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Promoting Positive Behaviour

by Helen Edwards on August 2

What is “good behaviour”?

What does good behaviour look like in your setting? Can you describe the behaviour that you would like to see? We are often reactive to behaviour, dealing with instances of unwanted behaviour as they arise, but this article will attempt to focus on creating an environment where young children will thrive, be excited to learn, and engage in opportunities that may prevent that unwanted behaviour in the first place.

To begin with, your staff team need to feel confident in their knowledge of positive behaviour management for children to feel secure with behaviour boundaries. If you have a young or inexperienced member of staff who is nervous of being assertive and confident where behaviour management is concerned, you will need to support him/her and agree strategies for him/her to try. Have you ever seen a crying baby stop crying when cuddled by confident hands? Knowledgeable, confident and consistent practitioners will cope better with poor behaviour and will be willing to try different ideas to make things work.

You will all need to discuss and agree certain strategies and management of your unique children and their behaviours. So how do you start defining a framework for positive behaviour in your setting? Firstly, decide what you want to see: at a staff meeting or training event, plan for a discussion on the types of behaviours you would like to see in your setting. No doubt you and your colleagues will come up with a variety of behaviours that are relevant to the behaviour difficulties you may be experiencing at the time, but try to keep the discussion at a higher level and think about the big picture. What would a happy, well-behaved group of children look like? Your list may well include the following:

  • respect for others
  • respect for the environment
  • independence, making choices
  • engagement in activities and experiences
  • understanding the framework of rules according to the setting
  • noise levels appropriate for the activity

A very effective activity for you to carry out is to listen  to the sound of your setting. What does your setting actually sound like? Take a recording and listen carefully.  Are there positive vibes? Happy voices, or moans and groans about “Don’t do that” or “Sit still!” Tassoni calls this the “sound temperature” of the room (1) . Are staff tones of voice good?  Do they sound like they’re having a good time? If not, why not? Does your recording demonstrate high energy, excited and motivated practitioners and children?

So why do we want children to behave? To make our lives easier? To help others feel safe and secure? To make sure they get the most out of their learning? To have fun? I’m sure you and your staff will come up with a lot more reasons. In earlier generations, children were required to demonstrate “blind obedience”: to do exactly as they were told, unquestioningly. In modern times we have questioned whether we really want children to obey out of fear.  This can put children in danger: consider a child who obeys adults religiously, eg a stranger pulls up in their car and says “Hop into the car and I’ll drive you home”. We need children to be able to make good decisions for themselves and to decide how to behave and why.  Do we want them to do it just to please adults? Or do we want them to do it because they see the reason for it and agree with it?

What is the behaviour we don’t want?

Once you have your list of the behaviour you’d like to see, you can then start to think about where your setting is at the present time. Are children demonstrating unwanted behaviour at certain times of day? During certain activities? Indoors or out? Child-initiated play or adult-led activities? Are you always worried about the behaviour of only one or two children? Do they exhibit the same behaviour in the same instances, or are they more unpredictable? Start to build a picture of the main difficulties you and your staff are experiencing.

Can you think about the children in your setting and discuss with your staff the children who respond better to clear directions, or to a matriarchal member of staff? Does the troublesome child behaviour better for one or some member of staff? Why is that? Sometimes a child can be horrendous with the teacher, but great with the TA. Does a child behave better one day than another? Is he much worse on a Monday, after a busy weekend, or spending time with an absent parent, grandparents, etc?

Discuss and agree the most common behaviour problems: make a list. They are likely to include:

  • running round and round
  • breaking/being rough with toys, books and equipment
  • hurting other children
  • spoiling the play of other children
  • being disruptive in group times

Now you are on the way to tackling each problem area, one at a time. If you are worried about children running round and round, what can you do to prevent this? Change the layout so that it is more difficult for them to continue? Make available an area specifically for them to run indoors or out? Offer them lots of physical activities as soon as they arrive? Possibly the very worst thing you can do is hold a storytime session and insist they sit still! You have to find ways of offering the children what they need, not what you have planned.

