Sue Cowley:
Improving Child Behaviour - We’re In It Together

How to be more self-reflective when it comes to behaviour problems.

When a child misbehaves, it is tempting to believe this has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with them. After all, the behaviour clearly ‘belongs to’ the child.

If there is any suggestion that the adult might have played a role in the situation arising, it can feel like an accusation. Is the implication that we are somehow to blame? Are we saying that, if the provision had been more effective, the child would not have misbehaved in the first place?

Clearly, to an extent this is nonsense. A small child’s behaviour is impacted by many factors – things like tiredness and hunger can easily trigger problems.

However, if you think about your own behaviour – at a training session for instance – it is obvious that the more engaging the teaching, the easier it is to focus and learn. Even as adults we ‘mess around’ when faced with someone who is not an effective teacher. It’s important to separate our feelings about critique from the idea that we are being blamed for what a child has done.

Focus on change

Just because poor behaviour is not directly our fault, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about how we contribute to it. If we reflect honestly and openly, we give ourselves the power to change how we might react in the future.

If we are willing to think about our potential role in the problem, we can understand our potential role in the solution. Think about how you can make a difference to outcomes – put simply, focus on what you can change.

Role models

As practitioners, we know that adult behaviour does impact children’s behaviour. A child from a supportive home background is normally better at regulating their behaviour than a child from a home where the adults are confrontational and inconsistent.

When children are young, they quickly pick up on what the adults around them model. If we are rude, they learn to be rude. If we are calm and well-mannered, they learn to act in the same way.

We model behaviour all the time in our settings, and not just in terms of how we treat others. We model behaviours around learning too. Do we come across as interested, curious, involved, aware, engaged? Model an interest in the world to your children, just as you model how to be kind.

Impulse control and behaviour

Young children’s misbehaviour is often a result of poor impulse control. The child snatches a toy, hits a friend or throws a tantrum because they cannot yet regulate that impulse. Part of our role as practitioners is to help children develop the skill of self-regulation.

One way to do this is to use activities that require patience and turn-taking. Talk about emotional reactions to reassure your children that you understand how emotional impulses affect them – ‘I can see that you are angry’, ‘I can tell that you are upset’, and so on.

I’m so excited!

Poor behaviour in the early years is also often a result of overstimulation – an exciting game gets the children overwrought, and before you know it there are tears.

Children need to be exposed to situations where they learn to cope with challenges – but approach this carefully. When you set up continuous provision, consider the likely reaction of the children. Is there space for them to take time out, as well as to let off steam? Think about how the quiet children will feel, as well as the livelier ones.

Am I engaged?

When we are fully engaged in learning, we are less likely to misbehave. If we feel bored, or disaffected, we look for other ways to channel our attention.

Generally speaking, people find it easier to engage when they are hands-on with learning, when the learning links to something they already know about, and when there are multi-sensory elements to an activity.

Difficult questions

After poor behaviour has happened, ask yourself some tricky questions about how your practice might have impacted on the children:

  • Were they bored or lacking focus?
  • Were they over-stimulated or over-excited?
  • Was the way the provision was set out partly to blame?
  • Were they adequately supervised?
  • Did you miss a chance to intervene earlier on?
  • Did you miss any clues or cues when the child arrived?
  • Did your own situation (tiredness, stress) impact on how you handled things?
Five ways to become a more self-reflective practitioner
  1. When something goes wrong, don’t be too quick to pass the buck. When the situation is over, and everyone is calm, think about what might have caused the incident and how you could prevent it from happening again.
  2. Reflect on the layout of the space, as this is often the root cause of issues. Are there areas where poor behaviour often happens? Could you change the space around, or adapt the way you supervise the children?
  3. Ask colleagues to observe you, and act on their feedback. Pick one area you would like to develop – for instance, tone of voice – and ask them to critique you on it.
  4. When you plan an area of provision, think about how you would feel about it as a learner. Would it engage you? What would you learn from it? What might go wrong?
  5. When faced with tricky behaviour, instinctively we tend to become defensive and overreact. Counteract your instinctive responses by taking a deep breath before you intervene. Take a moment to reflect on the best reaction, rather than letting your emotions take hold.

Sue Cowley is an author, teacher and trainer who has helped to run her local preschool for the last ten years. Her latest book is The Ultimate Guide to Differentiation.

Rethinking Child Behaviour In The Early Years

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