Behavior Management: Tips You Can Use
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Ben Franklin
Ben had it right. I’d rather put in effort to prevent issues than work at having to put out the flames of misbehavior. Behavior management is more than discipline it’s setting up children for successes and being proactive in providing those opportunities.
Be Observant – Be aware of what is going on in each child’s age and stage of development. Know what new challenges are before them and how they are managing those challenges. Take an assessment of their physical needs – sleep, nutrition, activity level or general comfort. Do adjustments need to be made? Be watchful for stressors – irritations, frustrations, worries or changes in schedule. These can make a big difference to how children react to situations. Are you noticing a child who is over or under stimulated, overly rushed or bored? These can be signs pointing to schedule issues. A child who is well rested, hydrated, eating nutritious meals, participating in a varied routine and at a minimum stress level has a much easier time coping with their world.
Environment – The physical environment can contribute to the child’s success or struggles. Assess play spaces. Is there enough space to engage in activities and play, access to age appropriate toys or activities, system for keeping toys or activities stored and organized, play space is clean and safe? Is there a place for active play that won’t interfere with another child choosing a quiet activity? Can a child find a quiet spot to read with an adult comfortably for both? Is the lighting appropriate for chosen tasks? Many children are sensitive to bright lights, textures, sound or other environmental components that can affect their behavior. You may find that some very simple changes will make all the difference.
Routines – Schedules ground children. Knowing what they can expect from the day is important and for some children it is critical. Regular meals and snacks, rest time, active time and quiet play, are all important in establishing the daily routine. When special activities or outings are planned keep the child’s routine in mind. Try to maintain meal time as close to normal as possible. Provide for some rest or nap time as close to their usual schedule as possible. Pace your outing so that no one, including you, becomes over tired or exhausted. Prepare children for outings or special activities. This could be as easy as simply introducing the plan at the start of your day. Briefly outline the activity, when you are leaving, when you’ll return home, some details about what they can expect from the activity, and answering their questions. Reminders throughout the activity about the plan can help everything flow well.
Recognize Good Behavior – When children are behaving well we need to give them positive feedback to confirm to them they are on the right track. They need to get positive reinforcement so those behaviors are firmly established. It’s as easy as saying “I like the way you are playing with your Legos!” It might be tempting to just leave them to it while they are doing well, but this is the time to pour on the praise. Make sure that your recognition is real and sincere. Children can spot “phony” a mile away. Even after the fact you can provide positive comments – “I was just thinking about how well you shared with your sister yesterday. It was so nice to see that!” This kind of feedback empowers better behavior.
Choices – Children are building autonomy starting in those early toddler years, but they need our guidance. Providing them with appropriate choices lets them have some control within limits. The younger the child the fewer the choices offered to them. Start with two and build from there. You are encouraging decision making and problem solving skills while limiting tantrums and breakdowns. Make sure that the choices you offer are reasonable and appropriate, and that you can back them up.
When you offer options you are telling the child that their opinion matters, you value their decision and that you can be counted on to follow through.
Redirection – This proactive technique is very effective for young children, especially toddler and young preschoolers. I have to admit to also using it on school age and teenagers as well. To use redirection effectively, you must be observant of the child for signs that their behavior is about to change (and not for the better). Once you hone in on their behavior signals you’ll be able to redirect the child to other activity choices or to shift your routine to accommodate them. If playing with a particular toy is frustrating to a child offer a more pleasing option that provides them with a sense of accomplishment. If you see that they are more tired than usual suggest a quiet activity that will allow them to recharge. If they need to blow off some steam then shift gears to a more physically active choice. As the children got older I explained how I could see their behavior changing and asked for their ideas to help things turn around. They often had great ideas that were easily implemented, and even better they were beginning to recognize their own behavior patterns.
Limits that Make Sense – Setting limits that make sense allows for cooperative behavior. Obviously when children are very young limits are set by the adults in their lives. It’s vital that all the adults are agreed about what those parameters are; nothing is more frustrating to a child stretching and experimenting with their boundaries to find that there are different rules depending on who is “in charge.” Children are adaptable and can accept differences in caregivers styles but it really helps them to have consistent expectations regarding behavior. Limits should be clear and simple. Boundaries need to be modified as children get older. Including the older child’s views in the modification of boundaries encourages cooperation.
Listening – Good listening habits start early. We expect children to listen to us, but we also need to model listening skills. You may hear some important feedback about things that are working or not working in relation to expectations. This feedback can help to rethink limits and boundaries that will work best. The children in my care got to know that if they came to me with a suggestion or idea that I would honestly listen and consider their point. They felt valued and appreciated which led to better behavior. Being heard has power.
Take 5 – This technique uses either giving children a break or having children take a break when an infraction has occurred or better yet before it happens. I introduced "take 5" to young toddlers as a way to take a break after we've tried other things like redirection or changing activities. Toddlers often demonstrate their frustrations with tantrums. If possible I would have them take a break before we got to that point. A break really is just a time to breath deeply and move away from the action but not out of the room. They needed time to regroup and start again so I never put a time limit on the break. Usually just a few seconds to maybe a minute was all they needed. Once they got used to the "take 5" they would sometimes annouce they were going to "take 5" without my input at all. I can still remember the middle child, he'd just turned 3, announcing to me that he was getting "flusterated" (a good description of his situation) and needed to "take 5". As they got older they would sometimes want to "take 5" in their room or in another location. When they rejoined the activities we moved on and didn't dwell on past behavior but moved forward with a positive attitude.