When dealing with the feelings and behaviour of early years pupils, teachers should try looking at creative ways to approach and deal with problems says Anni McTavish

Behavioural issues commonly encountered in an early years setting include biting, fighting and conflict, problems with sharing and tantrums. Creative strategies to deal with these can be implemented in any setting, significantly improving the day-to-day experiences of both children and adults.


Biting is a common behaviour in young children between the ages of 14 months to two and a half years of age. Most biting occurs in toddlers, who have little or limited language, but usually stops as language and social skills develop.

Children may also bite because of hunger, teething, anger or boredom. They may not have enough space, be overcrowded or not have access to enough favourite toys. Biting may be initiated by transitions, such as a new baby in the family or giving up a dummy, by worry or stress, or because they are in an inappropriate environment or expectations are too high.

Useful questions to ask: When and where did it happen? Who with? What happened before? What happened afterwards? Why do you think it happened? What is ‘behind’ the behaviour – how do you think the child feels?

We may feel awkward, or defensive, in response to questions from parents of ‘bitten’ children, for example, do we tell them who the ‘biter’ is? We may also be unsure of how to support the parent/s of the child who is biting.

If a child bites:

  • Comfort and take care of child who has been bitten, in a ‘low-key’ calm way. (The biter may not realise how much it hurts). Tell the bitten child: ‘That must be sore, let’s get a cold cloth.’
  • To the biter, say in a firm, but gentle voice ‘It’s not OK to bite, biting hurts. If you want to bite, you can bite a cracker or a toy, but I can’t let you bite Tom.’
  • Encourage the biter to ‘make amends’ in some way; help get a cold cloth, a tissue or teddy for comfort.
  • Do not insist on ‘sorry’, unless the biter genuinely wants to do so.
  • Support the bitten child to say ‘No, don’t do that’ and to ask for a hug/soft touch.

Strategies to use

  • Make a point of giving positive attention and affection to the ‘biter’ throughout the day.
  • Provide snacks and drinks regularly.
  • Make sure there is more than one of a favourite toy.
  • Arrange furniture and resources to make space and room for play.
  • Be on hand often to help children set simple limits – say ‘mine’, or ‘no, my toy’, and model for them how to negotiate and take turns.
  • Be aware of changes taking place at home, and help children to deal with these by talking, ‘You miss your dad while he’s away.’ ‘It can be a bit scary when you move to a new house.’
  • Discourage ‘playbiting’ at home, but do share concerns and strategies with parents. Behaviour will change if everyone works together.
  • Never bite a child back.
  • Teach children how to gain positive attention.
  • Develop a ‘biting policy’, and a leaflet with guidelines to support parents and practitioners.
  • Reassure parents that biting is a common occurrence, and a phase that their child will move through. (Do not say, ‘This is one of the worse cases I’ve seen’ – even if it is!)

Creative ideas to try

  • Provide crunchy snacks – apples, carrot sticks, cucumber, toast, rice and corn crackers.
  • Introduce a puppet or persona doll story about biting, along with the idea of a ‘biting’ basket containing objects that are safe to bite or mouth – jam jar lids, flannel, new plastic dog toy, rubber door stop, tough beanbag.
  • Provide a treasure basket for seated babies (six to 10 months) and heuristic play resources for one- to two-year-olds.
  • Provide teething rings of all shapes and sizes.
  • Plan simple rhyme and singing sessions for short amounts of time with small groups of children.
  • Provide interesting natural play materials to pinch, poke and squeeze – playdough and clay.
  • Model how to say sorry appropriately with other practitioners/children.
  • Take photos of children being caring, gentle or respectful of each other, and make a display, perhaps linking to the themes of the EYFS – Positive Relationships and Learning and Development.
  • If biting persists, ask the child’s parents to visit a dentist or a paediatric osteopath.

Fighting and conflict

Learning how to deal with conflict is a necessary skill for children to acquire. Children are also learning to ‘self-regulate’ – becoming able to tolerate a feeling of distress (Perry, 2001). This involves a child in either waiting until the need is met (for example, feeling hungry, but being able to wait for lunch in five minutes), or in being creative and beginning to problem solve. Providing a structured, predictable environment, with warnings for changes in routine, and then appreciating children when they manage to ‘self-regulate’, will all help : ‘Well done for waiting your turn so patiently.’