Managing emotions is a crucial part of behaving positively

For children to begin to manage their emotions successfully, we need to help them recognise what they are, and give them names. If a child is getting frustrated and angry about a model that won’t stick together, say something along the lines of “I can see you are getting a bit cross and frustrated about your model. Won’t it stick together? I wonder what we could do to sort that out?” We need to make sure the child knows that it’s OK to feel that way, and that there is something that he can do about it. By acting in this way, the practitioner has diffused the situation and helped the child to turn his attention to finding a solution to his problem.

How do you promote PSED in your setting? How do you encourage children to express their emotions within a safe and secure environment? Effective settings sometimes have an “emotions” area, where persona dolls, books, mirrors, photographs of different expressions are displayed for children to access independently or share with an adult. Circle time is an ideal opportunity to present children with different scenarios and ask them what they would do and why. Through fantasy and role play, children have the opportunity to explore different emotions and issues, thus developing and supporting their emotional well-being.

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is instant: getting reinforcement through pleasure. The most powerful kind of motivation. Intrinsic motivation, the inner reason why we do what we do, lasts through toddlerhood and stays on into later years. Most children have a natural, strong desire to learn: it’s instinctive. But they can be influenced until they end up dependent on adult approval. and rewards, and lose the self-drive to learn. Emphasis on extrinsic motivation can spoil this. As Call states, “Research shows that as children progress through the education system, their self-motivation declines as their dependence on extrinsic motivation increases. Sadly in the early years this transition is sometimes already being made, as children begin to seek extrinsic rewards such as stickers or smiley faces for doing the very activities that at one time would have satisfied them” (p.45) So please think about how you reward children for doing what you want them to do, and evaluate the usefulness of the phrase  “Do this and  you can have….”

Intrinsic motivation to learn “is one of the greatest tools that a child can have. It will enable him to overcome difficulties, be persistent, and see failure as a part of the learning process” (Call, resource book, p.47) For children to have intrinsic motivation, they need to have challenge: achievable activities, just stretching outside their comfort zone. They need to have content that develops curiosity, just stretching their current level of understanding. Just the right amount of surprise and intrigue! Children also need to have shared ownership of their curriculum and to be able to make choices. This promotes a real engagement in their learning activities.

Are our expectations of children fair and realistic?

What are we expecting our two, three and four year olds to do? Sit and wait for snack to arrive for 15 minutes perhaps? Listen to a story that is not of interest to them or relevant to their lives? Follow a routine that does not suit their needs?

Are we expecting too much of our children to sit in circle times twice a day for 15 minutes, for 38 weeks of the year? If a child hears something of interest, they want to reply straightaway but more often than not they are not permitted this at circle time.  Children are not made to passively absorb, they need to engage with the subject. Language activities have to have a “doing” component. Introduce circle time activities, not just talk for the toddlers and young children. How can we make activities more memorable for the children? More interesting and absorbing so they are less likely to switch off and become uncooperative?

Are we consistently providing a curriculum that meets the children’s individual social and intellectual needs? Many examples of inappropriate behaviour can be caused by inappropriate demands on young children. It was obvious that holding a quiet storytime after snack at my nursery resulted in children not being able to keep still, not settling, not listening and staff getting frustrated. When we swapped a lively movement session to after snacktime, the problems were solved! They simply needed to get rid of some energy after a healthy snacktime where they were sitting for 15 -20 minutes.

Weigh up the benefits of security and routine with boredom and disengagement. If Mondays are always the same in your setting, change them! Inflexible sticking to routine because that’s what’s been planned is not providing an effective learning environment.   Think “What’s new today? This week? In this room?” Review your learning environment regularly and offer new and challenging experiences so children don’t have the chance to be bored. Often we think winter born boys in the last term of nursery have outgrown the setting, in terms of poor behaviour, etc. but can’t we challenge them more? Excite them using their interests and talents? We have to be providing for their needs. The EYFS statutory guidance states, “Ensure that every child receives an enjoyable and challenging learning and development experience that is tailored to meet their individual needs” (p.37) Cycling round and round in circle, or rolling out playdough might be enjoyable for a child, but is it challenging? If children are doing the same things, possibly at the same times, every day, where is the enjoyment and challenge? We should be asking ourselves, “What new learning can I bring to registration?” If they can do certain activities do they need to keep on doing it? Children are great at showing us that they are not enjoying things: we need to register that message and act on it.

