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Positive Behaviour Management in Early Years Settings


A key part of your role as an early years practitioner is to ensure that children behave appropriately while they're in your setting. You also have a chance to influence what happens for the children at home, through the partnerships that you create with their parents and carers. Your job is to set appropriate boundaries for behaviour, and also to teach the children how to behave properly, and why they need to do it. The boundaries you set will keep the children safe, and will also help them learn key skills such as cooperation, respect, consideration, empathy, and so on.

As well as setting the boundaries for all your children, you also have a very special opportunity to help any poorly behaved children get 'back on track'. Where early behavioural input in the home has been weak or inappropriate, you have the chance to undo some of the damage. If you can turn a child's behaviour around before the more formal environment of the Key Stage One classroom, this can have a positive impact on the child's chances of future success.

Why Do Some Children Misbehave While Others Don't?

It's in the first few years of a child's life that the foundations of behaviour patterns are set. If the foundations are built well, children understand how to behave appropriately in different situations. They have strong self esteem and a sense of self worth, but equally they have a feeling of empathy for others. They understand what the boundaries are, and why they are necessary. They also see that there are consequences for choosing to ignore those limits. Where positive patterns of behaviour have been put in place, children are able to access and make the most of the educational opportunities on offer to them.

Unfortunately, if the foundations are weak, this can seriously disadvantage a child. Children who are ignored, or over indulged, or constantly put down, or taught to 'hit back', often have problems settling into an educational environment. Because the child does not understand what is 'appropriate' behaviour within a particular setting, this can lead to verbal or physical outbursts when his or her wishes are frustrated. Of course, you will also encounter some children whose behavioural problems arise from special educational needs, rather than from difficulties within the home environment.

In some instances, misbehaviour can be 'caused' by external factors over which you have a degree of control. For instance, young children will often misbehave if they are tired, hungry or if there are changes to their normal routine. Whenever you experience an incident of misbehaviour, it's worth thinking about what caused the problem in the first place, and whether you can avoid it in the future.

What is 'Positive Behaviour Management'?

Positive behaviour management is about using positive rather than negative approaches to encourage children to behave appropriately. It's about a mindset where you pro-actively encourage children to behave well, rather than reacting or responding after misbehaviour has happened. This approach mirrors what parents should be doing in the home in those vital first few years of their child's life: setting clear boundaries, which are applied in a calm and consistent way. It's also about encouraging children to make their own choices about behaviour: to understand that the right choice will lead to positive outcomes, whilst the wrong choice will have negative consequences.

Positive behaviour management is for the benefit of the practitioner as well as for the benefit of the children. Misbehaviour can cause a great deal of stress for everyone involved, and if you're going to do your job properly it's important that you take care of yourself as well as of your children. You'll notice that many of the strategies I talk about below are about fighting your natural, instinctive responses. You're not a robot: when a child misbehaves this has an effect on you as a person. That effect might be emotional (you get upset or frustrated) or physical (you get a rush of adrenaline when a child is physically abusive). The effect can be psychological as well - the stress that you feel after dealing with a difficult situation. Positive behaviour management should help you minimise the negative effects of dealing with difficult behaviour.

Getting Started

To set in place the foundations of positive behaviour management, first you need to establish the kinds of behaviour you want from the children. Once these initial boundaries are in place, they can be maintained and built on.

  • Let the children know about the behaviour you expect: If you want your children to behave in a certain way, you need to let them in on the secret of what it is that you actually expect from them. Rather than waiting for them to misbehave and then saying 'don't do that', positive behaviour management means telling them ahead of time what they should be doing.
  • Use positive statements about behaviour: Many settings use 'Golden Rules' to outline the behaviour that's expected from the children. Make your rules statements of what you do want, rather than complaints about what you don't. For instance say 'We walk sensibly around the setting', rather than 'Don't run'. Ask children to aim to do a positive, rather than avoid doing a negative.
  • Keep it simple: Have a small number of rules, and phrase them in the simplest way possible. Young children are unlikely to retain any more than a maximum of five rules. Use straightforward vocabulary, and back up your rules with a visual display.
  • Repeat and reinforce: With young children you can't say something once, and expect it to be retained. Repeat your expectations over and over again - you literally cannot refer to them too often. As well as repeating your rules, refer to them when you see them being followed, rather than when you see them being broken. So, it's: 'Wow, Ella, that's lovely sensible walking', rather than 'Lucy, stop running now!'
  • Be consistent: It's entirely normal for children to try and push at the boundaries set by adults. The secret is for the adult response to be the same, every time that misbehaviour happens. This is easier said than done - when you're tired, rushed or stressed, it is tempting to 'overlook' misbehaviour. The more consistent you can be, though, the more your children will understand what you want them to do.
  • Use routines and structures: Children love routine - it makes them feel safe, because they know what's coming next. Some children have a very chaotic time outside of the early years setting: have clear structures in place to give them a sense of security while they're with you.
  • Remember your behaviour is the best example: You act as a positive role model for your children, especially for those who don't have good role models at home. You can show them how to have manners, how to respect others, how to be kind, caring and friendly. What you can't do is ask your children to do something and then not do it yourself. As the saying goes: 'What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.'

