5 Tips for Dealing with "Acting Out" in Your Classroom

We have had an exciting and productive start to our Core Child Program, both our morning program for 4-5 year olds and now our 6-8 year old after school program. But of course, no classes are without challenges, and one specific challenge that all teachers face – no matter their years of experience or expertise – is dealing appropriately and productively with “acting out” behavior. We use “acting out” to refer to a wide range of behaviors exhibited by children in the classroom – for example, refusing to participate in an activity, raising their voice, hitting, distracting classmates, and engaging in activities other than the class activity – all of which are indicative of deeper issues that the child may be struggling with and his or her resulting feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, or boredom. To put it shortly, “acting out” can refer to a number of different behaviors with countless different root causes. For teachers, that is the most important point to remember: the type of “acting out” behavior, and the reasons, are so varied that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Dealing productively with challenging behavior in the classroom is not intuitive to most. For that reason, our Core Program teachers and volunteers undergo a rigorous pre-session training, part of which involves role-playing in-class ‘acting out’ scenarios.


The role-play in our recent PM volunteer training revealed the important difference between understanding how to handle “acting out” versus being able to implement those ideas on the spot during class. In that moment, it is helpful to have a few key tips ready at hand. Last week, our Core team reflected on our most tried and true techniques.

From TYO’s Core Program teachers, here are 5 tips for dealing with “acting out” in your classroom:

1. Verbally acknowledge the child's behavior and validate his or her feelings. When a child is acting out, he or she is trying to send you an important message about a particular need or desire. It is important to acknowledge the behavior, thereby acknowledging that the child has something important to express. The best way to do that is through clear and direct language: “Karim, I see that you do not want to participate in our game. I also see that you are very upset, and it makes me sad to see that. How can I help you?”

2. Encourage clear communication from the child. You have clearly communicated what you observe and feel to the child, so now encourage him or her to do the same. Encourage the child to express him/herself using similar “I-statements,” for example “I miss my friend Baha, who is in a different class. I do not want to play with our class because I do not know anyone here.” It is important for you to truly listen and engage with the child to understand his or her needs; do not rush the conversation. That shows the child that his/her negative feelings are normal and okay, and that communicating clearly with words will gain the child the attention s/he desires.

3. Empower the child with choices. Acting out is often about wanting to exert control over a situation where a child does not have the options s/he desires. We experience this acutely at TYO, where many of our children come from challenging home environments with limited or no options; for example, children must either stay home in small, enclosed spaces with little room to play, or else go out in the streets where the nature of play is aggressive and dangerous. Offering alternative options is hugely empowering for our children. In the example above, you could say “Karim, I know that you want to see your friend Baha. If you want, we can either visit his class for 5 minutes right now, or we can give both of you 30 minutes after classes to play in the playground together.” The child is now empowered to choose between two positive options, rather than facing a singular and frustrating situation.

4. Bring yourself to the child’s level -- literally. Again, dealing with “acting out” behavior is all about acknowledging the importance of the child and the validity of his or her feelings. Body language is just as important as words. Kneel down to the eye level of the child while you try to understand his or her needs and offer options; it sends a message of respect – that you value what the child has to say, and that you want to work together to agree on a solution.

5. Follow up with positive reinforcement. Sustained attention throughout the process – from acknowledging the behavior, to offering choices, to agreeing on and implementing a solution – shows the child that clear verbal communication can also win him or her the attention s/he desires. In the future, when the child verbally expresses his or her needs rather than acting out, offer clear and specific praise: “Thank you Karim for using words to express what you need. It makes me happy because now I can help you.”

We hope you find these tips helpful! Comment below to let TYO’s Core team know how these techniques worked in your classroom and what other strategies you use.

- Niralee, TYO Core Child Program Manager