Quality interactions with children

Have you ever focussed on the quality of interactions between staff and children? Do the same children receive the most attention from the staff? Do the quiet ones get left out? Try to carry out an audit: tracking a child in your setting and recording the interactions with members of staff. Could s/he have received more attention and engaged in more dialogue with staff? When would this have been effective?

Tassoni (1) described an audit where a practitioner tracked one particular child for 9 hours. In that time, he received 4 minutes of 1-1 attention. Horrifying.

Toddlers in a mixed group (ie with 3 and 4 year olds) are likely to miss out on quality interaction, because the older 3 and 4 year olds are more verbal and possibly more demanding of your attention. Key person groups are very  important: times when an adult scoops up her 4 toddlers and does something of quality with them. Their speaking and listening skills are likely to be much improved when given this quality time. Reconsider how much free-flow with 3s and 4s your 2 year olds need. Perhaps there needs to be more adult-directed, or adult-initiated experiences for your 2s on order to get that quality interaction.

High-claiming, “attention-seeking” children can take up most of your time. What can you do to support their needs but also give you time to pay attention to your other, less demanding children? One idea is to help them to make friends with children of similar linguistic ability, and set them challenging problems, perhaps with construction kits, reorganising the role play area, or designing complex road and track layouts. Learn to recognise when your time is being taken up by one or two children, at the expense of the others, and make it up to the child whose time with you has been reduced as a result. If a child interrupts you, just make no eye-contact, but hold his hand or touch his head or shoulder so he knows you are aware he is there and that he needs you and you’ll be with him soon.But don’t stop what you’re doing until you’re ready. Then turn to him, get down to his level, and say “Thank you for waiting. Well done, you waited until I’d finished.  What can I help you with?”

Which children divert you? Are they always the same ones? Is it the same for other members of staff? Do they do it in any area of the nursery, or in some more than others? Who takes up most of your time? Is this always the same or does it vary? What actions might you need to make sure that all children receive an adequate share of attention? Lots of discussion points with your staff!

What about those children who don’t cause problems? Don’t forget that they require your attention too. They should be included in your reward system if you have one, eg star charts, special helper, etc. Children will behaviour difficulties get more attention usually, so we must not forget the quiet children who “just get on” with things. They are as deserving of our attention as those that demand it.

Children are programmed to gain attention: a perfectly normal area of development. Some children need far more than others. Indeed, if a child didn’t appear to need eye-contact, human contact, communication with others, we would be concerned.  So, “attention-seeking” is good! Our job is to support them in coping alone: praising or giving attention when they’re doing what we want them to do.

Reinforcing good behaviour: meaningful feedback to children

Acknowledgement needs to be given to children as it can be a powerful tool in encouraging appropriate behaviour. It provides a  feel good factor to all children. Always be specific, direct, and consistent. As a newly qualified teacher my mentor encouraged me to “Catch the children being good!” An example might be “How clever of you to find your socks!”

If the culture of your setting is one that recognises and celebrates achievements, children will learn to acknowledge the successes of others and celebrate with them. This in turn builds self-esteem and promotes positive behaviour. Effective examples include:

“I like the way Annie…”

“I’m so pleased……”

“That was really kind of you to….”

“I noticed how you….”

“Sally told me how you…..”

Once an achievement has been acknowledged, it’s time to show approval. This offers encouragement to repeat the behaviour. However, some children may need lots of signs of approval and others very few. It is important to offer the approval at the time. Remember to use non-verbal communication too: a thumbs up and a big smile perhaps! Or giving the child a hug and whispering how proud you are that he remembered to keep his hands on his lap at storytime. Other methods that some practitioners have used effectively are drawing a smiley face on the child’s hand, making a point of sharing the success with a parent or carer, and sharing the success with another member of staff while the child is present.

