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A begin to ECSEL School Story – Part 2: Understanding Unkind Behaviors

Introduction: The Importance of Early Childhood Educators 

Welcome to the second installment of “begin to ECSEL School Stories,” our latest blog series where we explore common challenges that early childhood educators face on their journey to support children's emotional, cognitive, and social development.  

Early childhood teachers are tasked with one of the most important jobs in the world. In addition to children’s families, their teachers are responsible for ensuring children’s safety and well-being, healthy development, and learning. Most importantly, early childhood teachers are children’s every day models and guides for character and moral development, helping them grow into kind, empathetic, resilient individuals with a positive and secure sense of self. This is no easy task, but with the right strategies, tools, and language, early childhood educators can help shape the next generation into kind, caring, and empathetic individuals. We need to collectively teach children kindness, empathy, and prosocial behaviors, but how can we accomplish this?

Empathy, Kindness, and Prosocial Behaviors in Early Childhood 

Empathy, kindness, and prosocial behaviors are skills that need to be taught, nurtured, and practiced from birth. Empathetic teachers lead to empathetic learners. As children’s key socializers at school, early childhood teachers play a critical role in giving children opportunities to engage with others, learn key social skills, act with empathy, understand the perspectives of others, and grow into kind, resilient people.  

Emotional, Cognitive, and Social Challenges in Early Childhood 

As we know, the last few years have left their mark on children, families, teachers, and school leaders. Children, whose most important years were consumed by inconsistent learning environments, isolation, and stress, are now facing emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and social challenges. We are seeing increased meltdowns, temper tantrums, and disruptive behaviors in addition to difficulties with sharing, taking turns, compromising, negotiating, and demonstrating empathy. Children are struggling with using their words instead of actions, understanding how their behaviors impact others, hearing the perspectives of others, and finding solutions to social problems.  

Partnership with Ellis Early Learning 

Throughout our begin to ECSEL Educator Training Program partnership with our lab schools at Ellis Early Learning, we have seen firsthand how many of these challenging moments play out in the classroom and heard about the impact these moments have on the rest of the class from Ellis’ wonderful teachers and leaders. Teaching children kindness and empathy requires flexibility, practice, repetition, and lots of patience, but the more tools we have in our own toolkit, the better we are equipping children.  


Redirecting vs. Understanding Unkind Behaviors 

Watch an example of redirecting behavior of young children.

Redirecting behaviors is a common approach in early childhood. It involves guiding a child to focus their attention on something more positive in order to minimize a less desirable behavior, like hitting, biting, screaming, or pushing. We label these behaviors as “unkind,” and while that may be true, young children exhibit these behaviors because they are unable to access their words or a more constructive way of expressing their needs.  

Redirection on provides short term solutions for challenging behavior.Redirection strategies often include ignoring behaviors, using distractions, offering choices, and using positive reinforcement. While redirecting a child’s unkind behavior might create temporary change, it does not help the child understand why the behavior was harmful or unkind. We cannot control a child’s behavior, but we can help them understand the impact of their words and behaviors. Let’s explore what this looks like with an example. *All names have been changed for the purpose of this blog.


Video Transcript: During table choice time, Jaylin tried to grab a toy out of Drea’s hands. Drea screamed and hit Jaylin with the toy, causing him to burst into tears. The teacher rushed over to console Jaylin, turned to Drea and said, “No, I don’t like that” before taking Jaylin to another table to get some space and calm down. While the teacher helped Jaylin, ECSEL Coach, Lauren, used this as an opportunity to help Drea understand the impact of her behavior by saying, “Ouch! When you hit your friend, you hurt his body. I know you didn’t want him to take the toy, but hitting is never okay because it hurts. Next time, you can use your words to say, 'I’m using this toy now,' or you can always ask a teacher for help. Let’s go use our words to check in and see if Jaylin is okay.” Lauren brought the two children together and said, “Jaylin, Drea would like to check in with you. Are you okay?” Jaylin nodded, and Lauren used this moment to help Jaylin better understand how his behavior made Drea feel by saying, “I know you really wanted the toy, but when you grabbed it without asking Drea first, it made her feel really angry. Next time, you can use your words to ask Drea for a turn with the toy, or you can get a timer to help you take turns.”


Teaching Children to Understand Unkind Behaviors 

As a teacher in this moment, it can feel overwhelming when children are screaming and hitting and your immediate reaction may be to get children to stop exhibiting these behaviors. It may feel easier to redirect those behaviors by saying, “I don’t like that,” or “that isn’t kind,” but without helping the child understand the why, these behaviors are more likely to continue. 


Every social interaction is an opportunity to teach children key emotional, cognitive, and social skills. By using the following strategies and language, you can help children better understand why their behaviors are unkind in social situations, and open the door to more constructive emotional expressions and problem solving. 

Strategies & Language for Understanding Unkind Behaviors 

recognize identify and label feelingsRecognize, identify, and label what the child might be feeling by pointing out visual cues such as facial expressions, body language, and behaviors. For example, “I heard you scream and saw you hit Jaylin with a block. Were you feeling angry?”  


Connect emotions and behaviors to a causeConnect emotions and behaviors to a cause by guiding the child to consider what drove their actions. For example, “What made you hit Jaylin with the block?” 



Discuss how the behavior impacts othersDiscuss how the behavior impacts others to help the child understand why unkind behaviors aren’t okay in the development of empathy. For example, “Hitting Jaylin with the toy hurt his body. If a friend hit you, what would that make you feel? Would you want to listen to a friend who hits you? No, me neither.” 

Open the door to appropriate behaviorsWhen closing the door to an inappropriate behavior, always open the door to an appropriate one by helping the child think of what they can do instead. For example, “If you do not want to give the toy to Jaylin, what else can you do to let him know instead of hitting? Can you use your words?” 

Model kindness, empathy, and prosocial skillsModel kindness, empathy, and prosocial skills
to find a solution to the problem. For example, “Let’s check in with Jaylin together to make sure he’s okay. Then, we can try using words so he can understand you.”  


Follow-through and praiseFollow-through and praise the child for using their words and acting with kindness. For example, “You did it! You used your words to tell Jaylin that you didn’t want him to take your toy! It was also so kind of you to check in with him. I’m feeling so proud of that choice, are you feeling proud, too?” 


Just like every child, we know that every teacher and classroom is different and what works for some may not work for others. But, at the end of the day, when we as educators are able to meet children where they are and help them better understand their behaviors and emotions, we give them the tools to better navigate the world around them.  

We Want to Hear From You

If this ECSEL story resonated with you or if you are experiencing anything similar in your classroom, we want to hear from you! What kinds of behaviors are most challenging for you to navigate? What strategies work best for you? What strategies do not work for you?  Reach out to us in the comment section below. ⬇️

Stay tuned for the entire series! 

Part 1: Dealing with Disappointment 

Part 2: Understanding Unkind Behaviors 

Part 3: Turning Exclusion into Empathy 

Part 4: Effectively Communicating Our Own Feelings to Children 

Part 5: Navigating Co-Teaching Team Dynamics 



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