Understanding and Managing Children’s Behaviors | ECLKC (2023)

Understanding and Managing Children’s Behaviors | ECLKC (1)Introduction

Adults often find children's behaviors interesting and engaging. There are also behaviors that adults sometimes find challenging. For example, infants fuss or cry despite the adults' efforts to comfort them or have different feeding or sleeping schedules. Toddlers sometimes hit, bite, fall to the floor, cry, kick, whine, or say "no." Some preschoolers argue or fight over toys, struggle to follow directions, or become overly aggressive as they play. Toddlers and preschoolers may also have moments of energetic play, move quickly from activity to activity, or withdraw and not want to participate in activities. Often, these behaviors are developmentally appropriate, typical, and normal—and they change with support and social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Some children need more help managing strong emotions or disruptive behaviors. If they don't receive help early, children's behaviors can negatively impact their social, emotional, and cognitive development. Programs can support children who need such help by developing and using an Individual Support Plan (ISP). For further information, see the tip sheet on developing individual support plans.


All behavior is a form of communication. Every behavior can be described by its form and function (HHS/ACF/OHS/NCECDTL 2019). Form is the behavior used to communicate. Young children let adults know their wants and needs through their behavior long before they have words. They give us “cues” to help us understand what they are trying to communicate. Function is the reason for or purpose of the behavior, from the child’s perspective.

Programs can support education staff and families by using the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) Pyramid Model as a framework for understanding children's behavior. Many strategies can support healthy social and emotional development and prevent or reduce behaviors that could negatively affect children's development and learning. Education managers, child development specialists, home-based supervisors, mental health consultants, and coaches can help education staff use these and other strategies in their work with children and families.

  • Learn how parents and families expect their children to behave and express themselves. Talk with families about how expectations may be different in different settings (e.g., home, group care, group socializations) and how to support children's behaviors in these settings.
  • Talk and wonder with parents, and other adults who know the child, about what the purpose (function) of the child's behavior might be.
  • Observe children's behavior (form) and pay attention to their cues. Cues help adults understand what children are trying to communicate with their behavior (function). When adults understand children's behavior, they can respond in ways that meet children's needs.
  • Use appropriate strategies to understand and communicate with children who are dual language learners (DLLs).
    • Use resources such as the Planned Language Approach (PLA) Gathering and Using Language Information That Families Share to learn about children's language backgrounds. This can inform appropriate adult-child interaction and communication strategies.
    • Children who are DLLs may initially rely on behavior to express themselves, especially in settings and situations where staff do not speak the child's home language. Refer to PLA resources under Strategies that Support DLLs.
    • If staff speak the child's home language, they can help the child use that language to communicate while scaffolding their understanding and use of English. See PLA's Big 5 for All: Oral Language and Vocabulary.
  • Use daily routines to interact and develop positive relationships with each child.
  • Use predictable routines during the day to help children feel safe and secure.
  • Design learning environments that are responsive to children's individual developmental needs and the needs of the whole group.
  • Adjust interactions to match children's temperaments or needs.
  • Help children learn to self-regulate or calm themselves.
  • Help children feel a sense of control by allowing them to make choices throughout the day.
  • Help children express themselves and solve problems appropriately.
  • Help children identify their own emotions and the emotions of others. Talk about the link between feelings and facial expressions and gestures.
  • Identify additional supports or expertise, or start a referral process, if a behavior:
    • Is not typical for a child's age and stage of development
    • Continues to be intense or ongoing
    • Interferes with the child's ability to explore and learn

Support Developmental Behaviors When They Become Challenging

Understanding and Managing Children’s Behaviors | ECLKC (2) Many behaviors that are appropriate for children's ages and stages of development are challenging for adults. It is important that adults do not respond angrily or harshly when these behaviors occur. Instead, education staff and families can work together to support children's positive behaviors using the strategies listed below.

  • Toddlers and young preschoolers are beginning to learn to share and take turns. In group settings (e.g., classrooms, family child care homes, socializations):
    • Provide more than one of the most popular toys to reduce fighting over the same toy
    • Protect children's favorite items; not all items need to be shared (e.g., loveys and other objects children bring from home)
    • Help preschool children learn to take turns (e.g., model turn-taking, prompt children to problem-solve turn-taking challenges, and offer turn-taking solutions such as flipping a coin, using a timer, "rock, paper, scissors," and waiting patiently)
  • Provide separate areas for active and quiet play. This keeps active play from interfering with other children's need for quiet time.
  • Teach children words they can use to ask for help in their home languages and English. Consider teaching gestures (such as sign language) to help children express themselves, especially when they can't verbalize the words they need. For example, show a child how to sign "play" so she can communicate, "I want to play with you." When children don't have the words to make their needs known, they may communicate their frustration by biting, pushing, hitting, falling on the floor, crying, kicking, and screaming.

