Early Childhood Education

Behavior Management and Guidance


In many early childhood settings, the term behavior management is no longer in vogue. Like the word discipline, which has also fallen largely out of favor, it carries a connotation of the use of power by teachers, a practice that many in the field do not endorse. The more positive term guidance—as used in Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Settings (Bredekamp and Copple, 1997)—has replaced both terms in the minds of many early childhood educators, reflecting a movement to a more humanistic and constructivist view of child development where the child is an active participant in his own learning and the teacher is seen as a facilitator. That’s not to say, however, that there is no longer a need to understand the principles of behavior management—now usually reserved for especially difficult and persistent behavior problems for which techniques associated with behaviorism are preferred.

Guidance refers to the teacher’s efforts to help children behave in ways that will enhance all aspects of their development and learning, both as individuals and as part of a group. This is most effectively achieved when teachers recognize that inappropriate behavior is an opportunity to teach, not punish. Guided by the ecological theory of Urie Bronfenbrenner, teachers can draw upon a wide body of knowledge and skills and consider not only the child but also their own expectations and interactions with the child, the physical and socioemotional environment of the child-care setting, the child’s family and culture, and the broader community. The most effective strategies available to teachers include understanding risk and protective factors for challenging behavior; preventing challenging behavior by developing a positive, caring relationship with each child and creating a warm and welcoming physical environment and social community within the classroom; and utilizing individualized intervention plans to respond to severe and persistent challenging behavior.

An understanding of the risk and protective factors that shape challenging behavior makes it easier to meet children’s needs and help them to succeed. Risk factors have a cumulative effect. A child who has just one faces no more risk of developing challenging behavior than a child with none. But a child who has two is dealing with a risk four times as great (Yoshikawa, 1994). The risk factors for challenging behavior fall into two broad categories, biological and environmental.

Biological risk factors include genes (which influence traits associated with aggressive behavior); temperament (problems are more likely when the temperament of the child and the expectations of the family or teacher do not coincide); Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD); complications of pregnancy and birth; substance abuse during pregnancy; language and cognition disorders (see also Learning Disability); and gender (boys are at greater risk for aggressive behavior than are girls).

Environmental risk factors include problems in the parent-child relationship (which acts as a prototype for the child’s future relationships) (see also Attachment); poverty, and the conditions surroundings it; exposure to violence through the media or in person (see also Domestic Violence); child care (researchers have found a link between problem behavior and the number of hours children spend in child care); and cultural dissonance (respect for a child’s culture is essential to formation of a positive self-concept; cultural conflicts between home and school culture can cause challenging behavior).

Increasing protective or opportunity factors can buffer the impact of risk factors and improve children’s developmental outcome. This ability to cope with adversity is called resilience. A child’s most important protective factor against risk is a warm, responsive, consistent relationship with an adult. Although families usually provide this support, nurturing relationships with teachers and other community members can also foster resilience.

The best way to stop challenging behavior is to prevent it from occurring. Children are less likely to resort to challenging behavior when the teacher’s approach and the physical and social environment meet their physical, cognitive, cultural, emotional, and social needs. It may be necessary to individualize many aspects of care in order to meet the needs of one particular child, but the effort is worthwhile. When he or she is able to play and learn successfully, it becomes possible for all the children to play and learn successfully. Prevention can keep children with aggressive behavior from accumulating risk factors and slipping into a downward spiral where they are rejected by peers and teachers, fail at school, join a gang, abuse alcohol or drugs, or become delinquent. Prevention is more effective when it begins early, continues over a long period, is developmentally appropriate, takes place in a real-life setting, and works on several fronts (such as home and school) simultaneously.

As resilience research has shown, a caring relationship with a child is a teacher’s most powerful tool for preventing and decreasing challenging behavior. With a warm, supportive adult as a guide and model, children learn to understand and control their own feelings and behavior, care about and trust other people, and see things from another’s perspective. In response to their teachers’ sensitive handling of their anxieties and challenging behaviors, children’s confidence and self-concept grow, along with their desire to experience more of these positive feelings. A solid relationship with the child’s family also strengthens a teacher’s relationship with the child and enables teachers and families to work together for the child’s benefit (see also Families, Parents, and Parent Involvement.)

Because teachers’ attitudes and behaviors make a substantial contribution to the way children behave, it is important for them to be aware of how their own emotions, past experiences, temperament, values, and culture influence their expectations and reactions in the classroom. Self-reflection (see also John Dewey) enables teachers to increase their self-control, accept and express their feelings, and respond appropriately to children’s intense emotions and difficult behavior.

The physical environment can elicit either aggressive or prosocial behavior, depending on how it is arranged (see also Environmental Assessments in Early Childhood Education). Children with challenging behaviors often have trouble functioning in a space filled with restrictions, so the arrangement of the room should enable them to move around without reminders. Low bookcases can divide large spaces into uncluttered areas with different functions like dramatic play, messy play, or quiet reading and listening. Learning centers and shelves should be well organized, inviting, and easily accessible. Since crowding can lead to frustration and aggression, it makes sense to limit and control the number of children who can play in each area. Well-marked boundaries and pathways from one spot to another allow children to feel more comfortable and promote cooperative behavior. It may be necessary to reduce the level of stimulation to facilitate the participation of children who find it hard to deal with classroom noise and bustle—for example, those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), hearing loss, or hyper-sensitive temperaments.