To help with conflict – the most common reason is over toys or resources – be on hand with a non-judgemental commentary, along the lines of: ‘You really wanted the toy, and when you grabbed it, Izzie hit you, and now you are so mad you want to hit her back! I can’t let you hit Izzie, but I can help you talk to her about what you’d like.’

As children learn to tolerate some frustration and anxiety, they will be less reactionary, and impulsive. Be ready to step in and model for children how to wait for a turn: ‘Let’s wait here by the table, until they’re finished, then we can have a go.’ The key is to be a child’s ally in these situations, rather the rule maker who says: ’Stand there and wait your turn!’

Where conflict is more serious, for example, children are being verbally abusive or racial comments are being made, help them see things from a different perspective through the use of a story (McTavish, 2007, p30). This will also give them some ‘emotional distance’, making it safer for them to begin to consider their actions.

Recognise children’s physicality – is there lots of throwing, hitting or kicking? Provide ways for them to express this through games and activities such as throwing wet sponges again the wall, hitting balls or targets, building with blocks, banging with saucepans and wooden spoons, squirting runny paint on to large pieces of paper, kicking balls. Sing songs or play movement games to practise stopping, starting and waiting, encourage children to work in pairs, on their own or as part of a group.

As long as children are not hurting each other, it can be useful to wait before stepping in – to see if they come up with their own solutions, however small. Praise them if they manage this, and talk about it later in a small group, so other children have the opportunity to learn.


Young children are not always ready to share, though if we re-phrase this as ‘turn-taking’, and are inventive with games to facilitate this, some sharing is possible. I believe that first, we must allow children time to develop and experience the concept of ‘ownership’. So, having a peg or cubby where children can place special toys from home is ideal.

A simple photographic game of baby photos on a flap, with the ‘grown-up’ picture beneath, can help to explain ‘who belongs to whom’. Once a child learns that sharing does not necessarily mean they have to give their one precious toy away, sharing becomes more of a possibility.

  • Help children develop confidence in turn-taking with simple games and songs like ‘Two little dickie birds’, but have six birds in a bag. Sing the song and share the game with six children. Other songs include ‘Five little monkeys jumping on the bed’.
  • Ask children to hand round plates of fruit, where there is plenty for everyone to have three to four pieces. Model politely saying please and thank you as you do this.
  • Positively reinforce any spontaneous turn taking, but rather than saying, ‘Good boy or good girl’, say ‘I like how you’re taking turns, well done!’
  • Help children to join in and develop friendship skills, ‘Could you deliver this “letter” to Mina in the house?’ or, ‘I think they need some more blocks for the train they’re building… here are some.’

Strategies and ideas

  • Provide pots of bubbles to blow in the wind.
  • Have colourful ribbons to dance and sing with.
  • Include simple board games that are fun to share with one other.
  • Try using parachute games.
  • A well-resourced role-play shop, with plentiful supplies of boxes, tins, paper bags, tills, pens and paper will provide lots of opportunities for sharing and turn taking.
  • Help children to negotiate how turn taking can work:
    • ‘Nikhil loves the trains, can he have Gordon for one minute, as long as he gives it back? I can put the egg timer on for you.’
    • ‘Let’s write a list of names of who wants to have a go. How long shall we each have – two, three or four minutes?’
  • Tell a simple story about two children or puppets fighting over a toy, and invite children to help ‘sort it out’, and come up with ideas to solve the dispute.


A child’s screams and hitting can be alarming, but tantrums can be common in many young children under the age of five. Remind yourself this is normal development and stay calm! Tantrums are a bit like a rain barrel with too much rain. In the same way, emotions can be too much for a child to hold, and they overflow.

Tantrums can happen when a child, used to a relaxed approach at home, joins a setting with clear limits and well-defined boundaries. Children are learning to deal with their emotions, and need our help to do so.