Mental Health Consultation

As required in the Head Start Program Performance Standards, programs must use mental health consultants. Mental health consultants work with staff and families to support children's mental health (i.e., social and emotional development and well-being). They provide a variety of services to support individual children and families (e.g., child- and family-centered consultation) as well as the overall program (e.g., programmatic consultation).

Considerations for Planning and Programming

Program staff can use the questions below to identify and respond to children's behaviors.

  • How do staff individualize supports to meet each child's social and emotional needs?
  • Who do education staff go to for support when there are concerns about a child's behavior or social and emotional development?
  • How does the program respond when a child's behaviors appear to make it difficult for the child to have positive relationships with others, regulate emotions, or explore and learn?
  • How does the program respond when staff or family members bring up concerns about a child's social and emotional development?
  • How does the program support staff in having conversations with families early in the process when they are concerned about a child's behavior or social and emotional development?
  • What resources does the program have to help respond to concerns about children's behaviors?
  • How does the program provide timely and effective supports for staff and families when they are concerned about a child?
  • How does the program learn more about a child's previous behaviors or physical or mental health background?


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Head Start, National Center on Early Childhood Development, Teaching, and Learning (NCECDTL). Behavior Has Meaning (15-Minute In-service Suite). Washington, DC, 2019.

Head Start Program Performance Standards

  • Teaching and the learning environment, 45 CFR §1302.31:
    • (b)(1)(I)–(iv) Effective teaching practices
    • (b)(1)(2) Dual language learners
    • (c)(1)–(2) Learning environment
    • (d) Materials and space for learning
  • Education in home-based programs, 45 CRF §1302.35:
    • (c)(1)–(5) Home visit experiences
    • (e)(1)–(3) Group socializations
    • (f) Screening and assessment
  • Child mental health and social and emotional well-being, 45 CFR §1302.45:
    • (a) Wellness promotion
    • (b) Mental health consultants
  • Family support services for health, nutrition, and mental health, 45 CFR §1302.46:
    • (b)(1)(iv) Opportunities to discuss with staff and identify issues related to child mental health and social and emotional well-being


Infant and Toddler


  • 15-minute In-service Suites
    • Problem Solving in the Moment
    • Stating Behavioral Expectations
  • Dual Language Learners with Challenging Behaviors
  • Help Me Calm Down! Teaching Children How to Cope with Their Big Emotions

Birth to 5

  • 15-Minute In-Service Suite: Behavior Has Meaning
  • Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework (ELOF) Effective Practice Guides
    • Approaches to Learning
      • Emotional and Behavioral Self-Regulation
      • Cognitive Self-Regulation
    • Social and Emotional Development
  • Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation and Your Program
  • The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI)

« Go to Head Start Tip Sheets for Grantee Planning

Read more:

Challenging Behaviors,Social and Emotional Development

, Mental Health

Resource Type:Article

National Centers:Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning

Last Updated: June 1, 2023


How do you manage children's behavior? ›

Dealing with child behaviour problems
  1. Do what feels right. What you do has to be right for your child, yourself and the family. ...
  2. Do not give up. Once you've decided to do something, continue to do it. ...
  3. Be consistent. ...
  4. Try not to overreact. ...
  5. Talk to your child. ...
  6. Be positive about the good things. ...
  7. Offer rewards. ...
  8. Avoid smacking.

Why is it important to understand children's behavior? ›

Children usually behave 'badly' for a reason – though working out what's going on can feel frustrating when your patience is already tested. Understanding the reason (and seeing behaviour as a signal your children are sending) makes it easier to help children through whatever is setting them off.

How do you understand children's behavior? ›

  1. Understanding Your Child's Behavior.
  2. Is this a growth or developmental stage?
  3. Is this an individual or temperament difference?
  4. Is the environment causing the behavior?
  5. Does the child know what is expected?
  6. Is the child expressing unmet emotional needs?

Why is it important for teachers to understand how to guide children behavior? ›

It is the philosophy of early childhood educators to promote positive well-being and experiences for children. By guiding children into positive decision making and teaching them alternative choices teachers eliminate the need for punishment and allow children to feel powerful, dignified, and unique.

What are the three steps to managing a child's behaviour? ›

The good news is that there are three steps that if followed through can make a real difference when it comes to supporting children to manage their behaviour in a positive way – Promotion, Prevention and Intervention.

What are some effective ways to manage behaviors? ›

Behavior Management Techniques
  • Be Mindful of Your Own Reaction. A vital component of managing difficult behavior is knowing that your behavior affects the behavior of others. ...
  • Maintain Rational Detachment. ...
  • Be Attentive. ...
  • Use Positive Self-Talk. ...
  • Recognize Your Limits. ...
  • Debrief.
Aug 17, 2012

Why is it important to understand behavior? ›

The goal of the behavioral and social sciences is to better understand human behaviors and apply this understanding to improving the quality of life for people. Because so many behaviors have an impact on health, social and behavioral sciences are an important component of studying individual and group health.