Using Rewards And Sanctions

Children of all ages love to get a reward (indeed, adults do as well). Similarly, there will be times when you need to give a sanction to show that a child's behaviour is unacceptable. This area is a complex one, and practitioners will take their own personal stance on what is most appropriate in their particular setting. Remember that the most powerful 'reward' of all is a smile or a kind word from you, rather than something material, such as a sticker or a prize. Interestingly, research has shown that a reward received unexpectedly has far more impact than one that has been earned for something specific (Lepper et al, 1973). Rather than saying 'If you do that, you get this in return', you drop in rewards when you notice that a child has done something wonderful or special.

Sanctions offer a useful way to show children that a certain behaviour was wrong, and that it should not be repeated. A couple of decades back, this would be called a 'punishment' and would often be punitive or involve corporal punishment. The modern school of thought is that you can show the child the consequences of misbehaviour by giving an appropriate sanction. With young children, the sanction could be something like sitting in a time out chair, or being removed from an activity. You can also 'sanction' a child by expressing disappointment about his or her misbehaviour.

Dealing With Misbehaviour

Once you've got your rules in place, behaviour should hopefully not be a major issue for many of the children at your setting. When an incident of misbehaviour does arise, use the following tips to help you handle the situation.

  • Stay calm: You can only hope to control a difficult child or situation if you're in control of yourself first. Take a couple of deep breaths before you intervene.
  • Use a distraction: For many behaviour incidents involving young children, the most appropriate response of all is to use a distraction. If two children are quarrelling over a toy, you might distract them by saying brightly 'C'mon, let's go and do some painting instead!' A very useful distraction is a volunteer task, such as helping you hand out resources or preparing a snack.
  • Ignore attention seeking behaviour: For some children, misbehaviour becomes the only way to get attention from their parents or carers. It's a common parenting mistake: you ignore your children when they're being quiet and good, and only say or do anything when they're being disruptive. So long as no one is in danger or might get hurt, the best response to a child having a tantrum is to completely ignore the outburst. Similarly, if one child keeps interrupting you when you're trying to focus on other children, simply pretend not to hear. Save your attention for when children are doing something positive.
  • Blame the behaviour, not the child: When you have to talk to children about their behaviour, it's important for them to feel that it's not personal. Phrase what you say so it's the behaviour that's the problem, and not the child. For instance, 'James, throwing toys is dangerous behaviour, I want you to stop right now.'
  • Give the child a choice: When you describe behaviour as a choice, you put the power back in the hands of the children. They can decide how to behave; your role is to outline what happens if they don't. For instance: 'James, you have a choice. You can stop throwing the toy and play nicely with it, or unfortunately I will have to take it away.' Once you've outlined the choice, give the child a few moments to decide what to do. If he refuses to comply, follow through with the sanction.
  • Try not to make idle threats: Try hard not to threaten a sanction you cannot or will not deliver. For instance, you notice some children messing around with the paints, and in a moment of irritation you shout: 'If you don't stop doing that, we won't get the paints out again for a week!' Of course, you don't actually mean this, because it would disadvantage all the other children, and be contrary to the principles of the EYFS. When the children continue to mess around, and you fail to apply the sanction, you show that you don't mean what you say - that your threats are empty ones.

Encouraging Empathy

During my teaching career I've worked with many children and young people who have behavioural problems. And a common factor for many has been an inability to empathise - they just don't understand that their behaviour has an effect on others. This awareness seems to be something that has somehow been missed out during their early development, perhaps because of emotional neglect. As an early years practitioner, you can help your children to develop this vital skill. When a child misbehaves, talk about the emotional impact this has, for instance saying 'That behaviour makes me feel really sad', or 'Ella gets very upset when you behave in that way'.

Three Top Tips

I'll finish this article with three of my all time favourite top tips for managing behaviour in a positive way. As you'll see, these are all very practical strategies that you can put in place straight away.

  1. Be reasonable, but don't reason with them: It's tempting to feel that you must always negotiate the boundaries with children, and justify what you ask them to do. Children are great at getting adults to reason with them - it certainly beats doing as they're told! If you've got children of your own you might well have heard 'Oh please, just one more TV programme and then I promise I'll go to bed'. Unfortunately it's rarely 'just one more' once you give in. It really is okay for the adult to be in charge, and for you to say: 'this is just how it's going to be'.
  2. Watch out for rhetorical questions: Many adults get themselves into a habit of asking rhetorical questions when a child misbehaves. Pretty much every teacher that I've ever observed does it (myself included). You notice a child snatch a toy and you ask: 'What do you think you're doing!?' In fact, you don't really require an answer, it's just an expression of your frustration. It's always much more effective to make a statement of what you do want ('Give the toy back right now, please'). Only ask a question when you actually want an answer.
  3. Harness the power of the imagination: Young children are very good at using their imaginations - they have none of the hang ups that we develop later in life about 'looking stupid'. Make use of this fact to get better behaviour from your children. For instance, to get the children to walk quietly, ask them to imagine that they're walking over the back of a sleeping giant. It's fun, and it works!

Sue Cowley is a qualified early years teacher, and an educational author, trainer and presenter. Her book on behaviour for parents is "Getting your Little Darlings to Behave". She has also written several books for practitioners working with the 4-7 age group, including "You Can ... have a Calm Classroom". For more information, visit www.suecowley.co.uk.


Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973).

Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards: A test of the 'overjustification' hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.

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