How Charting Behaviors Helps: Tantrums and Aggression

Angry little boy glaring and fighting with his brother

Charting behaviors like tantrums or aggression is often done by teachers in the classroom, so they can quickly gain a better understanding of what is happening. It is something parents can easily do at home. Charting means keeping detailed and consistent notes about the behavior. If a child were tantruming often in my classroom or at home, I’d start a notebook and for every tantrum I’d jot down:

  • Where it was
  • When it was
  • Who else was around or involved
  • What seemed to set it off (trigger)
  • Any signs child was about to tantrum (cues)
  • How long it lasted
  • What they did during
  • How they calmed down
  • What happened after

Once you’ve taken notes for several tantrums, you can look across the notes for patterns. If it’s always the same time of day, maybe move snack earlier or rearrange that time of the day. If it’s the same place or happening when interacting with the same children, look at how you can change the space or separate the children. Coach the triggers directly. If turn taking triggered your child’s tantrums, make a plan to coach turn taking later in the day by reading a story about taking turns, role play taking turns or give a puppet show about taking turns. The idea is to teach them how to better manage when the trigger happens. Use the cues to better intervene before future tantrums. For some children, a cue would be their voice going up a notch or getting really whiney before the tantrum starts. If you know the cue and know the tantrum is about to start, you can intervene just before with empathy, positive intent or choices to calm and distract away from the tantrum.

Here’s a helpful post about using triggers and cues to lessen tantrums.

By charting the behavior and reviewing your notes, you are in a much better place to address the tantrums.

Likewise, if a child were being aggressive often in my classroom or at home, I’d start a notebook and for every aggressive behavior I’d jot down:

  • Where it was
  • When it was
  • Who else was around or involved
  • What seemed to set it off (trigger)
  • Any signs the child was about to be aggressive (cues)
  • What actually happened
  • What happened after
  • Any discipline given

Again, this information is meant to show patterns and give you a better chance to intervene and in the long run curb the aggression. If it’s a particular time, place or person, make changes accordingly. Triggers are what sets off the behavior, and cues are signs it’s about to happen. Children who are aggressive often tend to have fairly consistent triggers and cues. You can coach the triggers, and intervene on the cues.

A few years ago, I got a phone call from a preschool. They had a two-year-old girl who was biting people often. My first questions included, “who is she biting? Where is she biting? And, when is she biting?” and, “did you notice any triggers or cues?” The answers were all, “good question.” So they took notes for a week. When we spoke again they said, “We can see it coming. She only bites people if they approach her, and she is holding stuff.” It’s a don’t touch my stuff bite. Knowing that, the teachers can focus on teaching her to say “stop,” or “mine,” when others approach. They can have her sit down, or just stay within arms reach when they see her holding stuff. They also noticed consistent cues. They said, “she gets this wild look in her eye, her mouth flies open, and then she lunges.” Scary as that is, the wild look gives them a few second to remind her to say “mine,” or hold her or say “freeze,” or say “run,” to the other child.

Here is a helpful post about discipline for aggression.

Preventing Tantrums : Emotion Language, Triggers and Cues

Tantrum child with mom

When children are tantrumming often, parents just want it to stop. Part of stopping tantrums is working to prevent them in the first place. Teaching your child emotion language and knowing their triggers and cues can go a long way towards prevention.

Children need emotion language to better express their upsets. When they can label their emotions and talk about why they are feeling that way, they are much less likely to fall on the ground kicking and screaming. When they can say, “I am mad! I didn’t like that!” in the moment, they are less likely to tantrum. There are MANY ways to teach children emotion language.