How do you guide children's behaviour in a positive way? ›

Tips to encourage positive behaviour
  1. Give your child positive attention and spend quality time together. ...
  2. Be a role model. ...
  3. Tell your child how you feel. ...
  4. Catch your child being 'good' ...
  5. Get down to your child's level. ...
  6. Listen actively. ...
  7. Keep promises. ...
  8. Create an environment for positive behaviour.
Mar 7, 2023

How can we understand a behaviour? ›

Observing behavior in the brain

Another way of observing one's behavior is by looking at the inside, more specifically: by looking at their brain. As we are not conscious of most of the processes that happen on the inside, looking into brain activities can give new insights into the behavior of people.

What is the understanding of behaviour? ›

Behaviour is defined as the way one acts or conducts oneself, especially towards others. It is often a response to a particular situation or stimulus. Behaviour cannot be managed separately from learning and wellbeing. The context usually has some influence over the behaviour.

Why is Behaviour management important in early years? ›

Here are some more reasons why behaviour management is important in early years: It helps the children in your class have a high level of involvement. It improves the wellbeing of the children in your care. It helps your children to have positive outcomes.

What is the importance of managing the behavior of students in the classroom? ›

When teachers provide clear and consistent expectations for behavior in the classroom and take actions to promote positive, pro-social behaviors, students report a stronger sense of connectedness to school and their peers.

Why is it important to know when challenging behaviors are developmentally appropriate? ›

Having appropriate expectations for children allows us to be less frustrated because we understand it as a part of their development journey. When those developmental stages present appropriate, yet challenging behavior, it is our responsibility to support the child through it.

What is the key to managing difficult behaviors of children? ›

Ignore negative behavior and praise positive behavior.

Ignore minor misbehavior, since even negative attention like reprimanding or telling the child to stop can reinforce her actions. Instead, provide lots of labeled praise on behaviors you want to encourage. (Don't just say “good job,” say “good job calming down.”)

How to manage and teach children with challenging behaviour? ›

How can I help my child with their behaviour?
  1. Set clear boundaries and routines, and stick to these as much as you can. ...
  2. Follow through on consequences. ...
  3. Give your child positive praise. ...
  4. Talk together about activities that help them to express their feelings and calm down. ...
  5. Help your child understand their feelings.

What are behavior management skills? ›

In the context of management, behavioral skills are the ability to understand and control employee behavior. Managers use behavioral skills to motivate employees, solve problems, and improve productivity. They involve the ability to understand and influence the behavior of others to achieve desired outcomes.

What is the most effective behavior management style? ›

The authoritative approach is the best form of classroom management style because it is the one most closely associated with appropriate student behaviors.

What is positive behavior management strategies? ›

What Are Positive Behavior Strategies? Positive behavior strategies are evidence-based approaches for promoting behavior that is conducive to learning. We start with the understanding that behavior is a form of communication. In other words, behavior is a message about what a student needs.

How can a teacher maintain learners good behaviors? ›

Here are 8 techniques for dealing with behaviour.
  • 1) Be Consistent with Rules. ...
  • 2) Get the Students Full Attention Before Telling Them Anything. ...
  • 3) Use Positive Language and Body Language. ...
  • 4) Mutual Respect. ...
  • 5) Have Quality Lessons. ...
  • 6) Know Your Student. ...
  • 7) Be Able to Diagnose Learning Problems. ...
  • 8) Routine.
Sep 4, 2018

How can teachers support children in guiding their behaviors in care and education? ›

Become a character in children's pretend play and show children how to use good manners and be kind. Read children's books that show how children resolve problems. Play “what if” games. Encourage children to act out ways to work together.

How to approach a parent about their child's behavior examples? ›

Talking To Parents About Their Child's Misbehavior
  • Address specific concerns and examples of misbehavior. ...
  • Speak in a calm, friendly tone.
  • Avoid giving parents the impression that their child is hopeless. ...
  • Be willing to provide ongoing support to both the child and the parents.

Why is it important to promote positive behaviour for children? ›

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.

What are the 5 ways we learn behavior? ›

Habituation, imprinting, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and cognitive learning.

What are the seven main approaches to understanding and explaining behavior? ›

The major perspectives of psychology that emerged are cognitive, behavioral, psychodynamic, humanistic, biological, socio-cultural, and evolutionary.

What are the 4 perspectives for understanding behavior? ›

Four of the most prominent are the psychoanalytic, humanistic, trait, and social-cognitive perspectives.

