Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

sharonSharon Doubet is an associate professor in the department of Special Education at Illinois State University. Sharon’s research focuses on the development of young children ages birth to five, families of young children with disabilities, qualitative research methodology, and the social emotional development of young children. Her main teaching areas at ISU include early childhood special education, early intervention (Birth – 3 years), general special education, and assessment and instruction for young children. In this post, she gives us some fantastic insight into working with children with challenging behaviors. Read on for more…

Walk a mile in their shoes…..

While this saying is not new to most of us, it bears repeating as we, early childhood educators, review the relationships with the children and families we support.

We are going to focus this discussion on the perspectives of parents whose young children have challenging behaviors. These behaviors are persistent, have a repeated pattern, and interfere with the child’s opportunities to learn and have healthy relationships with peers and adults. We know that successful interventions to reduce challenging behaviors are based on a positive and collaborative relationship with parents. This is why I ask you to “walk a mile in their shoes.” Think about what life might be like for the parent and consider how you can encourage family collaboration in developing a plan to reduce the difficult behaviors.

In a recently published research study (Doubet & Ostrosky, 2014), results of parent interviews were analyzed to learn more about the experiences when parenting a young child with challenging behaviors. The participants were parents of children ages 3 to 5, in child care and/or preschool settings. Their children had all been expelled from their programs due to their challenging behaviors. Some of the young children had been expelled from multiple programs, even though they are very young.

The following quotes from this study will give you some insight into the parent’s experiences.

I go alone to the store now. Anything involving where there’s candy or toys, the outbursts are totally out of control – no, can’t do it anymore.

We tried to take Ben to a wedding over the summer, and had to leave before the reception, where other kids were just fine.

I don’t feel that we can go do a lot of fun stuff because of Brandt, because of his behavior. I’d rather just sit home and not do anything than have to deal with him in public.

Just at home, my stress level goes higher. And I could be in a good mood, and then, if he’s crying and whining – ‘cause he whines a lot and cries a lot. That really gets on my nerves. I get stressed out really easily about that. It makes me in a bad mood. Then everybody is like stressed out. There’s a lot of yelling and stuff.

He [Ben] hits his grandmother sometimes when he doesn’t get his way. We had one incident [biting] over the summer with his other grandmother. I can see that this is causing family problems for all of us.

He was removed [expelled] after a week at the new childcare center. I thought I was going to lose my mind. And they did it in a very unprofessional manner; they called him an “out-of-control nightmare.”

stress balls

I am very concerned about what was triggering him to do it [challenging behavior]. Because I am always trying to blame myself. I’m like—I’ve always worked and I’ve been in school for most of the time.

When asked about the impact of a child with challenging behaviors on her family, Brandt’s mother replied, “Stressful, embarrassing. Like ‘Oh, she can’t control her kids.’ And really – I can’t.”

He [Mark] has hurt his sister and me. He hits me, kicks me and his sister. Tantrums. Terrible. I walk away. Screaming, kicking, bounces his head off the wall, the floor, whatever, for attention. He does not hurt himself. He’s sent to his bed, if we’re at home. But if we’re somewhere else, then pretty much I don’t know what to do.

Because of the prematurity and everything that he [Nathan] went through, he was pretty spoiled, ‘cause we were just glad he was alive! And so, when he was ornery, we just giggled —because he’s funny and really cute,, “Oh, he’ll get better.” But….it has not gotten better.


Did you get the message? The parents are obviously stressed and feeling at a loss for ideas on how to support their child. Every parent interviewed expressed their feelings of sadness about now knowing how to help with their child’s behavior.

what can i do

So what can you do?

  1. Develop relationships with the parents of your students right away. Do not wait until you need to have a serious conversation.
  2. Acknowledge parents’ emotions and listen to their experiences. Recognize the stress the parent may be feeling.
  3. Be very clear that you want to work with them, as a team, to decrease challenging behaviors and increase healthy social emotional development of their child.
  4. Work with your program/school leaders to develop supports when children have challenging behaviors. Expelling a child, and their family, does not change behavior.
  5. Provide parents with community resources on this topic.
  6. Review and share resources and materials which are available to give guidance to programs in support of children with challenging behaviors (e.g., http://www.challengingbehavior.org/;


There is a clear call for help from all of the parents whose quotes you read. All of the parents cried during the interviews. All of the children were enrolled in early childhood programs/schools and had been expelled or were at-risk of expulsion due to their challenging behavior. Expulsion impacts the whole family, as well as extended family members, employers and society. Some parents reported losing their jobs due to missing work to care for their child; another had to leave a work training program aimed at helping her gain employment.

Unless you choose to consider the parent perspective, or “walk in their shoes,” you may be missing out on the one link that will help decrease challenging behavior and increase healthy social emotional development of the students with whom you work. Please consider the parents’ voices as you work to support every child in your classroom and your program/school. Every child – every day.

smile ball


Doubet, S. & Ostrosky, M. M. (2014). The impact of challenging behavior on families: I don’t know what to do. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education. DOI: 10.1177/0271121414539019

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