I’m fascinated by children’s behaviour and the possible reasons behind it. It can be tempting to just look at what’s on the surface (the behaviour we see) and ignore what’s happening underneath (the underlying causes) but this only leads to short term solutions and the child can remain distressed. In this article I hope to illustrate the complexity of children’s behaviour and how we need to work in partnership with parents, colleagues and external agencies in order to identify and meet a child’s needs.
Getting it right from the start
The information you gather during the induction process will enable you to form a picture of the child’s previous experiences and how these might impact on their behaviour. This isn’t about making judgements but being fully informed so you can work in partnership with parents. I’d recommend considering the following points:
A child’s Red Health Book contains information about their birth, hearing test results and referrals to other professionals so asking parents to bring a copy of the book as part of your induction procedure can be beneficial.
Loss of hearing can impact on children’s behaviour. All children have the newborn hearing screening test (1) which helps to identify babies who have a permanent hearing loss. However, Glue ear (2) is one of the most common childhood conditions and affects many under-fives, resulting in temporary loss of hearing. Children with glue ear will sometimes appear to have colds or will breathe through their mouth. As the condition can be intermittent you might also notice changes in their attention levels.
Are there any concerns about the child’s sleeping or eating? I certainly can’t function if my sleep has been interrupted over a number of nights and become so short tempered that my husband recommends I have a nap! You could suggest that parents contact their Health Visitor for support or The Sleep Charity (3) which has helpful tips on its website. Poor diet can impact on a child’s behaviour and evidence shows (4) that iron deficiency can lead to developmental delays and poor growth as well as tiredness. Up to 40% of children in areas of socio economic deprivation show reduced iron levels, this leaflet provides further information and advice for parents. (5) If there are significant issues around eating I’d recommend a visit to the GP or Health Visitor. Speech and Language Therapists can advise if there are feeding or swallowing difficulties.
Previous and Current Experiences:
Many children have little contact with other children before attending an early years setting and if they have no siblings might understandably be completely overwhelmed in a busy environment where they’re often expected to share and take turns. Do they have regular access to physical activity? If they don’t have a garden, then access might be limited and anecdotal evidence suggests that increasing numbers of mobile children are spending time in pushchairs or being driven to settings. This means they are “raring to go” when they enter your setting and desperately need access to outdoors.
Does the family have appropriate housing? Since 2010 there has been a 65% rise in homeless households with some families facing high numbers of moves or being housed in unsuitable accommodation such as Bed and Breakfasts. (6) Does the parent feel safe at home? Around one in five children have witnessed domestic abuse (7) so consider displaying a poster (8) in your setting and write a note on the poster explaining that the setting telephone can be used in such circumstances.
Developmental Starting Points:
Behaviour is always linked to a child’s development and we must focus on their developmental stage rather than their chronological age. For example, a 38 month old at a developmental stage of 24 months will find it difficult to pay attention and follow instructions and will want to explore everything on offer, even if it’s not available! “What to expect when?” (9) provides a starting point for discussion and I like the Every Child a Talker Child Monitoring Tool (10) which provides an over of a child’s social communication, expressive and receptive language, attention and listening. I’d advise completing this checklist from the beginning, thinking about the child as they are now because gaps in development can be significant.
Policies and Procedures:
Do you explain to all parents how you support children’s behaviour by modelling, leading by example and using the child’s interests to engage them? Sharing strategies such as telling children what to do rather than not what to do, giving them choices, giving specific praise and explaining key stages in development regarding a child’s behaviour will be appreciated by the majority of parents. Do you introduce parents to your Behaviour Coordinator and SENCO and explain their roles? This can help to reduce the fear and possible stigma if you need their input at a later stage. I’d also recommend explaining to all parents that you seek advice from a range of professionals in order to meet children’s needs and make sure this is written in your policy for parents to agree to and sign.
Consider explaining to all parents that in line with statutory requirements, you are an inclusive setting so children with a range of needs will be attending. There may be times when children show through their behaviour that they are struggling and although your duty is to keep all children safe, you also have to respect confidentiality so cannot share information about individual children without parental permission.
The Learning Environment
The most important aspect of any learning environment is its staff. I’ve visited hundreds of early years settings, many have been purpose built, well resourced, with wonderful outdoor areas but if staff weren’t engaged with the children, understood their developmental stage or built secure attachments, the result was chaos, with frustrated, bored and anxious children showing through their behaviour that they weren’t coping.
I’d recommend auditing your environment on a half termly basis and involving all staff. This simple audit provides some starting points for discussion. (11) Try to see and hear from the child’s point of view, what is it really like to be a child at your setting from drop off to pick up time?
Behaviour is a sign that something is going wrong for a child and they’re responding in the only way they can, it’s our responsibility to support them.