  • Use I messages – I messages are a productive way to label and share your emotions. They are also considered a foundation step of positive discipline. I messages label your emotions and explain why you feel that way while putting blame on the behavior or thing that happened rather than the child. Let’s say a child runs through the living room, and knocks over and breaks your lamp. An I message might be, “I am angry, my lamp is broken,” “I am upset, people are running in the house,” or, “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The blame is passive (my lamp is broken) or global (no one is listening, people are running). This avoids blaming the child, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp. You never listen.”
  • Give empathy – Empathy is validating your child’s emotions and why they feel that way. Often this can happen in the moment, and it’s also fine to provide this following an emotional exchange when all is calm. Empathy sounds like, “wow, you are angry. You didn’t like that game,” or, “I know you are upset, it’s so hard to be left out.”
  • Talk about others’ emotions – Discuss the sad baby you hear crying in the grocery store or the angry child who was having a fit at the playground. Label emotions, talk about things that make them feel that way or what others could do to help.
  • Be sure to include causes and consequences of emotions – At least occasionally in these conversations, discuss what came before the emotion or what happened as a result.
  • Read about emotions – There are so many good children’s books on emotions.  There is a list on my blog at
  • Tell your own stories with emotional content – If you are at all creative, tell your own stories with emotional content. When our girls were little, we told a lot of Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarkably like our daughter Alicen, and Catie just like our daughter Claire. If Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and Katie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should all provide examples of positive ways to manage and express emotions and ways to calm.
  • Ask hypotheticals – As children are four and five years old, you can ask hypotheticals related to their own experiences. If your child gets angry over sharing toys, you might ask, “what would you do if you really wanted to play with a particular car, and your friend was using it and kept saying ‘no’ to giving a turn?”  If needed, help brainstorm good choices and discuss possible outcomes.
  • Role play emotions – Go back and reenact emotional situations. If it was an upset with another child, take turns being each child involved and think of ways it could have gone better.
  • Give puppet shows – Most kids love a puppet show. Again, it’s good to make these about familiar exchanges.
  • Play emotion charades – Play charades, just be sure to include emotions as a category.
  • Make emotion faces in the mirror and to each other – Talk about how we know someone is angry, excited, sad or happy.
  • Make an emotions poster – Divide a poster board into 6 squares labeled happy, sad, excited, mad, surprised and scared. Provide assorted magazines, then help children cut out and paste emotion faces and things that make them feel each way.  You might write in each box additional things that make them feel that way or any other thoughts they have about that emotion.
  • Listen to and discuss emotional music – Listen together to sad, exciting or happy music. Then, talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
  • Paint emotion pictures – You might paint emotion posters while you listen to the emotional music.
  • Sing emotion songs – We sing “When You’re Happy and You Know It” and include movements like clapping for happy, stomping feet for mad and crying for sad.
  • Learn more – For more ideas, you can read Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Lantieri or Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Blaine. You can also attend or listen online to my workshop on emotional development and emotion coaching.

Triggers are what sets your child off. Tantrum triggers fall into three categories including situational triggers, social triggers and parent stress level. Knowing what sets your child off, allows you to see it coming in the moment and to teach your child how to better manage out of the moment.

  • Situational triggers – Situational triggers include the child being hungry or tired.  As a parent, this one falls on you to stay ahead of or fix. If you child tantrums from hunger, carry crackers in your bag and feed them healthy snacks more often. If your child tantrums from being tired, look at their sleep in the 24 hour period, check their nap schedule and build quiet time into their day.
  • Social triggers – Social triggers are harder. This is a child that tantrums over having to share toys, being told “no” or not being first at something. The answer here is to teach your child how to better move through these moments. If the difficulty is over sharing toys then read and discuss children’s books about sharing, role play taking turns, tell stories or give puppet shows about sharing and taking turns, draw pictures of it going well and then coach them through it in the moment. Avoiding the trigger doesn’t work. If you end all playdates because your child falls to pieces over sharing, then your child loses the opportunities they need to practice.
  • Parent stress level – This one can be hard to see. When parents are particularly stressed, children tend to tantrum more. It may be that they are reflecting the level or tone of emotion they feel in the house. It may be that because you are stressed, you are preoccupied. When you are preoccupied, you might not be as in touch as you usually are, and they have to get bigger and louder to get your attention. When you are stressed, do you seeing them rubbing their eyes, or do they have to be dragging on the floor to see they are tired? Do you recognize their frown, or do they have to be sobbing to get you to see they are sad? If they have to be dragging or sobbing, they will likely tantrum more because you are just not paying attention. This can often be tied back to your stress level. I’m not saying be super-parent and never feel stressed, just recognize when you are and the role it might play.

Cues are signs your child is about to lose it. Some kids do go zero to sixty, they are walking along and then BOOM, they are on the floor in full-tantrum. Most kids though, do give you a warning or a cue. Sometimes they are generous and give you a few minutes notice, other times it’s just a few seconds. The trick is to recognize your child’s cues and then intervene when they happen, before the tantrum. Some kids get fidgety, others get whiny or loud. It could be as slight as narrowing their eyes or their shoulders getting tense. There are several ways to intervene that may avoid the tantrum.

