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Promoting Positive Behavior in Young Children


Have you ever found yourself thinking, ‘my child just doesn’t listen to me?’ or ‘why are they being so naughty?’ and wondered how to manage their behavior?

Promoting positive behavior in young children can be challenging, and when your child is acting out it can be difficult to know the best way to support them to act in an appropriate way.

Before we look at how to “discipline” a child we must focus on what is causing the undesirable behavior. Children look up to adults as role models and for guidance – they need our help to deal with difficult emotions, resolve conflicts and to act appropriately.

Here are some tips that we hope can help:

Are your expectations developmentally appropriate?

Children will all go through a natural sequence of development and we need to make sure, as adults, we are acting to support them through these unique times in their life.

Be aware of what to expect for your child’s age – our expectations for young babies and 4 year olds will naturally be different. Start by researching some key milestones for your child’s age. For example, it is not appropriate to expect a 2 year old child to share, where we could expect this from a 4 year old. It is also expected for younger children to resolve conflicts in a physical way as their language skills are not yet developed.

As we become aware and sensitive to the age and stage of each child’s development, we can tailor our approach to each child. If a child is acting in a way that is expected for their stage of development, they shouldn’t be disciplined but rather supported. So if you find your child hitting another child to get a toy, tell them, “No, this isn’t kind,” but also help give them the language they need for next time. Ask them, “Were you playing with that car? Did they take it from them? Why don’t I help you ask for it back?”

Could the situation be avoided?

Are their times when you can sense your child is about to act out? Can you almost predict when they are going to snatch a toy from someone else? Does your child usually look for extra attention when you start speaking with other people? Helping your child avoid scenarios where they may be tempted to use undesirable behaviours will help promote positive behavior.

By making sure you are watching and ready to step in to help, we can avoid these situations – talk to your child about what is happening and give them some options of how to go forward. Make sure there are enough toys, resources etc. Preventing these types of situations is usually easier than dealing with the behavior that results from them.

Is there any reason your child is not listening?

In a perfect world your child would listen to everything you say and follow each instruction without hesitation, but as children are individuals it is possible that there may be another reason as to why they are not listening. And remember, children also need to learn through doing. Are your child’s basic needs being met in this moment? If a child is hungry or tired they may not be able to act in a positive way – they will need your sensitivity and support. Maybe offer them an easier choice or help them to do what you ask. Has your child recently been through a transition? Sometimes a big (or small) life change can cause them to act out. Is there anything that’s bothering them? Giving your child some extra help and sensitivity during these times can help them with the transition.

Talk to them about what is going on and recognise that this is a phase that they are going through, which may result in some behavioral changes – this is your child’s way of communicating with you. They are not able to say out loud how they feel and use these behaviours to communicate.

Is there a power struggle?

Children have their whole lives dictated to them and as their sense of identity develops sometimes they start to assert themselves as an individual in a less than desirable way. They may do things just because they can or say no to everything. In this case, find a way to empower your child. Give them simple choices where you’re all right with both outcomes. Don’t make the question, “Do you want to have a bath?” but rather, “Would you like to have bubbles or boats in your bath tonight?” By offering them this choice and empowering children you can avoid a lot of negative behaviour.

I’ve tried everything… What now?

If after all that, your child is still demonstrating negative behaviour, there are a few things that you can do. But remember…

  • For most negative behaviour, having an adult there to help the children work it out is all they need. Children don’t yet know all that they are allowed to do (for them climbing across a table is the quickest way to get something – we need to tell them to walk around).
  • Consistency and follow through are the most important, so pick your battles. Decide what is unacceptable behaviour such as hitting, running away or biting – and be consistent. If your child is getting in trouble for every little thing they will soon start to tune you out.
  • For other types of behaviour, there will likely be a natural consequence to their action – if they pour out their juice on the table they should be made to clean it up. If they throw a toy out of the pram they should be no longer allowed to play with it.

When you need to intervene:

  1. Tell your child that their actions were unkind/hurtful/wrong but separate the child from their actions. Your child is not bad or naughty.
  2. Speak simply and clearly using vocabulary appropriate for your child’s age.
  3. Have your child take a break and sit out for 1 minute for every year of their age. This time is for your child to calm down and think about what they have done. Do not sit them on your lap but make sure they are safe and stay in the designated spot.
  4. This is not a ‘naughty corner,’ but an opportunity for your child to take some time to calm down before talking about what has happened.
  5. If your child has hurt someone else have them check on them and see if they are okay. Is there any way your child can make them feel better?
  6. Tell them that you will not allow them to hurt others and if they continue to act in this way that they will have to sit out again – and be sure to follow through with your promise.

Children, like adults, are not perfect. They are learning a lot including how to behave and look to adults to provide them with structure and guidance as they learn. By thinking of your child as someone who is trying to please and who wants to be ‘good’, we can change some of our interactions with them when they demonstrate negative behaviour. All behaviour is communication and they need a more skillful interpreter to help them express themselves and cooperate with others.

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