The social climate also exerts a powerful influence on behavior. Children are less likely to act aggressively in a cohesive and friendly community (DeRosier et al., 1994). As the leader and primary role model in the classroom, the teacher is responsible for establishing the social climate and influencing children’s attitudes and behaviors toward one another. Structured cooperative activities that emphasize the group rather than individuals enhance cooperation during unstructured times and teach children to empathize, work together, negotiate, problem-solve, share, and support one another.

When planning the curriculum, teachers must think not only of the skill they wish to teach but also of the behavior they are trying to encourage. Ever since Friedrich Froebel founded the first kindergarten, European American theorists have believed that being able to make meaningful choices empowers children, who, as a result, do not have to look for inappropriate ways to assert their independence. The program should be developmentally appropriate on the basis of the belief that, if a task is too difficult, children will do whatever they need to do to avoid participating and failing. A less structured program with open-ended materials and activities engenders social interaction and prosocial behavior. Close supervision enables teachers to help children who need extra structure and guidance.

Children feel more secure and function better when there is a consistent routine; clear, positively stated rules that they have helped to create; and the minimum number of transitions, which present a special challenge for children with challenging behaviors. Transitions run more smoothly when the teacher makes them fun, warns children of the upcoming change, and uses strategies such as allowing children who are slow to adapt to have more time and giving children jobs to perform (e.g., putting ten blocks on the shelf). Whole-group activities, such as circle and story time, also require extra planning; holding them less often and/or providing alternate activities for certain children may be helpful.

The teacher’s approach toward the acquisition of social and emotional skills (see also Curriculum, Emotional Development)—a major developmental task of early childhood—is also important in creating a positive social climate. Teaching social and emotional skills proactively highlights their value, makes the classroom ambience more cooperative, and offers children who need special assistance a chance to learn that they might not have had otherwise. Often based on the social cognitive learning theory of Albert Bandura, formal social and emotional skills programs use a variety of methods, including didactic teaching, modeling, group discussion, and role playing. Their focus is usually on emotional regulation and empathy, impulse control, anger management, social problem solving, friendship skills, and responding assertively. It is also important for teachers and socially competent peers to talk about feelings and model, encourage, and reinforce social and emotional skills in ordinary daily interactions.

Even when educators use preventive methods consistently, some children may exhibit challenging behavior. In response, teachers commonly use a number of guidance and behavior management techniques based on a variety of theoretical perspectives, including humanistic and psychoanalytic thought, social learning theory, behaviorist theory, the work of Alfred Adler, and the work of Carl Rogers. Models range considerably in the degree of teacher control they employ, from low (Haim Ginott, Thomas Gordon, Alfie Kohn), through medium (Rudolf Dreikurs, William Glasser), to high (Lee Canter, Fredric Jones). High-control methods have found more followers in schools than in early childhood settings. Even the behavioral-based interventions used for very difficult behavior problems (functional assessment, positive behavior support) have many humanistic aspects.

Advocates of low-control strategies believe that children are active participants in their own learning who flourish in a supportive and democratic classroom where they can make their own choices and construct their own values. The teacher’s role is to facilitate children’s development by attending to their feelings, thoughts, and ideas.

Those who prefer medium control may choose techniques that are often referred to as behavior management, such as positive reinforcement and logical consequences. Positive reinforcement—a pleasant response that follows a behavior and increases its frequency or intensity—is perhaps the most basic of all strategies. Drawn from behaviorism and social cognitive theory, positive reinforcement can be verbal or physical, social, or tangible (although tangible rewards are not used with children who are developing normally). A child who has the teacher’s positive attention will probably behave more positively; a child who fails to receive positive attention is likely to seek negative attention. It is therefore important to watch for and acknowledge acceptable behavior. Positive reinforcement extends the child’s capacities and helps to replace inappropriate behavior with appropriate behavior. Positive reinforcement is most effective when it is delivered immediately and consistently, when it clearly describes the action that is being reinforced, and when it is part of an honest, warm relationship between teacher and child.

Positive reinforcement that takes the form of encouragement is preferred over praise. Encouragement emphasizes behavior and process rather than person and product; recognizes effort and improvement rather than achievement; and lets children know that mistakes are part of learning. Praise, critics charge, motivates children to act for extrinsic reasons and dampens their autonomy, creativity, self-control, self-esteem, and pleasure.

Many teachers utilize natural and logical consequences, a technique popularized by Rudolf Dreikurs, who believed that consequences flow not from the power of adults but from the natural or social order of the real world and that children learn from experiencing the consequences of their own behavior. Some consequences occur naturally, but when natural consequences are too remote or dangerous, teachers may create logical or reasonable consequences instead. The teacher should offer options that relate directly, reasonably, and logically to the child’s behavior; the consequences must be enforceable and enforced, but not threatening or punitive.