Praise is good….but be specific and be careful not to overdo it. Call cites Kohn (p63) , stating that the practitioner should follow four basic rules:

  • Don’t praise people, only what people do
  • Make praise as specific as possible
  • Avoid phony praise
  • Avoid praise that sets up competition

Call warns against non-specific words of praise:

“If non-specific words of praise are simply offered as a reaction to the child’s efforts, a chain of events is likely to be started. First, the child will feel good, for a few minutes. He might sustain his current activity or behaviour, or even be inspired to try harder. Alternatively, he might not be able to identify what exactly was pleasing you, and so his efforts will either cease or will go off track. Either way, he will probably soon need a further reassurance from you-another stroke- to reassure or encourage him He is now in danger of being hooked on praise”. (p.63)

Affirmation is the third part of the feedback process: it helps to build self-esteem. Examples such as “Emily is good at pouring her drink carefully” “We are all good at sitting still during storytime”. We need to have a positive attitude and a belief that the children can, and will, behave well and affirmations are a useful technique. Further examples you might use are:

“We take care of the books”

“We put the toys away tidily”

“We look at people when they are speaking to us”

“We wash our hands before snacktime”

What kinds of rewards do you offer the children?

As a staff group, write a list of all the ways you reward the children for positive behaviour, kindness and so on. Your list is likely to include some of the following:

  • verbal
  • cuddle
  • explanation in front of others
  • tell parent/carer
  • allow child to choose story/song
  • postcard home
  • Wow! tree
  • kindness tree
  • star chart
  • marbles in a jar
  • pat on the back
  • receiving the setting’s bear to go home that night
  • Golden Moment records
  • smiles, high 5
  • eye-contact
  • clap
  • thumbs up
  • wink
  • stickers

Factors affecting behaviour

A primary aim of early years provision is to know uor children well and to provide for their next steps in development. This knowledge is crucial if we are to effectively support positive behaviour. Knowing the kinds of events and experiences that can affect behaviour will help us to adapt our techniques to suit the individual child. Examples influencing behaviour include:

  • sleep debt previous night
  • hearing loss (1 in 4 children)
  • habitually tired (maybe getting enough sleep to survive, but not to thrive)
  • unwell
  • hungry
  • thirsty
  • changes in home circumstances, eg a new baby
  • worrying about an event in the future or past


When we describe the behaviours that we wish children to display, we have to make sure that we are providing them with a learning environment that meets their individual social, emotional and intellectual needs. We need to offer exciting, motivating, and challenging learning opportunities whilst at the same time not make inappropriate demands on such young children. Once we are providing appropriate experiences we need to define our expectations of the children, making sure they are developmentally appropriate. Creating a consistent framework, where all staff know their roles and responsibilities, is essential, and the way to achieve this is by holding discussions with your colleagues and creating a behaviour management policy that works for you and your children.


Call, N (2010) The Thinking Child, Continuum Press

Call, N (2010) The Thinking Child Resource Book, Continuum Press

Tassoni, P.  Behaviour Management Training Day, East Sussex EYP network




Helen avoided full-time work for many years, following her ambition to be a perpetual student. After a degree in Linguistics, Music and Astronomy (probably the only person to have studied this particular combination of subjects) she gained a D.Phil from Sussex in Experimental Psychology. At the grand old age of 28, she thought she'd better get a proper job, so completed a PGCE and became a primary school teacher. After the birth of her second child she opened her own nursery, which she managed for ten happy years. She was amongst the first to achieve Early Years Professional Status (EYPS), and tutored students on early years courses at Brighton University. She has also been a local authority EYFS advisor and an early years Ofsted inspector. Helen is part of the Education Team, and she organises the Tapestry Education Conferences (TECs), bringing together educators, academics and LA advisors for lively discussions about teaching and learning.