Ideas to try:

  • Consider the ‘useful questions to ask’ – When and where did it happen? Who with? What happened beforehand? What happened afterwards? Why do you think it happened? What is ‘behind’ the behaviour – how do you think the child feels?
  • Try distracting a child if you know a tantrum is brewing.
  • Utilise the outdoor area fully.
  • Remind yourself that limits are important, it’s OK to stick to them.
  • Children find it hard to wait too long, so make sure routines run smoothly.
  • Could they be hungry, tired, or becoming ill?
  • Offer cuddles, a cosy story time or gentle songs to ward off a tantrum.

If a tantrum occurs:

  • Make sure child is safe and keep other children ‘out of the line of fire’.
  • It may help to avoid eye contact.
  • Reassure visitors and other children that this is normal and the child needs to express some strong feelings.
  • Do not try to reason with or have a conversation with a child in the throes of a tantrum.
  • You may, depending on the child, be able to hold him, rock him or reassure him to help him calm down.

Ideas for promoting positive behaviour

  • ‘Clue-in’ to what children’s schemas might be and use this knowledge to inform planning. (Nutbrown, 2007)
  • Have a celebration tree – record individual children’s achievements on paper ‘leaves’ and hang on to the tree.
  • Use children’s names and simple language to appreciate behaviour you like.  ‘I like how you put all those blocks away Sasha!’
  • Provide guidelines for students, parents and volunteers about how to support positive behaviour, and make sure they use children’s correct names.
  • Report achievements and positive behaviour to parents within earshot of their child. This will also help to build positive relations with parents.
  • Stick to three or four general rules, such as, ‘Walking indoors, running outside’, ‘Respectful and gentle touch’, ‘Listen when someone speaks’ – it goes without saying that adults need to model these appropriately! You can then reinforce these ‘good’ behaviours throughout the day.
  • Make a point of saying what you do want, rather than what you don’t.
  • Say, ‘Yes, we can get the trains out, once we’ve finished tidying up these blocks’, instead of ‘No, we must tidy-up first!’
  • Consider the effects of too much stimulation, colour and sound in the environment, and aim to keep the setting as calm as possible, with soothing colours, and natural resources. (King, 2007)
  • Smile at children, and tell them how much you like them, and enjoy spending time with them.
  • Make time for fun, laughter, jokes and special treats.

All behaviour needs to be taken in context. Although there are some general rules and guidelines, it is important that each child’s individual situation is considered, and any plan to deal appropriately with behaviour must begin with observation, and some detective work. Taking time to get to know a child, for example, what’s happening at home, their interests and passions, as well as spending time with, them will help.

Consider too, how adult responses might be affecting behaviour. Take care of yourself by talking through concerns with colleagues and consulting parents, and access training and specialist help where necessary.

Feelings and Behaviour – A Creative Approach

In her book Feelings and Behaviour – A Creative Approach, published by Early Education, Anni McTavish provides further information on how to use puppets, stories and responsive behaviour skills to respond creatively and compassionately to the various incidents, emotions and behaviour that young children display. The book is structured to help practitioners respond to young children’s feelings and behaviour, with each chapter providing step-by-step guidance and practical suggestions, supported by examples of good practice. There is a wealth of useful information and practical ideas to develop positive strategies for dealing with difficulties which can arise in any early years setting.



Perry, B D (2001) Self-Regulation: The Second Core Strength
King, J (2007) The Environment in your Nursery – The Effect of Sound and Colour on Young Children
McTavish, A (2007) Feelings and BehaviourA Creative Approach
Nutbrown, C (2007) Threads of Thinking: Young Children Learning and the Role of Early Education
Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd

Useful books and resources


  • Teeth are not for Biting by Elizabeth Verdick, Free Spirit Publishing, USA (2003)
  • Smiley Shark by Ruth Galloway, Little Tiger Press (2003)
  • So Much by Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury, Walker Books (2008)
  • Bootsie Barker Bites by Barbara Bottner and Peggy Rathman, Paperstar Books (1997)
  • Creating Places – Community Playthings
  • Communication Friendly Spaces by E Jarman (2007)


  • Mine! by Hiawyn Oram and Mary Rees, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books (2000)
  • Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister, North-South Books (2007)
  • Look what I’ve got by Anthony Browne, Walker Books (1996)


  • Angry Arthur by Hiawyn Oram and Satoshi Kitamura, Red Fox Picture Books (1993)
  • Mine! by Hiawyn Oram and Mary Rees, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books (2000)