Punishment—a penalty for wrongdoing, imposed by someone in power who intends it to be unpleasant—provides a quick fix, but its results are fleeting. It suppresses the undesirable behavior only in the punisher’s presence and must increase in intensity to remain effective. Punishment undermines the relationship between adult and child and creates a distrust of adults. Although in theory educators frown upon punishment, it sometimes creeps into classrooms in the guise of time-out, a technique that has created controversy in the early childhood community. Rooted in social learning theory and behaviorism, it technically means time-out from positive reinforcement and typically involves removing a child from the group to sit in a remote area of the room on a specified chair, for one minute for each year of his age, to think about his behavior. Critics maintain that time-out teaches children that the use of power to control others is acceptable and does not help them learn to behave appropriately. It is also said to damage self-esteem by humiliating children in front of their peers, a dire punishment for those from cultures where being part of the group is paramount.

When a child’s challenging behavior is severe and/or persistent, an individualized intervention is called for. Two of the most effective and widely adopted behavior management strategies are often used together: functional assessment and positive behavior support. Developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s in work with persons with developmental disabilities, both methods are derived from applied behavior analysis, an offshoot of behaviorism. Because they are so effective in determining the cause of behavioral problems and formulating positive strategies to address them, functional assessment and positive behavior support are often required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Amendments of 1997.

The underlying principle of functional assessment is that every challenging behavior can be thought of as a child’s solution to a problem and a form of communication. The technique requires educators to look at the world through the child’s eyes, figure out how the behavior benefits the child, and teach an acceptable behavior that can fulfill those needs instead. The focus of a functional assessment is the child’s immediate environment, which provides vital clues about where the behavior is coming from, why it is happening at a particular time and place, the logic behind it, and the function it serves for the child. Even if the behavior is inappropriate, the function seldom is.

A functional assessment and positive behavior support plan are best achieved by a team of all those who work with the child—family, teachers, bus drivers, consultants, and so on. The team’s first task is to develop a hypothesis about the function of the challenging behavior and the environmental conditions that cause it, drawing on resources such as the child’s records, interviews with parents and teachers, and observation using an A-B-C analysis. Teachers and/or other observers note antecedents (A) or events that take place just before the challenging behavior and seem to trigger it; behavior (B) that can be measured and altered; and consequences (C) that occur after the behavior, including the teacher’s own responses to it. These observations are systematically recorded until a clear pattern emerges, confirming or negating the hypothesis about the function.

Functional assessment postulates three possible functions:

• The child gets something (attention from an adult or a peer, access to object or activity).

• The child avoids or escapes from something (unwelcome requests, difficult tasks, activities, peers, or adults).

• The child changes the level of stimulation (Karsh et al., 1995).

Once the function is understood, it becomes possible to design a positive behavior support plan to enable the child to meet her needs. An intervention that is effective in teaching a child how to get what she wants through appropriate means usually utilizes three different methods: changing the environment (the antecedents and the consequences) so that the challenging behavior becomes unnecessary; replacing the challenging behavior with appropriate behavior that achieves the same outcome for the child more quickly and with less effort; and ignoring the challenging behavior. As the plan is implemented, the team continues to monitor the child’s progress in order to evaluate and revise the plan if necessary.

Teachers frequently depend on more than one strategy. Every child is unique, and each requires an approach that fits his or her state of mind, temperament, developmental stage, and culture. With several strategies at their disposal, teachers can choose one or a combination that suits the circumstances. At the same time, it is important for teachers to believe in the strategy—it is unlikely to work if they do not feel comfortable with it or understand the philosophy behind it. See also Constructivism; Gender and Gender Stereotyping in Early Childhood Education.

Further Readings: Bredekamp, Sue, and Carol Copple (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood settings, Revised ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; DeRosier, M. E., A. H. N. Cillessen, J. D. Coie, and K. A. Dodge (1994). Group social context and children’s aggressive behavior. Child Development 65, 1068-1079; Kaiser, Barbara, and Judy Sklar Rasminsky (2007). Challenging behavior in young children: Understanding, preventing, and responding effectively, 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon; Karsh, K. G., A. C. Repp, C. M. Dahlquist, and D. Munk (1995). In vivo functional assessment and multi-element interventions for problem behaviors of students with disabilities in classroom settings. Journal of Behavioral Education 5, 189-210; National Association for the Education of Young Children (2003). Preventing and responding to behaviors that challenge children and adults [Special issue]. Young Children 58(4), 10-57; O’Neill, Robert E., Robert H. Horner, Richard W. Albin, Jeffrey R. Sprague, Keith Storey, and J. Stephen Newton (1997). Functional assessment and program developmentfor problem behavior: A practical handbook, 2nd ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing; Sandall, Susan, and Michaelene Ostrosky, eds. (1999). Practical ideas for addressing challenging behaviors. Longmont and Denver, CO: Sopris West and the Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children; Slaby, Ronald G., Wendy C. Roedell, Diana Arezzo, and Kate Hendrix (1995). Early violence prevention: Tools for teachers of young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Yoshikawa, H. (1994). Prevention of cumulative protection: Effects of early family support and education on chronic delinquency and its risks. Psychological Bulletin 115, 28-54.

Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky