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Developing Positive Behaviors in Children

April, 2018
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Children are unique individuals who mature at different rates. In the early years, they need to develop the ability to manage feelings and behavior, to listen and to pay attention and to communicate their needs appropriately. As human beings, we communicate our emotions through our behavior and learn from the responses of the people around us.

From the first days and weeks of life, children are building their ‘brain architecture’, and with the right stimulus and support from caregivers, the pathways are laid down for them to begin to regulate emotions and behavior. Early attachment to a key caregiver, whether parent, grandparent or other significant person in their lives, is crucial to healthy social and emotional development. 

The development of language and behavior are inextricably linked and filled with frustrations for all children. Knowing what to expect and when can help us to avoid setting behavioral expectations too high and can help us to set appropriate boundaries for our children. Between 8 and 20 months children can usually understand ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and some boundaries. At the next stage, and note that stages of development do overlap, children can usually respond to a few appropriate boundaries with encouragement and support (16-26 months). At this stage there is also a growing sense of will and determination, and therefore frustration. Children of this age need help to label their emotions. Routines need to be flexible so that children do not become frustrated and can pursue their own interests. They become increasingly aware that some actions can hurt others and that they can comfort others when upset (22-36 months). They can also show understanding and cooperate with some boundaries and routines, and can inhibit their own actions and behaviors. At 30-50 months, they begin to accept the needs of others and can take turns, share toys and usually adapt their behavior to different environments. Between 40 and 60 months they are beginning to be able to negotiate and problem solve without aggression, and can understand that their actions affect other people.

As language develops, it becomes easier for children to express their wants, needs and emotions in a more sophisticated way. But all of this is learnt through experience in what they learn from adults and other children in their environment. Adults should intentionally model positive behaviors and responses to children and ensure that they are giving the right, non-critical messages. Behavior is just another form of communication, and as your child’s language develops and becomes more sophisticated then behavior brought about by frustration should decrease. The ability to listen and pay attention, to speak and to understand language and instructions, all have an important bearing on behavior and emotional regulation. Challenging behaviors can come about because of a difficulty in communicating, they can serve certain functions (I need that toy now!) or be a response to conditions in the environment. 

Think about the behaviors that cause you most concern and then turn the behavior around to make a ‘rule’ or expectation. For example, for a child who shouts loudly, set the expectation that they will ‘use a quiet voice’ indoors. Rules or expectations should be age appropriate, so the older the child the more grown up the wording that is used. However, rules should always be positively framed, and be clear and concise. Do not overload your child with rules.

Routines are also very important in setting the scene so that your child knows what to expect and when. A break from routine is good for all of us at times, but some children more than others find change difficult to manage. Give warning when you are stopping an activity, especially a pleasurable one, and starting something new. Routines in school may be around recess or a change of lesson or topic. At home, you may need a routine for meal times and bed times or for homework. Set this up so that it becomes automatic and your child knows that homework comes before any screen time, for example. If necessary, display a schedule in their bedroom or on the refrigerator that you can all refer to, and one that seems fair. Give warnings when you are shifting from one thing to another (transitions) and make use of timers if necessary.  

Positively reinforcing (rewarding) ‘good’ behavior is more effective than negative reinforcement, but consequences can be necessary and effective if used sparingly. Go for small rewards rather than big ones in the first place. Rewards can be social, like smiles and praise, or tangible like stickers and star charts. It is important to look out for the behavior you want to see (catch them being ‘good”) and reinforce that. You can use a praise statement so that your child knows why you are happy with them such as, “Sara, I am really happy that you finished your homework before you picked up your iPad. Well done”. Remind children of the rules before offering a consequence (Jack, we have a rule about listening when others are talking. Please listen). Consequences are sometimes unavoidable but should be in proportion to the undesired behavior when used and should make sense to the child in the context of the behavior. So, for a messy room the consequence may be to spend 10 minutes tidying up instead of playing on a game. Sometimes, we need to take a moment to teach the behavior that we wanted to happen. Explain what was needed if your child has the language to understand, and practice that new learning in a role play or by using dolls or puppets for younger children.  

For some behaviors, you may wish to seek some outside help, such as for withdrawn behavior, anxiety, aggression or extremely active and fidgety behaviors. Some assessment may help us to understand the nature of the behavior better and may involve all the adults in the child or young person’s life coming together to form a plan. Behavior is often the tip of the iceberg that we can see, but below the water line there may be a plethora of emotions that need to be understood and worked with. For some children, negative thoughts about themselves or others that may need some counselling or therapy to resolve. 

kids-behavior-angryEven in difficult situations, try to remain calm and don’t allow the situation to escalate. You may need to walk away for a while and come back when you are feeling better and more able to cope. Some good ideas for parents can be found through Emotion Coaching about how to deal with your child’s strong emotional responses. If some challenging behaviors are shared between home and school then work together in partnership with your child’s school to try to find the best way to manage. Having a plan and sharing responsibility for it can be very reassuring.

Children with special educational needs may need to have some clear strategies in place to help them such as visual supports (visual timetables, visual prompts, Picture Exchange Communication Systems), the use of Social Stories, tasks broken down into small steps, adaptions to the classroom that can help reduce sensory overload, or some social skills teaching. Whatever the age of your child, the basic principles remain the same. Be clear and consistent at all times, but don’t forget to have fun! Special family time with Mum or Dad can be one of the best rewards that you can give your child. 




By Lynn Turner,

LIH Olivia’s Place Educational Psychologist Consultant


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