Promoting Positive Behaviour in Early Years: A Guide for Nurseries

September 15, 2021
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Behaviour can have a huge impact on early years settings and your enjoyment of your role. While positive behaviour helps children to have better outcomes and improved wellbeing (as well as going hand-in-hand with personal, social, and emotional development), negative behaviour can do the opposite. As a result, it’s important to set realistic expectations for the children in your care, and to be familiar with behaviour management strategies, including strategies for tantrums, biting and hitting, and refusal to cooperate.  

In this article, we will look at all of the above, tying it into ways you can make effective provisions for personal, social, and emotional development, as you are required to do if you are Ofsted-registered.

How to Promote Positive Behaviour in Nursery

The EYFS framework describes ‘positive behaviour’ to consist of:

  • Emotional Intelligence:  Managing feelings and behaviour (self-regulation), being able to express your emotions effectively, and being empathic towards others.
  • Social Skills: Being able to form positive, respectful relationships.
  • Cognitive Skills: Having self-confidence and self-awareness, and the ability to understand different feelings. 

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

Some broad strategies that you can use to help children develop the ability to behave in a positive way include:

Making use of activities, structured and explorative play, and games that encourage curiosity – this develops children’s reasoning and problem-solving (i.e. cognitive skills). They learn best by playing, listening, watching, asking questions, and doing, so set this in motion – for example, try setting them a challenge, such as building a bridge or tower.

Using structured group play to encourage positive and respectful relationships (i.e. social development). For example, you could play games where children learn to share, such as circle games or board games where they have to take turns to roll a dice. Additionally, make sure you and other adults have a trusting relationship with the children – you can be a role model for good relationships. Strong relationships also link to emotional development, making children feel more able to share their feelings with you. 

Recognising their emotional needs and acknowledging them by articulating them, to aid children’s emotional intelligence. For example, you could say: “I understand it’s hard for you to stop playing on the bike, but it’s someone else’s turn 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 soothe themselves by accepting their emotions.

Other methods of developing emotional intelligence include accepting and listening to expressions of emotion, rather than shushing them, telling them to stop crying, or scolding them. Everyone should be allowed to express how they are feeling and know that it is valid. You might think that children often overreact, but this is because their brains are developing so quickly that they can be easily overwhelmed with emotion. In other words, this is natural, and should be accepted and accounted for in your setting.

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What Behaviour Should I Expect From a Child at Different Stages?

Behaviour expectations are key when working with children – you should be clear about how you expect children to behave in different scenarios, and communicate this to them. For example, you might have two golden rules for toddlers (e.g. ‘kind hands’ and ‘take turns when playing with toys’), and three rules for children who are older. You should repeat these rules every day, and have a visual reminder of them on the walls of the room (e.g. photos of children following the rules). 

However, before you set your behaviour expectations, you need to consider what typical behaviour for children at each stage of development looks like. This helps you to know what is a reasonable expectation and what is not. For example, it’s unreasonable to hold children to adult standards, because they’re not yet ready to behave in that way – it takes time to build up the ability to do so. 

Typical behaviour for each age range, based on Birth to 5 Matters guidance, looks like:

Range 1 (roughly birth to 6 months)drop down menu

  • Expresses feelings strongly through crying in order to make sure their needs will be met.
  • May whimper, scream, or cry if hurt/neglected – if their needs are consistently not responded to, they may become withdrawn and passive.
  • Becomes wary of unfamiliar people or people they have not seen for a while.
  • Begins to display attachment behaviours (e.g. becoming upset when left with an unfamiliar person).

Range 2 (roughly 12-18 months)drop down menu

  • Shows separation anxiety as they become more aware of themselves as separate individuals. Wants to stay near to their close carers, checks where they are, and protests when separated.
  • Wary of unfamiliar people.
  • Emerging autonomy – rejects things they do not want (e.g. by pushing them away).
  • Becomes more able to adapt their behaviour and participate or cooperate with you, helped by routine.
  • Explores the boundaries of behaviours that are accepted by adults, becoming aware of basic rules.

Range 3 (roughly 18-24 months)drop down menu

  • Does not yet understand others’ thoughts or needs, but shows empathy by offering comfort that they themselves would find soothing (e.g. giving another child their dummy).
  • Asserts their own ideas and preferences, and starts to take notice of other people’s responses.
  • Starts to experiment with influencing others, cooperating or playing together, and resisting coercion.
  • Experiences a wide range of feelings with great intensity (e.g. anger and frustration) – this can be overwhelming and result in them losing control of their feelings, body, and thoughts.
  • May display frustration with having to comply with others’ agendas and with change/boundaries.
  • Will sometimes withdraw or collapse with frustration after long periods of social engagement.

