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Understanding Behaviour – a personalised approach to supporting the child

The EYFS framework states that ‘children learn to be strong and independent through positive relationships’ and it is one of the overarching principles that shape good early years practice.

Personal, social and emotional development is considered so important that it is a Prime Area in the framework that underpins all future learning. Practitioners know this and spend a great deal of time modelling and teaching behaviour and there is almost always a well-produced behaviour management policy in each setting. Most children respond well and quickly adapt, but why is it that some children pick this up easily and others struggle? 

To find the answer to this we need to stop thinking about managing a child’s behaviour and start thinking about understanding it. In its basic form all behaviour is communication and when a child is ‘behaving badly’ they are simply expressing something that they haven’t yet learned to communicate in a more appropriate way. This may be in line with their development, so it is worth considering their age and stage and what their next steps in learning and development are and how you can support them to develop. It may be due to contextual factors – such as being asked to do something they don’t want to do or prevented from doing something that they do want to do. In both cases a child may have strong feelings which overwhelm them and cause them to have a tantrum and lash out. This is often perceived as being naughty or defiant, it is neither – it is just a child expressing their frustration at the situation, possibly caused by their need to become more self-reliant.

As well as the immediate context in the setting there may be several external factors that can affect a child’s behaviour – so it is worth spending time getting to know the family and the context a child is living in. Anything from the arrival of a new baby, loss or bereavement or conflict in the home can cause a child to experience emotions that they don’t know how to express. This can manifest itself in both regressions in behaviour or in physical development, so it is important to try to work out the root cause and work with the family to address the issues, putting a plan in place to support the child to express their feelings and communicate their needs better. Sometimes it’s as simple as agreeing boundaries with parents and having a shared approach in how to respond and react to behaviour. For example if a child who cries always gets Mum to give in and give him what he wants, he may try and use that strategy in other contexts, often with limited success, leading to feelings of confusion and upset.

Lots is written about behaviour management and there are some good strategies available, but behaviour management can be an unhelpful term when dealing with young children. When you mange something it requires an external force, in this context the adult manages the child which can lead us down the path of punishment and reward. These external motivators do little to support the child in different contexts, where the adult is not around. A child may revert to old behaviours if they can’t be seen or only behave well if there is a reward attached. Often punishments such as the ‘naughty step’ solve the immediate issues of calming a child down, but it will do little to help us understand why the child behaved in that way and how we can make changes to prevent it from happening again.

Attempting to understand the behaviour is more helpful as it helps practitioners to adapt their practice and provide the child with solutions to help them when they feel overwhelmed. It requires reflection to try and work out what the child is trying to communicate – it could be anything from being frightened or separated from their parent, to not wanting to share, to feeling tired, hungry, or anxious. Once you work out what it is you can start to solve the immediate problem and then go on to developing the child’s communication and social skills so that they can express themselves more effectively.

If we really want to support children to develop socially acceptable behaviour in a variety of contexts, we must make sure we spend the time and effort to understand their needs and the context of their world. We must teach them how to communicate well and express themselves according to their age and stage of development. For some children this will require a much closer relationship with their parents and carers so that there are is a shared approach and a mutual understanding of how to develop the child’s confidence and self-esteem. Seeking to understand, rather than manage will ensure every child will develop the skills, confidence and resilience to manage everyday challenges that they face.

About the Author

Maureen Hunt is Achieving Early Lead at Achievement for All, a leading not-for-profit organisation that works with early years settings, schools and colleges, improving outcomes for all children and young people vulnerable to underachievement regardless of background, challenge or need. Maureen is responsible for the design and the delivery of their new improvement programme for Early Years settings, Achieving Early.


Achievement for All has worked in partnership with PACEY to develop the Childminder Professional Development Programme, a programme which is structured around three modules: Parents in Partnership, Understanding Behaviour and Working in Wider Child-Centred Partnerships -

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