They’re Pushing My Buttons!

From rolling eyes to the dreaded “temper tantrum”, we all have experienced unwanted behaviors with our young children. For me, when a child spits, I feel disrespected, and disgusted. It brings out emotions of anger and frustration. I feel my blood pressure rise, my voice grows louder and my facial expressions change from a positive or neutral face to that anger. This is a “hot button”.  When “they’re pushing my buttons” how will you react?

Have you ever had those moments where a child is really “pushing your buttons?” These behaviors can stir up undesired feelings and emotions in ourselves. How we react can dramatically impact the outcome and the relationship between the child and you as the educator. Join us as we identify common “hot button” behaviors, create a plan to control our own reactions and understand what the child is trying to communicate.

“Hot button” behaviors are behaviors or actions others do to give you a negative reaction. Each person’s “hot button” can be different and spark different emotions. Have you ever used the phrase, “You’re really pushing my buttons right now”? It looks like someone continuing an action that causes frustration, anger, or anxiety. 

How to Handle It When “They’re pushing my buttons

The “Before”

Have a Plan: When we have a plan, we think objectively and are able to stay calm. Keep in mind, many of the behaviors are developmentally appropriate for the age groups you serve. This means the behavior will not “disappear” just because we have a plan, but it will lessen. 

Stay Calm: Sounds easy, right? Staying calm can be one of the hardest things to do in a “hot button” situation. Remember staying calm now, will help you focus on the question, “What is the child trying to communicate to me? “ If you can answer that question, you are better equipped to respond in a positive way when the behavior or action is occurring. 

The “During”

Take a Breath:  As you are doing this, explain your actions with the child. “I’m going to take a minute to calm myself.” “I am going to take a deep breath because I feel frustrated.” 

Step Back (Not Away): There is a difference between stepping back and stepping away. You are not leaving the child or the room, but stepping back from the situation, if it is safe to do so. For example, if Megan is throwing herself on the floor in a tantrum and hitting as you try to comfort her, as long as she is not a harm to herself or others around her, take a step or two back from her. Explain you are still available, but stepping back to keep yourself and others safe. 

Count It Out: Studies have shown that counting up from 1 to 10, when we are in a heightened state, causes us to count faster. Rather, counting backwards from 10, causes our brains to work harder at thinking of the next number, slowing our breathing and focusing on calming ourselves down. 

Self-Talk: Self-talk is when you narrate what you are doing in child-friendly language. Positive self-talk tricks our brain into thinking of the actions we are describing. It might not be ok right now, but it will eventually pass. As we talk about our feelings and calming actions, children learn to do the same.  

Use Tools: When we have other tools in the classroom to center our feelings, children learn they can use these tools to calm themselves as well. Having fidgets or stress balls to squeeze, or a calming corner to access, allows children to express themselves freely and safely in the classroom environment. Small, safe stress balls kept in your pocket, can give your body pressure opportunities, rerouting your frustration into something tangible. 

Tag-In: Sometimes our feelings become too overwhelming and we need to “tag in” someone else for support. If this is possible, call on someone who is calm to work with the child’s actions. This allows you to gain control over your own actions and emotions, find your center and return to the child once the moment has deescalated. 

Breathe: It might have felt like a roller coaster you never wanted to be on! Take a breath and take a moment. Reflecting on what happened before, during and after the behavior, can give you further insight into the cause of the child’s actions.

The “After”

Document: Document the scenario with times, who was present and a detailed description of the events. Not only will this provide evidence of the account, it allows you as the educator to consider possible “triggers” for the behavior in order to plan and prevent future occurrences. 

Talk It Out: Take time to discuss the “hot button” behavior and your responses to it, with a colleague or peer. Give opportunities for collaboration on new ways to plan for the behavior and ideas to calm yourself in the moment. Also, discuss with the family about what you are seeing. Sometimes, simply because the child is in a group setting, the family will not see these behaviors at home. However, providing an open communication setting, allows for you to partner with them in their child’s learning. 

Reconnect: Most importantly, re-connect with the child afterwards. Take time to participate in a positive experience or activity. Play their favorite game, sing a new song, dance or even read a book with them. Not only will this end the experience on a positive note, you are showing the child that you are still a safe place for them to express themselves and come to in times of need. 

Take Moments to Breathe

As you are encountering and working through your own reactions to “hot button” behaviors, take time to consider “what is the child trying to tell me at this moment?” When big emotions are shared, it feels like an emergency to solve the problem or jump into action. Take these moments to model deep breathing with children. Not only does it lower the physical stress levels in your body, it releases tension and gives clarity of mind. Let’s practice!

Take moments to breathe when "they're pushing my buttons"!
  • Sit or lie down somewhere comfortable, close your eyes, and take a few moments to breathe regularly, allowing your body to slow down.
  • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.
  • Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of four, making sure your belly is expanding and not your chest. Imagine breathing in energy and confidence.
  • Exhale for a count of four, breathing out stale air, stress, and anything you want to leave behind.

Continue this breathing cycle for a few minutes, keeping your breath even and smooth.

Working with children can be challenging, rewarding, and let’s face it…. Stressful! But with confidence, proven techniques and strategies you can start each day with the knowledge and understanding ready to succeed.

Join us each session as we tackle a new area of professional development. Perfect for all educators to build confidence and strategies to support their work every day.

Schedule and Topics

  • Monday, December 5, 2022, 1 pm EST- New staff, LOADS of nerves
  • Monday, December 12, 2022, 1 pm EST- Health, Safety and YOU!
  • Monday, December 19, 2022, 1 pm EST- The Importance of Play
  • Monday, January 9, 2023, 1 pm EST- Scheduling Routines
  • Monday, January 23, 2023, 1 pm EST- 100 Languages of Children
  • Monday, January 30, 2023, 1 pm EST- Oh Me, Oh My! Circle time has gone Awry!
  • Monday, February 6, 2023, 1 pm EST- Hot Buttons: How will YOU React?
  • Monday, February 13, 2023, 1 pm EST- Time Management and YOU
  • Monday, February 27, 2023, 1 pm EST- YOU Can Stop the Burn out: Work-Life Balance for Child Care Professionals

Save your Spot here. Missed the live training? Find the YOU series here.

Caitlin Hackett
Caitlin Hackett

Caitlin Hackett, an Education Support Specialist for Experience Early Learning, with over 17 years in the field of early childhood, holds her BA and teaching license in Elementary Education. She has served as a former toddler teacher, center director, in-home child care owner, foster parent, and with the CCR&R in coaching, professional development, children services and leadership. She is a certified PITC (Program for Infant and Toddler Care) instructor and PAX Community Educator. Her passion is in child advocacy, specifically around high-quality child care and promoting available resources in the foster care system.


DeStress Monday. (2023). Deep Breathing, Listening to the Rain. GRACE Communications Foundation.

Hancock, C.L. & Carter, D.R. (2016). Building Environments That Encourage Positive Behavior: The Preschool Behavior Support Self-Assessment. Young Children. NAEYC.

Harvard Health Publishing. (2020). Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response. Harvard University.

NCPMI. (2019). Hot button activity. University of South Florida.

NCPMI. (2020). Self-Care for Teachers: Regulating your responses when children’s behaviors push your buttons. University of South Florida.

PRISM: Juniper Gardens Children’s Project.(2022). Recognizing Your Hot Buttons. Vanderbilt University.

Seppala, E. Bradley, C. & Goldstein, M. (2020). Research: Why Breathing Is So Effective at Reducing Stress. Harvard Business Review.