Points to Consider:
- Hearing – always arrange a hearing test so this can be ruled out. We can’t expect children to follow instructions if they can’t hear.
- Previous experiences, changes at home, medical needs, eating, sleeping, changes of staff.
- Is the learning environment meeting the child’s developmental needs?
- How are staff supporting the child? Are their expectations realistic and are responses consistent?
- When is the child receiving attention? For the majority of children, any attention is better than no attention so children become “attention needing” in the most inventive ways. Try to flip this and provide attention when appropriate behaviour is shown.
- Safeguarding – be prepared to “think the unthinkable” and discuss as a whole staff team whether there are any indications. Always consider the possibility of domestic abuse, do you know who is visiting or living in the child’s house?
- What support is being offered to staff? We can feel very inadequate and frustrated when we feel we’re failing a child or our usual strategies aren’t working. It’s important to be honest and recognise when we’re struggling. Sometimes 5 – 10 minutes away from the room can make a huge difference.
- Are staff showing anxiety or stress when interacting with the child? Children are very sensitive to our moods and situations can easily escalate when charged emotions are involved. Try to make sure you take deep breaths before intervening, keep your voice calm and controlled and monitor your body language closely.
- Ensure your developmental assessments are up to date. Are there any gaps which could explain the child’s behaviour?
- Discuss your concerns with the setting based Behaviour Coordinator and room staff as it’s useful to have more than one opinion.
- Think about when the behaviour isn’t happening, why is this?
- Seek parental advice, how is the child at home and are there any concerns? How can you work together to offer support? Ensure you do not point any blame but focus on what needs to happen next, remember that parents are the experts on their child. Make a written record of any conversations with parents or other professionals.
- Complete ABC observation sheets over a period of sessions to identify triggers, patterns and staff responses. (12) ABC observation sheets can also be completed by the parent and any other settings attended by the child, this means you have quality information on which to base your next steps.
- Consider writing a Support Plan where you state what steps staff/parents will take to support the child. This will enable you to monitor progress and provide evidence if needed at a later stage.
- Remember that a child’s behaviour won’t change quickly and we need to have patience just as we would with any other aspect of development.
- If your environment is appropriate for the child, staff responses have been consistent for a period of at least three weeks (longer if the child isn’t attending many sessions) or the child’s physical responses are a danger to others then you need to seek further advice. As parents have agreed (during the induction process) to you working in partnership with other professionals this shouldn’t be a surprise to them but always seek written permission. Health Visitors can be invited to a meeting at the setting or you can ask your Local Authority Early Years Team for support. Your local Special School or Pupil Referral Unit might have an outreach service, it’s always worth asking.
- If support isn’t forthcoming, email or write to professionals as this is more difficult to ignore and provides you with evidence of doing all you can to meet the child’s needs.
- If the child is displaying physical behaviour or is a risk to themselves or others, ask your Local Authority for an Individual Risk Assessment document.
- Physical intervention by staff should always be a last resort (Refer to point 3.52, Statutory Framework for the EYFS, 2017) and there must be a written record which is shared and signed by the parent.
- If possible, remove the other children from the room rather than trying to intervene with a distressed and unpredictable child. Plan this in advance so everyone knows the procedure and sing a song as you march out of the room. Children take their cues from us so if we are calm and in control, they will be the same.
- If you’ve explained that your setting is inclusive and that you are committed to meeting children’s needs then parental complaints about an individual child’s behaviour should be reduced. If complaints occur you can refer back to your policies which parents agreed to during the induction process.
- In very rare cases, it might not be appropriate for a child to continue attending a setting but exclusion really should be the last resort. You will need to show that you have exhausted all possibilities, contacted a range of professionals for advice and implemented their suggestions (13). A decision to exclude a child shouldn’t be taken by the setting alone but in consultation with parents and professionals. The Local Authority should be involved to support the family in finding alternative provision for the child. Please don’t underestimate the huge impact exclusion can have on a family. It can mean that a vulnerable child could disappear off the radar until they start school with potentially life long consequences. More than half of UK prisoners have been excluded from school and just 1% of excluded children gain five good GCSEs (14).
Making a Difference:
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Early Years practitioners have the power to turn a child’s life around and set them on the path to success. I’ve been privileged to see this happen on many occasions and it is partnership working that’s achieved this, we can’t resolve children’s distressed behaviour alone. Please remember the aeroplane analogy, put on your own oxygen mask first as you won’t be in a position to support a child and family if you don’t have your own support.
Keep looking for the reasons behind a child’s behaviour, what you find there might sometimes break your heart but it could also change a child’s life. What a privilege it is to work in the early years.
Edited by Rebecca