  • Distraction – Distraction, before the tantrum, is fine while it works. For most kids, at some point, this just doesn’t work. While you are using distraction in the moment, you still want to be teaching emotion language and teaching them ways to better manage when the triggers happen.
  • Empathy – Giving empathy means you validate your child’s emotions, even when you disagree with those emotions in the moment. Let’s say your four-year-old loses at a game and throws the pieces across the room, denying their emotions (what you want to avoid) would be saying, “you shouldn’t be so angry, it’s just a game.” Giving empathy (what you want to do) would be saying, “wow, you are angry! You didn’t like that game.” This validates the emotions, and lets them know you understand how they are feeling. There are so many beneficial reasons to start with empathy here, at the top is that it helps many children start to calm.
  • Positive Intent – Giving positive intent is giving the benefit of the doubt, seeing the good reasons behind the bad behaviors and validating their motives. When children are called for snack and are now knocking each other out of the way to get there, they are “really excited for snack,” rather than “rude and careless.”
  • Choices – In this case, choices are a distraction away from the tantrum. When children are making choices, they are being cognitive, and when they are cognitive they tend to be less emotional. Choices are two positive choices about how, when or where they can do something. Choices for a child who’s upset about not being able to get his shoes on might be, “do you want me to try, or do you want to try again?” or, “do you want to sit on the top step or the bottom step to try again?” or, “do you want to put them on in the car, or when we get there?”

If you don’t know your child’s triggers or cues, you might want to chart their behavior. Charting behavior can be helpful anytime there is repeat behaviors such as lots of tantrums or many aggressive acts. Charting is easiest if you keep a notebook. Give each tantrum one page and on each page make a template. This includes noting where it was, when it was, who was around, what seemed to set it off, any cues they were about to lose it, what happened during, how long it lasted, how they found their calm and what happened after. Once you have notes on several tantrums, you might be able to read through the notes and find patterns. You might realize that your child is always tantrumming around 11:30am, maybe it would help to move lunch earlier. Maybe your child is tantrumming when other children are playing together, and he feels left out. You might role play or read books about joining play.

How Intermittent Reinforcement Makes Parenting Harder

I apologize, to cover intermittent reinforcement, we are going to stop discussing children, and we are going to start discussing lab rats. We’ll come back to children at the end of this post.
Intermittent reinforcement is the strongest pattern of reinforcement there is. Let’s compare lab rat A and lab rat B. They are living beside each other in cages that have a lever to push for food pellets. Lab rat A gets consistent reinforcement. Every time he pushes his lever, a food pellet drops out. Push, pellet, push, pellet, push, pellet. It’s not very exciting. In fact, after a while, it’s boring. Lab rat A will only push that lever for pellets until he is full. After that, he’ll leave it alone and only come back when he is hungry again.
Lab rat B gets intermittent reinforcement. As much as he pushes, there is a pellet every once in a while. Sometimes, it takes two pushes to get a pellet, sometimes it takes eight, and sometimes it takes as many as seventeen pushes. Then, four pushes gets the next pellet. It is unpredictable and exciting. In fact, after a while, it’s downright addictive. Lab rat B will push that lever long past the point of being full. He will push that lever until he’s exhausted, and then come back later to push some more. He will stock pile pellets because sometimes this thing works and sometimes it doesn’t. Every time it works and a pellet drops, he is happy and a bit surprised.
Let’s say the pellets stop altogether, no more pellets. Lab rat A will push a few times, but he thinks, “oh, this thing is broken. It used to always work and now it doesn’t. This thing is broken.” He’ll walk away and come back only when he is hungry again. Even then, he’ll only press it a few times.
When the pellets stop, lab rat B will push that lever until he keels over out of exhaustion and then, he’ll get right back up and push it some more. He thinks, “darn it, this thing’s got to work. Sometimes it took two pushes. I remember it took seventeen presses one time; that’s my new goal. Eventually this thing will work. Maybe it’ll be the next press.” He’ll keep at it for a quite a while, and he’ll come back far more often than lab rat A.
Now, let’s go back to children. Child A gets consistent reinforcement for tantrumming. Going down the candy aisle, she starts to tantrum, so you give her a candy bar. Tantrum, candy bar, tantrum, candy bar. It’s not very exciting; in fact, it’s boring. You’ll see that behavior when the child feels it is warranted. If the parent wises up and decides, “no more candy bars at the store,” child A may tantrum a little while, but she thinks, “wow, you are broken. This used to always work on you and now, it doesn’t.”
Child B gets intermittent reinforcement for tantrumming. Going down the candy aisle, she starts to tantrum, so you give a candy bar, tantrum, say you’ll leave the store, tantrum, you ignore her the rest of the trip, tantrum, you say “no,” she tantrums six more minutes, you give in and say, “whatever, it’s just a candy bar.” If the parent wises up and decides, “no more candy bars at the store,” child B will tantrum way longer and harder than child B because she thinks, “sometimes this works with you. I remember it took six minutes one time; that’s my new goal.”
What I am saying is that, if you give in to tantrumming every tenth time because you are tired or it’s just a cookie, you are more strongly reinforcing tantrumming than if you gave in every time right away. I am not telling you to give in every time, right away. I am telling you to never give in because when you do, it makes your job harder. It encourages your child to tantrum more often. Giving intermittent reinforcement to negative behaviors is a disservice to all involved. When my children tantrum, it makes me firm to never reinforce their tantrumming behavior. I think, “I can’t give that to you, even if I wanted to. It would be bad for you; you would behave that way more often.”

