Does This Child’s Behavior Warrant Hiring a Consultant?

by Barb O’Neill, Ed.D
Trainer, Coach, and Founder of Transform Challenging Behavior

Let’s consider Brandon. He’s four. He has his good days and his bad days, but the bad days are really bad. At center time he often rushes into the block area, smashing the other children’s towers while exclaiming that he is a knocking them down with his fiery dragon breath. If the other children tell him to stop, then he runs away. When his teachers try to redirect him to another activity things often escalate. He has thrown chairs. He often kicks and spits at his teachers. If this happens in the morning, the cycle often repeats at least once during the day. Naptime and transitions are daily struggles.

As a center director you may lose hours in your day because the teachers call you in for help once Brandon starts misbehaving. You are frustrated that the teachers don’t follow through with the preventative strategies you recommend. Maybe you’re at your wits end because the family doesn’t return calls, follow through, or show up for meetings. Perhaps you’re worried that other families will pull their children out of the program and stressed out because Briana’s mother has come to you for the third time this month angry that Brandon hurt her.

So you’re wondering, does Brandon’s behavior warrant hiring a consultant?

But the severity and frequency of the child’s behavior does not hold the answer to the question of whether or not to bring in outside help.

The problem with challenging behavior is that we think the behavior is the problem!

But it’s not.

The behavior is a sign that something’s not working. Something needs to be done.

It could be that some of the classroom activities provided are stressing Brandon out because they are not reasonable for his age or developmental ability.

Maybe the expectations are not culturally appropriate or are very different from expectations at home!

Perhaps the behavior has something to do with the fact that the family is in crisis…or Brandon’s feeling emotionally distraught because mom works two jobs and he barely sees her. Maybe there’s something going on in the child’s life that is upsetting and the behavior is an indirect expression of the child’s duress – a death in the family, a new baby, moving to a new home.

Or maybe everything is fine at home but the child and his or her family speaks Spanish or Russian or Chinese or French or Hmong and you and your teachers don’t. Ever been in an environment where nobody speaks your language? Stressful. It’s hard to communicate your wants and needs and incredibly frustrating.

Maybe the child has a language delay or an undiagnosed disability and the behavior is due to their inability to communicate verbally. If you suspect that, start documenting it right away and advocate for the family to have the child evaluated for special education services (they may take awhile to get on board with that idea or never agree).

Regardless of whether or not the child would benefit from a full evaluation and consideration for special education services the behavior is an indication that he or she does not know how to express his or her wants and needs more appropriately or is refusing to do so.

The challenging behavior is probably an indication that more could be done to promote children’s social-emotional skill development in this classroom. Some classrooms simply don’t have a thorough and intentional enough social-emotional curriculum in place even though the teachers might be committed to teaching certain skills such as sharing during “teachable moments” and they probably also read books like the Rainbow Fish, with the intention of promoting social skills.

In Brandon’s case, in addition to an increase in skills taught to the whole class, he may need a tailored positive behavioral support plan. This might include prevention strategies such as creating and reading social stories that teach how to behave in the block corner, using visual cues and individual reminders for transitions, giving him words to say in various circumstances rather than just telling him to “use his words” (which words!?), and proactively teaching self-regulation strategies like the turtle technique or calming belly breathing.

The fact that these preventative measures are not currently taught to the whole class may be part of what is missing. Likewise, the environmental arrangement of the classroom or unrealistic teacher expectations might be contributing to the behavior. There might even be a self-fulfilling prophecy that is happening at this point.

In any case Brandon is not set up for success.

In most cases the behavior is the product of a confluence of these and other factors, resulting in a mismatch between the child and the environment. By environment I mean both the physical and interpersonal environment, so that includes our interactions with children.

In terms of whether you need to bring in an outside consultant the question is:

Do you and your staff have the knowledge, confidence, and skills to support children like Brandon, who exhibit challenging behavior, and can you make the necessary changes to set them up for success?

If not, then it is probably time to get some outside help.

It can be easy to focus on the behavior as the problem and locate the cause of the problem in the child and family.

However, if you are struggling in your collaboration with the family then I respectfully suggest that we can take that in and of itself as a sign that you and/or your staff have not quite reached the necessary level of confidence, knowledge and skills. Working with challenging families and supporting them to (maybe, hopefully, but not always) have their child evaluated is part of the knowledge and skills needed in these circumstances. Also needed is a willingness to not overly focus on what the family is not doing and a commitment to take day-to-day steps to continue to support the child even when family collaboration seems impossible. This is part of what’s needed if we are to turn around this epidemic of challenging behavior in our field.

If you think that you and your staff might not quite yet have the knowledge, confidence and skills needed to support children who exhibit challenging behavior and their families, the good news is that there is help!

Also, you might have confidence, knowledge and skill for supporting children who use challenging behavior but you just might not have the time or wherewithal to adequately train and support your staff. In that case it might save you time, money and stress in the long run to outsource this to someone else.

There are lots of good consultants across the country (and some of us travel!). Behavioral and mental health consultants, whether they work through government-funded programs or independently, can provide a range of services to help you and your staff to effectively support children who exhibit challenging behavior and their families.

These services may include:

  • Revising your challenging behavior policy and child guidance philosophy
  • Develop easy-to-implement training materials you can use to orient new staff
  • Assess your staff’s strengths and professional development needs
  • Create a professional development plan within your budget
  • Coach you in supporting teachers struggling with children’s behavior
  • Free up your time by providing direct coaching to teachers
  • Create a positive behavioral support plan for one or more children
  • Teach innovative collaboration strategies by leading parent-teacher meetings
  • Provide on-site training in one or more of the following areas:
    • supporting children with disabilities and promoting inclusion
    • how to support dual language learners
    • teaching children to play cooperatively with peers
    • managing effective transitions and circle times
    • developing or adopting a social-emotional skill curriculum
    • developing positive behavioral support plans

A good consultant should take the time to speak with you in depth, help you assess your needs, and tell you whether and how they think they can help you.  Doing your own needs assessment before speaking with a prospective consultant can help you feel confident in deciding whether it’s a good fit.  To thoroughly assess your needs in this area check out: Need Help with Challenging Behavior? An Early Childhood Director’s Quiz.

The quiz will help you take your next steps. Maybe the next step is simply continuing to do the good work you’re doing. Perhaps it includes reading the latest recommendations for preventing challenging behavior and promoting social-emotional development.

Or maybe you do need and want the help of an outside consultant or trainer so that you and your staff can better support the children who exhibit challenging behavior in your program and set them up for success.

What next step can you take today?

Find your consultant at

Barb O’Neill, Ed.D. helps early childhood directors tackle and transform challenging behavior in their programs. She is based in LA, works frequently in NY, and offers both onsite and remote training, coaching and consulting. You can find out more about Barb’s services at Transform Challenging Behavior and visit her profile at