Support children to make positive changes

Written by: Debbie Chalmers, early years teacher and education author
Monday, January 14, 2019

Practitioners need to work with children to understand the reasons and factors behind their challenging behaviour and to help them fit into their social group without losing their individuality.

We all know children in our early years settings who need support to sit within a group, who shout, cry or complain, push, hurt or upset other children, argue with adults, snatch, break or throw toys, struggle to share, run around wildly and refuse to join in with activities or accept care routines. They need our help to make positive changes.

How do we first notice challenging behaviour?
A very young child may push, hit or bite others, snatch, break or throw toys, refuse to sit still to eat meals, throw food, drinks, bowls or cutlery and consistently refuse to do as an adult asks, to stop when requested or to comply with care routines. They may run away when asked to come, pull away when held and stiffen their body when encouraged to sit down, cry, shout or scream often and frequently say ‘No!’

A slightly older child may shout, demand, snatch, run around, push or hit their peers, throw or break toys and equipment, spoil other children’s games and refuse to sit still, join in with the group or wait their turn to play or speak. They may expect to dominate an adult’s attention, or insist that the group always listens to them.

Why do some children develop challenging behaviour?
The reasons are as individual as the children themselves. Understanding and recognising factors and triggers for each child allows us to offer appropriate guidance and support and work with the child to develop acceptable reactions and responses.

A very bright child, who is under-stimulated by the activities offered or the slower learning pace of their peers, seeks to use toys and equipment in unconventional ways to experiment and satisfy their curiosity, or finds excitement by leading others into forbidden activities or taunting adults to exasperation.

A child who is physically bigger and stronger than their peers finds it hard to move and play among smaller children who are easily scared or hurt. A child who is naturally active and restless needs to move around and change activities frequently.

A child used to friendly jostling with older siblings may push others aside and grab equipment, knock over game pieces and laugh loudly, not understanding that they cannot treat their peers in the same carelessly familiar way.

A child who is overwhelmed by their environment and consumed by separation anxiety behaves defensively, is unable to share or take turns and expects undivided attention from adults. A child over excited by playing with other children and new toys becomes over stimulated and unable to regulate their behaviour, leading to running, shouting, kicking, throwing, or initiating silliness for others to copy.

The possibility of a special need, learning diffculty, health condition or sensory impairment must be considered. A child may be struggling to cope in a setting because of difficulties with concentration, processing information or poor health.

Children may be hungry or tired. Some families struggle to feed their children adequately or to focus on establishing good routines for meals and sleep. When children lack the security of strong routines and expectations at home and feel that nobody notices or cares, they stop trying to please and seek attention from adults in any ways they nd e ective. Negative attention is more attractive to a young child than being ignored.

What is the impact on other children in the group?
Practitioners give more time and attention to children exhibiting challenging behaviour, to keep others safe and minimise damage to resources and equipment, as well as to meet the specific needs of these children.

Other children in the setting may be hurt or upset. The environment is more unsettled and practitioners more stressed and tired. Some children fear these individuals and cry or move away when they approach, which disrupts their thinking and learning. Some children copy the negative behaviour, instead of developing skills and realising their potential.

Circle times and group activities are slowed down and disrupted, creating an environment of less learning and enjoyment. Practitioners’ concentration and enthusiasm is constantly interrupted and therefore reduced.

How are practitioners affected by having to deal with this behaviour? While practitioners will be determined to help every child as an individual, dealing with challenging behaviour every day can be exhausting, draining and frustrating, when progress is slow and the work feels like one long relentless battle. Some games and activities may be limited or not considered for the group and other children can receive less adult attention.

Extra time is needed for talking with parents and carers, writing up forms for accidents and incidents and developing and discussing plans, goals, successes and setbacks with colleagues. A behavioural plan must be prepared and progress monitored, while other children and parents are reassured that the behaviour will improve.

What short and longer term effects occur for the child who displays challenging behaviour and for their family?

Children who are constantly stopped or reprimanded can feel frustrated, angry and upset and su er low self-con dence and self-esteem. ey will feel unhappy, aggressive or defensive within a setting if they lack peer friendships and think that adults are disappointed with them.

Parents who recognise their child’s difficulties will be worried and upset. Their stress, frustration or anger can make the behaviour escalate further, so it is important to reassure them that things will improve and encourage them to work consistently with practitioners to bring about positive change.

