Sue Cowley: How To Build Better
Behaviour In The Early Years
Behaviour advice from our expert guest writer Sue Cowley.

One of our key roles as early years providers is to help our children learn to regulate their own behaviour in the early years.

Not only will this help with their personal, social and emotional development, but it also puts them in the best position to learn and to be successful when they move onto school.

The EYFS statutory framework asks that we support the ‘learning, development and care’ of our children. Helping them to learn how to share, stay calm and cope with frustration is all part and parcel of that. It’s key to the development of the whole child.

What is ‘Self Regulation’?

Self-regulation is a complex concept but put simply, it refers to the ability to regulate our own behaviours. This might be about understanding what to do when we feel angry, how to cope with not getting our own way, and how to behave in a way that keeps us safe.

In fact, the pilot of the redrafted EYFS early learning goals* includes some new goals around self-regulation that may impact on the work that settings need to do.

Self Regulation and Behaviour Systems

In order to build self-regulation, it is a good idea to encourage the children to manage their own behaviour in the early years, rather than for practitioners to try and control behaviour with systems of extrinsic rewards and consequences. Help your children learn to do the right thing in order to learn and be kind, rather than to win a reward or avoid a sanction. This will help them make better choices around behaviour as they get older.

At our setting, we do not use any external rewards or consequences. We believe that they can interfere with the children’s intrinsic motivation to learn. We think that it is better to talk about behaviour with the children to develop their understanding of it, and we maintain high staff-to-child ratios to make time for these conversations to happen.

Clarity of Boundaries

If you are clear with the children where the ‘line’ on behaviour is, then they will be in a much better position to stick to it. Have a clear set of agreed boundaries in your setting, sharing these and talking about them with the children.

Keep your rules short and simple, and create a display so that you can refer to it regularly. In our setting, we focus on one rule a week, for instance using “kind hands” by never hitting, hurting or grabbing from others. Staff talk about and demonstrate the rule, and they also model what it looks like when it is broken. They regularly refer back to the rule of the week by highlighting examples of good behaviour as well.

Talk about the ‘Why’

Building better behaviour in the early years is not just about having rules and getting children to stick to them, it is about understanding the ‘why’ behind the behaviours that you need.

Talk with your children about why they need to listen carefully during show-and-tell, and why it’s important to use “kind hands”. What impact does it have on others if they don’t? What are the benefits for the group as a whole of following this rule?

Reflect on Emotional Responses

Encourage children to join in with discussions about behaviour in the early years, and to reflect on how their behaviour makes other people feel.

This helps to build their sense of empathy, which in turn supports them in developing self-regulation. You might ask questions like: “How do you think Sally felt when you took the toy from her?”

Acknowledge the Child’s Feelings

As well as talking about the impact of behaviour on others, it is also useful to examine what the child is feeling. Use phrases such as “I can see you are upset” or “I can tell that you are angry”.

By acknowledging the child’s emotions, you help them understand that it is okay to feel this way and that it is possible to bring our emotional responses under control by regulating them ourselves.

Focus on the Positives

It is very easy to get sucked into focusing on negative behaviours, but it will have much more impact if you highlight what is going well.

Talk constantly about the good behaviours that you see, to demonstrate that behaving well is the best way to get your attention. Unless the situation is dangerous, take a moment to pause before you deal with a misbehaving child. Look at others close to the child and praise them or highlight what they are doing well before you intervene.

Use Non-Verbal Communication

The great thing about non-verbal signals is that they bypass the need for verbal understanding, and so they are especially useful with pre-verbal children or those who have English as an additional language.

A quick frown at a child who is about to do something they shouldn’t may be more than enough to stop them. A smile at a child who is listening well can be sufficient to reinforce the fact that these are the behaviours you want to see.

Sue Cowley is an educational author, teacher trainer and presenter. She has helped to run her local preschool for 10 years. Her latest book is The Ultimate Guide to Differentiation published by Bloomsbury.

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