Push Back to Dad Traveling for Work

Dear Dr. Rene,

My husband was recently on a two month work trip (which will be a frequent occurance). My almost three-year-old son is a fairly emotional child and has always been very attached to me, although we had made significant progress in the past with him being okay with Daddy doing bedtime and being alone with Dad. While my husband was gone, my son hardly talked about him and didn’t exhibit many signs of missing him, though I brought him up often so that he knew his daddy was thinking about him. We were able to Skype occasionally, and he was always excited to see him on the computer. The first day or two of him being home were fine.

It has been five days with daddy home and our house has turned into mayhem. My son will not be in a room by himself with his father, he won’t let his daddy help him do anything, he says “I don’t like Daddy,” he hits him if he tries to carry him, and so on. We have tried to be understanding of it to an extent, he gets physically upset and “scared” – but I don’t want to reinforce his fears. Its gotten to a point that we feel it may be partially a control issue for my son – and we don’t want him to feel like he can manipulate a situation by throwing a fit to get what he wants. We are at a loss for how to handle this. We expect it to take time, but aren’t sure of the appropriate approach. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.


Sarah, mother of two

Dear Sarah,

I am going to answer this in two parts. The first is how to best manage the push back that is happening now. The second is how to better prepare and move through the next separation.

In the moment, when he refuses to be in a room alone with daddy and bucks at being carried, the idea is for dad to go heavy on the empathy, validate his feelings, but then move forward with the activity. If his push to make daddy leave the room or put him down works, it reinforces his effort. This would be saying something like, “I know you are frustrated! You really want to be with mommy,” or, “wow! You are mad. You want me to put you down,” for at least several sentences. Then move forward with, “but for now it’s daddy,” or, “I am sorry, but I need to carry you right now.” All of this should be done in a calm way. The idea is to understand the upset, it is what it is. Then dad moves forward with what is reasonable, being alone in a room together or being carried as needed. Dad should avoid matching anger or giving in to the demands.

I also completely agree, while there is empathy there should also be limits when the behaviors are unacceptable. There is discipline when he hits and appropriate response (ignore during and neutral after or some consistent plan) when he tantrums. Yes, he is upset and this is well within normal limits for behavior for his age, but the consistent discipline response is needed to reign in the behaviors in the long run.

Around all the travel, I would try to find a little time each week that the two of them can spend time just being together. This could be a board game in the playroom, a trip to the playground or an ice cream run. Not to leave you and baby out, but it’s a time for them to hopefully connect individually over something fun.

Before the next trip, make the child a family photo album (Sassy makes a 6 picture one) including at least a few pictures of him and dad. Be sure there are family photos framed in his room and talk about dad often during the separations. During the next trip, plan to have them Skype as many days as possible.  It may also be helpful for dad to send postcards or other small things in the mail every few days and pictures online.


Dr. Rene

Calm Tips

There are two main ideas for how to manage tantrums once they start. Both ideas start with, “stay calm yourself.” I know, this can take a whole lot of self-control. It can be difficult to stay calm when your child is losing it. Part of it is recognizing that losing it yourself likely just adds fuel to the fire and takes the tantrum up a notch. The other part is realizing what your child needs most in these moments is someone who is calm, who is safe to connect to, who is modeling calm emotions especially when all else feels out of control.

There are so many ways to stay calm. Of course, not every way works for every parent, so I am including calm tips in our emails often this year. Here are a few more ideas that may be helpful in tantrums as well as other times you need to stay calm.