If they are embarrassed, they might withdraw from friends and from taking the child out in public, becoming insular and isolated. Parents who feel that they are failing might suffer a lack of self-confidence, which can lead to breakdowns in relationships within the family. Siblings can suffer greatly and begin to resent the child and their behaviour if it limits and isolates them also.

How can we support a child to change undesirable behaviours and realise their full potential?
Observe the child very closely over several days to identify specific triggers and reasons for the challenging behaviour. Talk with the child’s parents and carers to share ideas and advice. Ensure that parents understand the importance of working together consistently, without attaching blame or appearing unsympathetic. If they belittle the problems by referring to the child as merely being a bit cheeky, or deny any problems and encourage their child in undesirable behaviours and poor manners, such as shouting for attention or taking what they want, explain clearly and firmly the reasons for necessary rules and boundaries in group childcare.

Use the child’s interests and preferred activities as a starting point, gradually adapting them and introducing stimulating new ideas. Play with the child, demonstrating careful handling of toys and the satisfaction of playing without fighting or upsetting others. Involve the child in carefully selected small groups. Remain fully involved and support the child to maintain appropriate behaviour throughout short sessions, as you all sit together, listen, wait for each other and take turns.

Offer one-to-one supervision and support at meal and snack times, encouraging sitting still, chatting with others, using cutlery and observing good table manners. Be efficient and matter of fact about other required procedures. Make polite but firm requests and expect the child to respond positively. Use simple language and direct speech:

‘Please sit on your chair and eat your potato with your fork. Stop throwing the bricks and help us to build a house’.

Ask once, then tell once, then help the child to comply. Accept no excuses and take no notice of any fuss made, except to ask for it to stop. Show the child better ways of achieving their aims and asking for things, since showing off, being silly, grabbing what you want and disrupting activities does not make friends or earn merit.

Always be aware of where the child is and what they are doing. Praise them for desirable behaviour and achievements and point these out to other children:

‘That is such a good way to make a train! Look how many bricks have been put together for the coaches.

‘I’m so happy that the puzzle pieces have been counted carefully and tidied away neatly in time for lunch.’

Tell colleagues about the child’s achievements to rebuild their sense of worth and self-esteem:

‘He made such a good road with the blocks and let the other children drive their cars along it and they all thought it was great!

‘She played the colour lotto game three times with different friends and they all took turns and shared the pieces and we had such a good time’.

Give clear step by step instructions and repeat them as many times as necessary. Whenever the child’s behaviour is unacceptable, remove them immediately from the situation, ignoring crying, screaming, kicking or writhing, and put them down in a safe place away from other children. Bring them back as soon as they are calm and ready to try again. Monitor regularly to check that tantrums are lessening in frequency and intensity.

However bad a day a child has, welcome them back into the setting warmly the next day and o er a new opportunity to start again together. Gradually increase expectations, moving at the child’s pace. Find safe ways to rest between activities, as making behavioural changes is hard work and very tiring. A child may need to hold ribbons, beanbags, stress balls or wooden blocks, run around outdoors, bang or shake instruments or tins, throw balls, line up small toys, punch cushions, tear up scrap paper, look at books or photographs, sit quietly in a beanbag or play alone squeezing playdough or pouring water, sand or lentils.


Insist on the child eating and sleeping regularly, address health issues and investigate possible special needs or conditions. Physical wellbeing is vital before a child can achieve behavioural control, learning and development. Spend time talking with and holding the child. Make them feel special, cared for, wanted, respected and loved. Once they feel good about themselves, know that adults like them and hear other children ask to be friends, their challenging behaviour will fade away. 

Key points:

●  Identify specific factors, triggers and reasons for the behaviour

●  Work consistently with all adults involved in the children’s care

●  Support the children as they make their own positive changes

Key resources
Understanding Children’s Behaviour: Learning to be with others in the Early Years (Supporting Development in the Early Years Foundation Stage) by Penny Tassoni (Featherstone)
Understanding Child Development 0-8 Years 4th Edition: Linking Theory and Practice by Jennie Lindon and Kathy Brodie (Hodder Education)
Supporting children’s social development by Jennie Lindon (Practical Pre-School Books)

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