Range 4 (roughly 24-36 months)drop down menu

  • Builds relationships with special people but may show anxiety in the presence of strangers.
  • Wants to be autonomous – becomes more able to separate from close carers and explore new situations (with support and encouragement from another familiar adult).
  • Shows some understanding that other people have perspectives, ideas, and needs that are different to theirs (e.g. may turn a book to face you so that you can see it).
  • May recognise that some actions can hurt or harm others, and begins to stop themselves from doing something they should not do (in favourable conditions – e.g. with familiar people and environments, when free from anxiety).
  • Begins to be able to cooperate in favourable situations.
  • Gradually learns that actions have consequences, but not always the consequences that they hope for.
  • Can feel overwhelmed by intense emotions, resulting in an emotional collapse when frightened, frustrated, angry, anxious, or overstimulated.
  • Experience of routines and understanding of boundaries grows.

Range 5 (roughly 36-48 months)drop down menu

  • Shows increasing consideration of other people’s needs and gradually more impulse control (in favourable conditions).
  • Is more able to recognise the impact of their choices and behaviours/actions on others, and knows that some actions and words can hurt others’ feelings.
  • Understands that expectations vary depending on different events, social situations, and changes in routine – more able to adapt their behaviour.
  • Practises skills of assertion, negotiation, and compromise.
  • Looks to a supportive adult for help in resolving conflict with peers.
  • Uses their experience of adult behaviours to guide their social relationships and interactions.
  • May exhibit increased fearfulness of things like the dark or monsters – may have nightmares.

Range 6 (roughly 48-60 months)drop down menu

  • Starts understanding different points of view.
  • Increasingly socially skilled – develops particular friendships, is flexible and cooperative, and will take steps to resolve conflicts with other children by negotiating and finding a compromise (sometimes requiring support).
  • Is proactive in seeking support from a familiar adult and articulating their wants/needs.
  • Attempts to repair a relationship or situation where they have caused upset – understands how their actions impact other people. 
  • More able to manage their feelings and tolerate situations in which their wishes cannot be met. 
  • Is aware of behavioural expectations and sensitive to ideas of justice and fairness.

You can find out more about typical development using the Birth to 5 Matters guidance here. It might be useful to display the above information in an age-appropriate behaviour chart within your nursery, as a reminder to all staff, as well as giving it out in a parent-friendly format.

Creating a Positive Behaviour Policy or Procedure

Every early years setting should have and follow a set behaviour policy or procedure. This does not always need to be written down, but all staff should know and be aware of it. This promotes positive behaviour and ensures a safe, secure, and effective learning environment where incidents are always dealt with fairly, consistently, and proportionately. 

You can use your policy or procedure 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.

Your behaviour policy or procedure will set out expectations for everyone’s behaviour in the setting (including the adults), as well the strategies that will be used to guide children’s behaviour – both rewards and consequences. You can also include your commitment to families within it (e.g. ‘We will make sure that your child is taught right and wrong in a gentle way’). It is important for parents to be on board with the policy or procedure, because consistency is key – all adults need to take the same approach to behaviour management in order for it to be maximally effective.  

You can use the information given in this article, including the strategies that we will discuss in the next section, to create your behaviour policy or procedure. 

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

Strategies to Manage Difficult Behaviour

We have collated eight strategies that you can use to manage challenging behaviour in early years. These strategies should be useful for all kinds of behaviour issues, but we have also put together a specific guide for behaviours such as tantrums, hitting and biting, and refusal to do something.

1. Ask for the behaviour you want.

It’s always better to have a positive approach – frame your rules by asking for the behaviour you would like to see, rather than the behaviour that you wouldn’t. For example, rather than saying ‘no hitting’, ask for ‘kind hands’. When a child is displaying difficult behaviour, remind them of the rule in a positive manner and give them time to process and follow it – don’t overload them with too many sentences.

2. Reward good behaviour.

Whenever children are behaving well, reinforce them (e.g. ‘Well done for showing us kind hands, Sam!’). Make sure that praise is specific – what exactly did they do that you liked? This helps children to understand what is expected of them and choose their actions accordingly. You could also have a reward chart to add an incentive to behave – this might be a traffic light or weather board system, where you move a child’s name to a different part of the board based on their behaviour. You could also give out stickers, which might add up to an even bigger reward (e.g. a certificate, a small toy, or a class party).

3. Make the consequences clear.

When children don’t follow your expectations, give them a second chance to correct the behaviour by reminding them of the rules – but if they still don’t correct themselves, there should be an age-appropriate consequence. Consequences are most effective if they are immediate, logical, and decided in advance – you should set out in your behaviour policy which consequences you might give for different behaviours. They might be as simple as moving a child’s name on the behaviour chart, or you might decide to use methods such as thinking time (also known as time-out, though this can have a negative connotation).

If you do use thinking time, keep it for more challenging behaviours, and make sure that you sit with the child throughout – don’t abandon or isolate them. It should be an opportunity for them to calm down and sit in a quiet space, which should last for roughly one minute for each year of their life (two minutes for a two-year-old, three minutes for a three-year-old, etc). You could use a sand timer to show them how long they will be there for. After thinking time, it should be a fresh start for the child: the incident has been resolved.

