‘You are not alone’

Dealing with ‘challenging behavior’ was topic for 52 early childhood professionals

Keynote speaker Barb O’Neill, an early childhood consultant and trainer, shares a strategy of singing songs to increase children’s engagement and to support them during daily transitions like washing hands after playtime during a daylong workshop at the Imua Family Services office in Kahului on Saturday. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Screaming, hitting, kicking, biting. Dealing with a defiant child — especially in the throes of a meltdown — can be challenging, to say the least. Even so, it’s not an impossible feat, assured early childhood consultant and trainer Barb O’Neill.

“I know it can be frustrating, even discouraging, but you are not alone if you’re struggling with challenging behavior,” she said.

O’Neill addressed a group of 52 early childhood professionals representing 27 organizations and institutions Saturday as the keynote speaker for a daylong workshop hosted by Imua Family Services at the organization’s Kahului office. Drawing on her decadeslong experience as a preschool teacher, special education teacher and early childhood and special education professor, the Los Angeles-based O’Neill routinely visits inclusive preschools, Head Start programs and early childhood centers throughout the country to help teachers, teaching assistants and administrators tackle challenging behavior in the classroom.

“Challenging behavior” can run the gamut from temper tantrums and noncompliance to more aggressive or self-injurious behavior that can endanger a child as well as his or her classmates, explained Imua Family Services Program Director Bobbie-Jo Moniz-Tadeo.

During Saturday’s workshop, O’Neill shared tried-and-true prevention and mitigation strategies to manage challenging behavior in the classroom — and at home, too.

Barb O’Neill leads a breakout session titled “Preventing Challenging Behavior at Circle Time and During Transitions” on Saturday morning at Imua Family Services in Kahului. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Among other things, O’Neill underscored the importance of leveraging a child’s propensity for play.

“Play is where it’s at when it comes to behavior,” she said.

Rather than taking a punitive approach to challenging behavior, using a play- or performing arts-based approach — telling interactive stories, using puppets, singing songs with directions embedded in the lyrics — can increase engagement during “circle time” and help children transition from one activity to another more easily.

O’Neill also advised building on a child’s individual strengths and interests. Whether it’s dragons, kittens or firetrucks, incorporating a child’s interests into his or her classroom experience is another way to prevent or mitigate challenging behavior.

“We can use their strengths and interests to set them up for success,” she said. “This is how we can get a child to be more engaged, cooperative and stay on task.”

Bobbie-Jo Moniz-Tadeo

O’Neill’s message extends far beyond the preschool classroom. According to a 2016 Yale University study, pre-schoolers are expelled at three times the rate of K-12 students because of challenging behaviors like aggression, tantrums and noncompliance. This isn’t just costly for parents, it can also have a detrimental, and lasting, impact on a child, O’Neill said. Research shows that preschool children who exhibit challenging behavior that goes unchecked tend to struggle academically and socially throughout their formative years and are more likely to drop out of high school.

“If we help them during their preschool years, we can turn this trajectory around,” O’Neill said. “We need to ask ourselves: ‘What can we do every day to make a difference?'”

Imua Family Services hosts annual thematic workshops for educators, child care providers and parents that cover a range of topics, including behavior management, speech and language development and teaching friendship skills to children.

“We change it up every year to keep it interesting,” said Dean Wong, executive director of Imua Family Services.

The nonprofit organization asked O’Neill to headline this year’s workshop after taking note of an increasing trend, Wong said.

Dean Wong

“We’ve had an influx of phone calls asking for (preschool) referrals based on challenging behavior,” he said. “Not only is it a highly relevant topic, but Dr. O’Neill’s play-based philosophy is in alignment with Imua’s philosophy.”

On Friday, O’Neill led an in-service workshop for 50 Imua Family Services staff members.

“She worked with our program directors and gave recommendations based on Imua’s current population and concerns,” Wong explained.

The nonprofit organization is home to Imua Inclusion Preschool, which serves children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old.

Imua Family Services is the largest single provider of early childhood intervention and development programs in the state. In 1947, a group of concerned parents and community members created the organization to help children with polio and cerebral palsy. Seventy years later, it now serves close to 2,000 children and their families on Maui, Molokai and Lanai, and offers family-centered, therapeutic services for infants, toddlers and preschool children, from birth to age 6. Services include an infant child development program, early childhood development program, autism services, newborn hearing screening, Dream Imua (formerly “A Keiki’s Dream”) and Camp Imua, an overnight recreational camp for school-age children with special needs.

To learn more about Imua Family Services, visit www.imuafamilyservices.org. For more information about O’Neill’s workshops, visit www.transformchallengingbehavior.com.


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