Good behaviour in early years is something that practitioners can and should promote, says Juliet Neill-Hall, who offers some strategies on ‘how to’

All parents and early years practitioners will sometimes have problems with children’s behaviour. This is because all children go through stages of social, emotional and behavioural development and have specific needs to be met as they grow up. It is also true that in order for children to eventually become independent and self-disciplined they have to challenge parental discipline sometimes. This challenge can also be extended to practitioners by some children more than others.

Creating a framework for good behaviour involves all aspects of the life of a setting including the expectations adults have of how children should behave, the way in which strong positive relationships are valued and promoted, how language is used, the organisation and routines of the setting and the emphasis which is placed on building a mutually respectful relationship with parents.

Having clear expectations
Rules that are just and fair are an important part of the daily life and routines of any community. They set the parameters which will ensure respect for the rights, duties and responsibilities of others as well as for oneself. The purpose of rules is to:

  • clarify expectations and create limitations and boundaries
  • teach appropriate behaviour
  • provide security and safety
  • protect rights and encourage responsibilities
  • underpin morality/law/social order and make the link with ‘real life’ outside the setting or school.

When thinking about the rules or expectations a setting should have, it is important to consider:

  • moral issues of right and wrong
  • health and safety
  • how we treat ourselves, others and property
  • practical everyday life
  • setting/family specific aspects.

Positive feedback Positive feedback is the best and most effective way to promote positive behaviour and minimise poor behaviour. This encourages the development of self-confidence and self-esteem.

Children need to know they are getting it right through adults using:

  • positive and warm body language
  • tone of voice
  • physical touch
  • praise and compliments
  • encouragement
  • attention
  • treats, rewards and privileges.

When children are praised and rewarded for positive behaviour they are more likely to repeat the appropriate behaviour again and eventually it will become habitual.

Good relationships
Positive behaviour is built primarily on good relationships and communication. Children have an inborn desire to please the people they love and care for and seek approval from them. If the relationships are wobbly or the communication is poor, either within the home or the early years setting, then the child is likely to use negative or challenging behaviour in an attempt to have their needs met.


Practitioners will be most successful at promoting positive behaviour when they are able to anticipate and pre-plan what the behavioural issues might be in a certain situation and avert them. For example, if something different is happening in the setting on a particular day explain to the children exactly what is going to be different and what will happen. Children often misbehave when their routine is altered and they feel insecure, even if the routine is being altered because of something exciting or novel.

Many young children can be diverted from poor or inappropriate behaviour by giving them focused attention or simply turning their attention to something else.

Soft ‘no’
Don’t get into an argument, speak with a quieter voice and stay calm. Try to stay relaxed and be aware of your body language. Give parallel eye contact at the child’s level, be direct and be clear – ‘I said “no” and I meant it.’

Give a clear choice, ‘You can either tidy up now or when everyone else has the story – what do you want to do?’

1, 2, 3, magic
When asking a child to do something say: ‘I will count to three and then…’ Give an offer of a positive reward or alternatively a boundary. This works best when it is a consistent policy used in the home or the setting.

Time out
Time out is a helpful method that can be used to modify behaviour for more serious or challenging behaviours within the home or setting. It is based on the premise that all children seek approval and have a need for attention from the adults around them. If they are threatened with losing this approval and attention, albeit only temporarily, it teaches them to modify their inappropriate behaviour.

Time out involves removing the child from whatever they are doing and insisting he/she sits or stands in a safe place for a period of time. An outside room can be used if it is safe and there can be adult supervision. The adult in these circumstances should ignore the child and offer no eye-contact or conversation. This is an opportunity for the child to calm down – to think and reflect on his/her behaviour. The length of time out should ideally match the age of the child, for example, for a three-year-old child use three minutes. An egg-timer can be helpful in this situation.

It is vital to remember to give the child an ‘invitation to return’ and ask him/her why he/she had time out, and then to get a firm commitment from the child to modify their earlier behaviour if they wish to be accepted back into the wider group. If this child then behaves appropriately in the next few minutes offer clear affirmation and praise.

It is important that ‘time out’ is used appropriately, and only when essential.

