Understanding Preschoolers with Special Needs: Disruptive Behavior Disorders

Dealing with a defiant child

All preschoolers have times when they fight over toys, push or hit others, raise their voices, or have an occasional temper tantrum. These are normal for preschoolers because they do not yet have the language skills, social abilities, and problem-solving skills to help them cope when they become angry or tired. For some preschoolers and children, these negative behavior issues intensify and become more of a problem. Their patterns of aggressive and defiant behavior are heightened and go beyond what is normal for their age. These extreme behaviors are known as disruptive behavior disorders.

Disruptive behavior disorders are conditions that are diagnosed by a pediatrician as defined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). These conditions include oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder. Preschoolers and children with disruptive behavior disorders exhibit behaviors such as extreme defiance and resistance to authority. They are aggressive, impulsive, and argumentative. They might lash out to hurt other children or adults, always blame others for conflicts, and are unwilling to follow rules.1

If you care for a preschooler who has behavior issues, there are things you can do to help this preschooler while he or she is in your class at church.

  • Pray for the preschooler and her family. Pray that God will help you to show God’s love to the preschooler even when you need to be firm. Pray for wisdom in knowing the best ways to help the preschooler when she exhibits negative behaviors while in your class.

  • Look at the teacher-to-child ratio of your preschool group. Having another adult in the class will give this preschooler greater interactions with those who can help diffuse behavior issues.

  • Consider the number of preschoolers in the class. Too many preschoolers in a space is a recipe for disaster for the preschooler with behavior issues. You may need to think about dividing the group into 2 classes.

  • Follow a schedule for your class each week. A preschooler with behavior issues particularly needs the consistency of following the same schedule for each session. It may even help him to see a visual of your schedule on a chart or poster so he can be reminded of what the class will do next.

  • Plan activities that keep preschoolers engaged. Find out the types of activities that are of interest to this preschooler. In our Mission Friends class, we were having some behavior issues with one of our boys. I noticed that he gravitated to the Blocks interest area each week, so I started making sure to include the Blocks activity from Mission Friends Leader each session. I added different props for missions learning in the area. I took photos of his block structures. The behavior issues started to diminish as he was engaged in an activity he enjoys.

  • Remove furniture or toys that are not necessary in your classroom. Are there too many tables or chairs? Are there too many papers and posters on the walls? Remove these extra items as a preventative measure. As an example, one evening I arrived at our Mission Friends classroom to find a large plastic school bus structure in the room. I realized after a couple of weeks that this was now permanent in the room. It became a cause of behavior issues as preschoolers climbed on top, fought over who could sit inside (only 2 seats), and became extremely loud with it. The bus had nothing to do with the missions areas we were learning about in Mission Friends, so my co-teacher and I decided to move the bus into the hallway before each session. The behavior issues in our class stopped immediately, and we gained the large amount of space it took up.

  • Understand what to expect from preschoolers at each stage of development. Plan activities according to the age and stage of your group. A 2-year-old should not be expected to cut with scissors on a line, but a kindergartner may have the fine motor skills to do this. The online Develop course, Uniquely Designed: Preschoolers, will help you learn more about the ages and stages of preschoolers.

  • Look for patterns of when the behavior issues occur. Do behavior problems happen during cleanup time? During the transition to Group Time? When dropped off at the beginning of a session? Toward the end of your session? Noticing these patterns will give you clues so that you are able to ward off potentially explosive situations.

  • Let the preschooler know that you cannot allow her to hurt herself, other preschoolers, or adults.

  • Teach problem-solving skills. Remind preschoolers to use their words. Ask questions that will help the preschooler think of a solution to a difficulty.

  • Provide ways for a preschooler to express frustration. Remember that preschoolers do not always have the words to be able to express themselves. Give opportunities to pound play dough or tear paper.

  • Provide a place for the preschooler to calm himself. This is not so much a punishment, as in “time out,” but rather a time to settle himself by reading a book, putting a puzzle together, or sitting quietly to draw.

  • If behavior issues escalate and become a problem, talk with the preschooler’s parent at a time when you can have a private conversation. Avoid discussing behavior issues in front of the preschooler. Talk with the parent, not with an attitude of contempt, but rather seeking their help in knowing the best practices for you to use. Ask what methods work well when there are behavior issues at home or at the preschooler’s child-care center.

Realize that the preschooler is watching you in those times when you become angry or frustrated with her behavior issues. Remain calm yourself, and remember to show the fruits of the Spirit (from Gal. 5:22–23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) as you guide the preschooler when there are behavior issues.


1Disruptive Behavior Disorders, American Academy of Pediatrics, healthychildren.org, 2018.

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