  • Learn about child development. It can be calming to know that saying ‘no’ all day long and doing the opposite of what is requested are common two-year-old behaviors. It can be calming to know that five and six year olds are often driven by a sense of fairness and hearing, “that’s not fair,” is par for the course. There are a few good series on development including Touchpoint: Birth to Three and Three to Six by Brazelton and Your One Year Old thru Your Nine Year Old by Ames.


  • Shift your thinking to view the benefits of the negative behaviors. Every time your child is aggressive, think of it as an opportunity to teach them better ways to express anger and how to use their words. When your child has a tantrum, think of it as a chance for them to practice calming or an opportunity to teach emotion language.



  • Assume changing behaviors and learning new behaviors takes time. If you assume potty training will be a two day process, you may be frustrated when it takes two weeks. If you assume it will take a few months, than you are pleasantly surprised at the two week mark.


To learn more ways to calm, join me for my two evening session on Calm Parenting. The next workshop series is offered on June 2 and 9 from 7:00-9:00 p.m. For more information and to register, please visit:

Tantrum Tips

If your child tantrums, it can be helpful to recognize your child’s triggers. Triggers are the things that set your child off, that tend to start the tantrums. Once you identify triggers, you can work harder to avoid tantrums when the triggers happen. You can also avoid some triggers and teach children how to better manage when they can’t be avoided. Triggers tend to fall into three categories:

  • Situational triggers are triggers like the child tantrums when they are hungry or when they are tired. These are on you, fix these things. If they tantrum when they are hungry, carry crackers in your bag or plan to feed them small meals throughout the day rather than waiting longer between three larger meals.


  • Social triggers include things like tantruming over having to share toys or over being told “no.” The idea for social triggers is children need to learn to both avoid these when they can and manage them when they can’t. Learning to manage and calm can take children a long time and a lot of practice.



  • Parents’ stress level can be another trigger. When parents are particularly stressed, children tend to tantrum more often. It may be they are reflecting the emotional tone in the house. It may be that, because you are stressed, they are having to get bigger and louder to get your attention.


Tantrums at School

Dear Dr. Rene,
I am a mother of four, and am expecting a fifth. Our second to youngest child is throwing really bad tantrums in school. These tantrums are out of control and disrupt the entire class. The school is talking about suspension because this is interrupting the whole K, first and second grade hallway. I have tried everything I can think of from taking away special toys and explaining she has a choice to throw a tantum. I thought by six years old she would not be having these tantrums, but they still seem to be problematic.
Please help.
Andrea, Mother of Five

Dear Andrea,
This is a difficult situation all the way around. There are a few things to do at home and a few things to do at school that may be helpful. I would ask if there is a space provided for children to be alone, to calm down and regain themselves that is also safe. This might be a quiet corner of the classroom or the waiting area of the nurse’s office. It would be best if this is away from the other children and somewhere she can take herself. There is a preschool near us that has a small house filled with beanbags and pillows. When children feel overwhelmed and angry they are invited in to help themselves settle. This works by removing the audience and social reinforcement as well as provding a calming setting. It is hard to stay mad when you are lounging on bean bags.

A thing to do at school and at home is to focus on teaching emotions language, better ways to express and ways to calm. These are things that are helpful to most children in overcoming tantrums, take a long time to learn and best if reinforced at home and school. it is best to teach these things out of the moment, when all are calm. If you wait and try to teach these things when children are emotional and overwhelmed, they are not in a good place to learn.

Likely, it is best to avoid disciplining behaviors that happen hours earlier in school. If it is a big enough behavior that you were made aware of, the child was already disciplined at school. If it is several hours later, the child may not connect those things well. I am not saying just let it go, but rather focus heavily on coaching the new behavior. Talk to your child about the thing that happened at school, brainstorm better options, together find ways for the child to make amends and do better the next day.

With tantrums, it can be helpful to lean about “charting a behavior,” in this case it is focusing on triggers (what sets a child off) and cue behaviors (signs they are about to tantrum). This would have to be done in the school setting, so by the teacher or guidance counselor. It would mean a bit of observation time and record keeping, but would provide helpful information, so the school can be more prepared to manage the upset.

There is a full discussion of these ideas on our website, in the recorded workshop on manageing tantrums. There is also a good book titled No More Meltdowns, which is about managing tantrums in school age children.
Dr. Rene