. Be sure to highlight the child’s positive traits as well as any negative behaviors you may be facing. Before outlining your plan of action for the disruptive child, ask for the parent’s suggestions as to how to handle these behavior difficulties. Listen to and take to heart anything the parent suggests, since they do know their child best. Write down any ideas the parents may have regarding discipline techniques, reward systems and creative guidance.

Before the meeting ends, be sure the parents know which direction you are going to take when dealing with behavior difficulties with their child. Be sure they understand how you are going to deal with things at school and make sure they agree that this is the best approach. Attempt to include some of their suggestions into your action plan.

Individualized Lesson Planning

Sometimes, there is a lot more to a disruptive student than just simple behavior modification can fix. If a student has a delay that has yet to be diagnosed, his learning difficulties may cause him to act out in class. Or, if the child is just not quite at the same academic level as his peers, either excelling or struggling, this can cause behavior difficulties and disruptions to the daily plan.

For students that you suspect may need an accelerated or modified lesson plan, consider individualized planning. For example, if you have planned a sequencing activity for a small group, manipulative or math lesson, consider modifying it to make it appropriate for the learning level of your disruptive student. Add an extra challenge for a child whose academic level soars above the rest of the class. Add a few more clues to a patterning or sequencing activity for a child who struggles with the activity. Knowing ahead of time what will trigger a negative behavior or disruption to your daily routine will help you plan accordingly.

Many times, a disruptive student is looking for a way to stand out or be special and may attempt to get the attention he seeks in a negative way. Offer an attention-seeking child the chance to be an older “buddy” to a new or younger student. Tell him that you need his help and he is to show his younger friend all of the important things he needs to know about preschool. Giving him a job to take pride in will often wipe away his need to act negatively to gain attention.


  • Reference: “Understanding Children”; Judith A. Schikedanz; 1995

This post is part of the series: Preschool Classroom Management Techniques

This series includes a how to article outlining strategies to manage disruptive preschoolers as well as an article discussing normal preschool behavior that may be percieved as negative or inappropriate.

  1. Disruptive Students: How to Handle A Difficult Preschooler
  2. Understanding Normal Behavior in Early Childhood Education