4. Take note of triggers.

Certain children might display challenging behaviour regularly, and it is useful to observe what triggers this behaviour in them. You could use an ABC chart to monitor what happened directly before and after the behaviour, and see if you can spot any patterns. This will help you to fix the problem. For example, you might find that a child displays challenging behaviour whenever it’s time to tidy up – this might suggest that they struggle with transitions. As a result, you could put strategies like visual timetables in place to make it easier for them. 

5. Talk about feelings.

Discuss your own feelings with the children in your nursery to make them aware that everyone has them, as well as labelling what you think they’re feeling when they behave in a challenging way. Research has shown that labelling feelings reduces the negative effects they are having, helping the child to behave in a more positive way. You can find out more in our article here

6. Be a role model.

Children learn how to behave by watching others. As a result, it’s important that you stay calm and level-headed, never raising your voice, and follow your own behaviour expectations at all times. Additionally, don’t shame or humiliate children for their actions – this can be very damaging to their long-term mental health, and is not an effective behaviour management tool. As we’ve discussed, consequences like time-out are not a punishment, but simply time for the child to calm down, phrased in a positive way – in no circumstances should we ever tell a child they’re going to the ‘naughty step’ or ‘naughty chair’.

7. Look at additional needs (SEND).

Some children might display challenging behaviour as a result of special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND). If you suspect additional needs, you should leave diagnoses to medical professionals, but do ask your setting’s SENCo for advice, discuss your thoughts with parents, and/or get help from the Local Authority.

8. Review your strategies.

  Make sure you set aside some time regularly to think about which strategies are effective for which child, and whether you need to try something different. Your behaviour management toolset should grow and adapt over time with experience, in order to be as effective as it can be.

How to Stop a Child From Biting

In response to a child looking as if they are going to bite, you could:

  • Try to divert or distract them before they do it – invite them to join in with a different activity or come and see something interesting. 
  • Give them alternative things to bite on, especially if they are teething.
  • Talk about what mouths are used for (e.g. laughing, smiling, eating) and what they’re not used for (biting other people).
  • Praise the child when they use their mouth to do the right thing.

If a child does bite, you could:

  • Say ‘Ouch, hurts’, with an appropriate facial expression.
  • Say ‘Stop’ firmly, with an accompanying hand signal.
  • Turn your attention to the child that’s been bitten first. This ensures that the child that has bitten doesn’t learn that they will get attention for doing this.

How to Stop a Child From Hitting, Kicking, Pinching, or Scratching

With this type of challenging behaviour, it’s important to put proactive strategies in place to reduce the likelihood of it occurring. This includes:

  • Teaching your expectations clearly (e.g. ‘We use gentle hands and feet’). You may do small group activities focused around these expectations to make sure that children know what they mean.
  • Modelling how to play in different situations, including sharing. Act out good behaviour in front of the children.
  • Reinforcing them when they do it correctly, giving them praise or attention. 
  • Providing activities where children can express their feelings so they don’t need to resort to challenging behaviour, such as puppets, circle time, and quiet areas to go to.

If the behaviour does occur:

  • Make sure the other child is OK.
  • Take the child to a quiet space for thinking time if they need it – not as a punishment, but to help them calm down and not hurt anyone else.
  • Let the child know you understand how they feel, but separate the feeling from behaviour (e.g. ‘I can see that you’re angry because Sam took the toy you were playing with, but it’s not OK to bite’).
  • Don’t force the child to apologise, but wait until they have calmed down, and then discuss how you could make the injured child feel better.

Strategies for Refusal to Do Something

When a child refuses to do what’s expected of them, try:

  • Giving them a choice of two things you want them to do (e.g. ‘Do you want some banana or some apple?’). 
  • Asking them why they don’t want to do it, if they are of an age where they can explain this to you.
  • Explaining to them why you want them to do something. This can help to persuade them that it really is necessary.

To reduce the likelihood that a child will refuse to do what you’ve asked, make sure that you always:

  • Give plenty of warning of change ? try sand timers or visual timetables.  
  • Choose activities that they like to build up a habit of compliance.  
  • Shorten the length of time of the activity.  
  • Change the activity or social grouping.
  • Make sure that the activity is appropriate to them.  
  • Give lots of positive attention when the child participates in adult?led tasks.

Strategies for Tantrums

Remember that tantrums are normal – it is easy for children to become overwhelmed with everything that is going on around them. When a tantrum does occur:

  • Try to divert or distract them, if you spot it early.
  • Make sure that the child is in a safe space where they can’t hurt themselves. 
  • Ask them if they want to go to a quiet space for thinking time (if appropriate).
  • Wait for the child to calm down, and then offer them reassurance (e.g. ‘It’s OK’ or offering a cuddle or special toy).
  • Only intervene physically if there is a risk of damage to the child, other children, or property. Remember that you will need to keep a record of any times you have physically intervened with a child.

Promoting positive behaviour in nurseries is an important aspect of your practice, but all staff should remember that we can’t expect adult behaviour from a young child. By keeping typical development in mind, teaching children how to regulate and express their emotions, and having pre-determined strategies for behaviour that challenges, you can ensure that your nursery is a safe, supportive learning environment for all children.

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