Four-part challenge

  • Describe the offending behaviour: ‘When you do…’
  • State your feelings: ‘I feel…’
  • State the effect: ‘When you do that it…’
  • Ask for input: ‘What can we do about it? ‘How can you help…?’

Meeting emotional needs
Human relationships are built on meeting the emotional needs that we all have for attention, acceptance, approval, comfort, security, encouragement, support, respect and affection. When our primary needs are met we feel happy and secure. When they are not met we can feel anxious, insecure and unhappy.

Often people choose to ‘act out’ through poor behaviour in order to demonstrate to others that their needs are not being met. This inappropriate behaviour is a message: ‘I have a need and no one is meeting it.’ It is important that practitioners discuss effective ways to meet some of these needs in children – if a child is misbehaving, it is worth reflecting on what the child needs before putting other strategies into place.

Structure and routines
Routines and structures underpin a framework for good behaviour by allowing behaviours to become habits or just ‘what we do’, thereby reinforcing rules and creating an opportunity to practise responsibilities and exercise rights. Young children find routines safe and  reassuring and are more likely to behave appropriately within structures they feel comfortable with.

Boundary setting
Setting boundaries makes it clear that limitations do exist and teaches children that there are consequences of inappropriate behaviour. Having boundaries allows children to understand that adults will act in their authority – whether as parents or practitioners and helps to develop a sense of justice and fairness. Knowing that there are boundaries provides children with a safe and secure environment, thereby promoting good mental health.

It is important that sanctions match the ‘offence’ and are used consistently by, and between, different adults. The child needs to know what the possible consequences might be of stepping over the line into inappropriate behaviour. Verbal expressions of anger, disappointment, concern or sadness are best communicated by the prefix ‘I feel…’, rather than ‘You are…’

All children will step over the boundaries of good behaviour from time to time and adults need to think ahead and plan how to respond in the best possible way. The aim must always be to return children to the appropriate behaviour as quickly, and with at little fuss, as possible. However, sometimes it will take time and there will be fuss!

As adults we have to make it quite clear to children that we care enough about them to act and do something to stop their inappropriate behaviour. This makes them feel safe and secure within set boundaries.

Adults can use a range of strategies to promote positive behaviour and manage inappropriate or challenging behaviour in young children. The box opposite outlines some of these.

Prioritising what is important
Choose your ‘battlefields’ – some behaviours just fade away if they are ignored. If children are constantly being told, ‘no, no, no’, then the atmosphere in the setting becomes very negative. Choose to insist on boundaries when they are the important and in other instances consider negotiation and compromise.

Keeping calm
When children misbehave it can ‘push our buttons’ and make us feel angry and resentful. Some children seem to ‘wind us up’ more than others. When we feel our professionalism and ability to cope and manage are compromised it can make us feel de-skilled. Similarly, parents can feel ashamed and anxious when they cannot easily manage their children’s behaviour. We all need support and a sounding board to talk our feelings through. Sometimes our behaviour towards a particular child can become a problem and it is important that we focus our concerns on the behaviour, not on the child himself.

Communication – talking and listening
We are often under the impression that what we say in the form of words is the most important facet in communication. However, words are only a very small part of the communication process. Far more important is the tone of voice in which we speak and the body language we use. How much children hear, or feel that they are being listened to, is more dependent on our body language messages than the words we say or the speaking space we give to them.

Negotiation and compromise
From about the age of three, children become much more able to negotiate and compromise and will be less likely to resort to tantrums or stubborn refusal if they are given some chance to gain ‘power’ through negotiation. Through this process, the adult is also building valuable skills of ‘either/or’ thinking.

Modelling behaviour
Some theorists would argue that all behaviour is learned and we certainly need to consider what children are learning from us as adults. When parents and practitioners model appropriate behaviour, children will pick this up and copy it.

Teaching behaviour skills
All early years settings are teaching and learning environments and part of the role of the setting is to teach behaviour in the same way as any other aspects of learning and development. Aspects to consider here include: What do children need to learn? How will we teach it? How will we check learning has taken place? How will we reinforce and build on past learning? How will we record that children have learned certain social skills?

It is very important that in managing children’s behaviour we all, practitioners and parents alike, give a consistent message about what is, and what is not, acceptable. We need to have in place a strategy we all understand and agree to – a strategy where everyone – children, practitioners and parents – plays by the rules.