Promoting Positive Behaviour in Early Years: A Guide for Nurseries

February 20, 2017
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This article looks at strategies to promote emotional, social, and cognitive skills in young children. Ofsted-registered early years providers must make provisions for the development of these skills. EYFS encourage the development of ‘positive behaviour’ such as:

  • Emotional Intelligence: Promoting the management of feelings and behaviour.
  • Social Skills: Encouraging infants to form positive, respectful relationships.
  • Cognitive Skills: Increasing self-confidence and self-awareness.

How to Promote Positive Behaviour in Nursery

Before children go to school, they learn essential skills in the best way: through play, interaction, and discussion. Nursery plays a key role in facilitating opportunities for learning and development.

To develop reasoning and problem solving (i.e. cognitive skills), make use of activities, structured and free play, and games that encourage curiosity. Infants learn by playing, listening, watching, asking questions, and doing. Try practising the alphabet or counting, sorting shapes and colours, jigsaws, singing, and playing with interesting toys and objects.

Social development will happen every day. Use structured group play to encourage positive and respectful relationships.

To help children develop emotional intelligence, you have to 1) recognise their emotional needs and 2) acknowledge them by articulating them.

For example, saying “I understand it’s hard for you to stop drawing because you are enjoying it so much, but it’s time to come for dinner now.”

This does three things.

  1. Aids the development of empathy.
  2. Helps children to connect the dots between how they’re feeling and what they’re doing – spotting where emotions come from can help children develop self-awareness.
  3. Triggers a soothing biochemical reaction. When a child feels understood, their neural pathway linked to emotional intelligence grows, and in time, children will learn to sooth themselves by accepting their emotions.

Other methods of developing emotional intelligence include accepting expressions of emotion (rather than shh-ing or scolding) and listening. When a temper tantrum comes your way, encourage them to calm down and explain to you why they are reacting like this.

A little boy being told off and feeling sad


Creating a Positive Behaviour Policy

Defining boundaries teaches children vital cognitive skills about what behaviours are and aren’t acceptable. These are crucial skills for social integration, respect for rules, and for school and work.

You can use your policy as a selling point, it demonstrates your commitment to the Early Years Foundation Stage framework and to child development. This document sells your values, ethics, and principles to parents wanting to find excellent childcare.

Define Your Expectations for Positive Behaviour. 

There’s a little trick you can do to figure out all your expectations. Sit down with a pen and paper or your laptop or even a video recorder and think about a normal day at work. You might also want to think about behaviour expectations for trips. Imagine a day at work where you take the children in your care to the park or a museum. In this scenario, what are your expectations, and how do they differ from a day at nursery or at your home?

Design a ‘Behaviour Charter’. 

In your charter, policy or contract consider your behaviours and responsibilities too. This creates a sense of cooperation between parents, children, and staff.

Now that you’ve completed that task, sit down to write your expectations up. Here are 6 tips for thinking about and implementing your expectations:

  1. Justify your expectations and come up with a toddler-appropriate explanation. Toddlers are famous for asking ‘why?’
  2. Ask the children in your care for their input. What kind of great behaviour do they think everyone deserves?
  3. Express your rules positively. A long list of dos and don’ts can trigger that instinct to be curious (e.g. “‘ but why? why? why?”), and then, to rebel.
  4. Refer back to the rules as a reminder when trouble is on the horizon.
  5. Include rules about group behaviours. This encourages cooperation and builds social skills.
  6. Write expectations for everyone. This means children, parents, AND yourself (what can they expect from you?).

Once you’ve designed your charter, discuss these expectations with parents and children and be prepared for cooperation and negotiation. Then, ask children and parents to sign the charter.

Finally, make sure it’s visible at all times.

Little girl up to no good being reminded of the positive behaviour policy


Strategies to Manage Difficult Behaviour

Ignore challenging behaviour. If early intervention methods like discussion have failed, ignoring bad behaviour is a great method (one of the best, even). This means no eye contact, no verbal exchange, and no physical contact.

Give specific and timely feedback on negative behaviour. Explain to them what they are doing wrong and offer them options to change and lay out the consequences of such behaviour. You can refer back to the Positive Behaviour Policy here and remind them of the behaviours that they agreed on.

Issue one command at a time. It’s tempting to string a chain of commands together – but resist the urge. One command at a time is much more effective because too many requests lead to confusion and frustration. Equally, give children time to respond. Instead of repeating yourself – give two or three minutes for a child to process and follow the command.

Have a no mixed message policy. When you praise a child, especially if they normally have bad behaviour, don’t taint the praise. Keeping it as a compliment is much more effective and it will boost the child’s confidence about good behaviour.


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