What is the first step in understanding behavior? ›

The first step in understanding human behavior is to know and understand yourself.

What is behavior and examples? ›

1. : the way a person or animal acts or behaves. [noncount] I'm surprised by her bad behavior toward her friends. Students will be rewarded for good behavior.

What is the main purpose of behavior management? ›

The main goal of the behavior management is to address the behavior issue in order to keep them independent. When with a resident there are a variety of behaviors you may come into contact with. You will not only need to know what to do in each situation but also how to act.

What are good behavior examples? ›

  • Walk at all times.
  • Keep hands/feet to yourself.
  • Be kind to others.
  • Use manners.
  • Be a good listener.
  • Allow others to learn.
  • Respect others/property.
  • Complete assigned.

What are the 5 principles of behavior management? ›

Golly has identified five universal principles for managing their in-class conduct:
  • Being Respectful.
  • Modeling Behaviors.
  • Having Clear Expectations.
  • Maintaining Routines.
  • Dealing with Chronic Misbehaviors.

What are the 4 principles for managing behavior? ›

What should teachers understand about effective classroom behavior management?
  • Plan Early. Be prepared! ...
  • Be Consistent. Keep in Mind. ...
  • Focus on the Positive. Effective teachers focus on promoting desired classroom behaviors rather than reacting to disruptive or undesired behaviors as they occur.

Why is it important to have a strong understanding of developmentally appropriate practices for behavior and academic learning? ›

Developmentally appropriate practice does not mean making things easier for children. Rather, it means ensuring that goals and experiences are suited to their learning and development and challenging enough to promote their progress and interest.

What is important to consider in preventing challenging behaviors in your classroom? ›

Creating and teaching the daily schedule helps communicate to the children the organization of daily activities and events. Providing a predictable daily schedule helps prevent the occurrence of challenging behavior. Therefore, designing effective classroom environments involves implementing consistent daily schedules.

How do you prevent problem behavior from occurring in the classroom? ›

Teachers can reduce the occurrence of inappropriate behavior by revisiting and reinforcing classroom behavioral expectations; rearranging the classroom environment, schedule, or learning activities to meet students' needs; and/or individually adapting instruction to promote high rates of student engagement and on-task ...

How will you handle children with challenging behavior? ›

Ignoring, distraction and encouraging empathy can help discourage negative behaviours. Positive reinforcement and focusing on your child's good behaviour is the best way to guide your child's behaviour. Setting rules and being consistent with age-appropriate consequences is important.

What are the 5 most common behavioral issues? ›

Here are the five most common affecting Americans today:
  1. Conduct disorder. ...
  2. Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) ...
  3. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) ...
  4. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) ...
  5. Behavioral addiction.

What are the three C's of behavior management? ›

Three C's of Behavior Management: Connection, Communication & Choices.

How do you calm a disobedient child? ›

If he becomes disobedient and out of control, impose a timeout until he calms down and regains self-control. When your child is obedient and respectful, compliment him for that behavior. Reward the behavior you are seeking, including cooperation and resolution of disagreements.

How do I talk to my child about inappropriate behavior? ›

What to Say
  1. Use basic language.
  2. Give examples of appropriate versus inappropriate touch.
  3. Give them a strategy.
  4. Don't allow secrets.
  5. Validate their feelings all along.
Aug 20, 2021

How do I get my child to listen without yelling? ›

How To Stop Yelling at Your Kids & Get Them To Listen Without...
  1. Start with a positive attitude. Kids have a hard time with emotional regulation, so if they see you exhibit similar emotions, it becomes a cycle that feeds into itself. ...
  2. Be patient. ...
  3. Don't yell. ...
  4. Give them choices. ...
  5. Set limits.
Apr 21, 2022

How do you manage bad behavior in the classroom? ›

Here are some tips on how to handle challenging student behavior and get back to class.
  1. Get to the Root of the Matter. ...
  2. Reach Out to Colleagues for Support. ...
  3. Remember to Remain Calm. ...
  4. Have a Plan and Stick to It. ...
  5. Involve Administration When Necessary. ...
  6. Document, Document, Document.

What are the difficult behaviors of children? ›

Signs and symptoms of challenging behaviour

defiance (e.g. ignoring or refusing to follow your requests) fussiness (e.g. refusal to eat certain foods or wear certain clothes) hurting other people (e.g. biting, kicking) excessive anger when the child doesn't get their own way.

What are four behavioural problems in children? ›

These problems can result from temporary stressors in the child's life, or they might represent more enduring disorders. The most common disruptive behaviour disorders include oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

What causes a child to have behavioral problems? ›

It is known that children are at greater risk when they are exposed to other types of violence and criminal behavior, when they experience maltreatment or harsh or inconsistent parenting, or when their parents have mental health conditions like substance use disorders, depression, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity ...


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