Surprisingly Simple Techniques for Challenging Behaviour

I often get asked about children’s behaviour.

It is a massive topic, with many facets. However, I would always start from the perspective that all behaviour, good or unacceptable, is a form of communication. It is how we, as practitioners and adults, respond to that communication that makes all the difference.

The Webster Stratton method is a well known and widely used behaviour management strategy. It is based on a hierarchy pyramid, with Play at the foundation, moving up through Praise, Limit setting, Ignoring and using Time out as a final resort.

When working with parents, there is a focus each week on one element, and the strategies are then constructed from this information. As practitioners, we are already well aware of the role of play and its importance in many areas, not just behaviour.

The heart of play and behaviour is that the play is child led and that children are allowed to play ‘freely’. By this I mean that there is no judgement on their choices or manner of play. For example, if your child chooses blue paint for a pig, that is fine and should not be criticised. You may wish to look at real pigs or pictures to compare these, but in a positive way.

Having a supportive and encouraging emotional environment is important, because children can then feel confident to express their feelings in an acceptable manner, rather than having to resort to undesirable behaviour to demonstrate their feelings or frustration.

For example, you may be getting lots of children saying “no”, even in circumstances where a “yes” would be in their best interests, for example washing hands so they can have a snack. It is worth considering whether this behaviour is because they have a lack of control elsewhere in their lives (at home or in your setting) and this may be the only time they can express themselves.

One solution to this is to provide plenty of opportunities for choice – whether it is an activity, food choices or which book to read – so the children can experience free choice in many other ways. This is even more effective if it can be replicated in the home learning environment as well as in your setting.

At a recent presentation given by Nick Dux (find his website here), he mentioned two further pieces of advice that got my interest.

First of all ‘damage and repair’. This is not something that I had heard before, but made so much sense – a “Its so obvious, now you’ve said it!” moment. If your child damages a toy, then consider how an attempt may be made to repair it (once emotions are back on the level). It may be obvious to you that it is broken beyond all redemption, but it is important for children to see that repair may be possible and that ‘broken’ may not be a permanent state.

Similarly, if there is a disagreement between children, ensure that you reinforce the positives, once the friendship is repaired. This method instills in children that it is possible to make repairs, emotionally and physically, so that one behaviour slip-up during the day does not mean that the whole day is ruined.

It also gives them a bank of experience to call upon if things are going a bit awry. They know things can get better, with a bit of work, which helps to pull them out of that negative spiral of ‘well, I’ve been told off anyway, I might as well make it worthwhile…’.

The second thing that Nick mentioned was your own emotional health. Whenever I do social and emotional training, it is always the last section that I cover. Being an Early Years practitioner can be emotionally and physically draining. It is so important that we both recognise this and address it, for our own well-being.

But Nick also added another good reason – so we can act appropriately when confronted with unacceptable behaviour. If we are tired or emotionally drained, it is so much more difficult to react in a rational, logical, constructive way to children’s behaviour. It is just human nature.

There may be many, many reasons for children’s unacceptable behaviour, some of which we may have control over and some of which we don’t. Most critically, you should recognise that your child is trying to tell you something. Getting to the underlying cause is as important as having a secure behaviour strategy to deal with the resulting behaviour.

Being able to demonstrate to children that things can be put right (rather than keep reminding them of what NOT to do) builds up ‘repair’ experiences, ready to be called on in the future.

Finally, do look after yourself. Be honest. Talk to your colleagues and use your supervision meetings. We are all human.

After all, if you aren’t there to be an advocate for your children, who will be?

P.S. Nick Dux will be doing a workshop on ‘The vicious cycle of toxic shame and the impact it has on a young person’s behaviour’ at the North West Early Years Teachers Development Day, 11th March 2016. Find more details here.

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  • Rebecca Sep 27,2015 at 1:26 pm

    This is a timely reminder Kathie, thank you. I have come across the repair idea before in my Solihull Approach training, but not applied in exactly that way. the SA focuses on how in all relationships there are incidents of rupture and repair (comes from the theory of interactions being like a dance – the dance of reciprocity) and that rupture is a natural and important phenomenon in the building of relationships and resilience as long as it is followed by repair. An example would be a parent who is tired reacting impatiently with a child’s request and the child becoming upset. Repair would come when the parent realises that they over-reacted and acknowledges this to the child, apologising or giving a hug for example.

    • Kathy Sep 28,2015 at 9:15 am

      Hi Rebecca,
      Thank you so much for your insights. It does sound very similar – how interesting that similar strategies are used!
      best regards


  • Beccy Sep 26,2015 at 8:13 am

    Very useful article to use with staff. It not only highlights the need to understand that all behaviour is communicating something, but also stresses the importance of practitioners own wellbeing to be able to deal with challenging situations in a rational and calm way. I will definitely be using it with my staff.

    • Kathy Sep 28,2015 at 9:17 am

      Dear Beccy,
      Many thanks for sharing this with your staff. As with all strategies, they are only as effective as the people implementing them!
      Best regards

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