When we have concerns about a child’s behaviour, it’s understandable that we look for immediate solutions, keen to reduce the stress levels for both children and practitioners. However, if we intervene without understanding the reasons for the behaviour, this will usually be a short term solution.  Behaviour has been likened to an iceberg, we only see what’s on the surface and there is a great deal happening below which we have to uncover.   There are a number of ways we can do this:

1.Gather information from parents

In order to understand a child’s behaviour, we need to appreciate a child’s previous experiences.  For example, have they had much contact with children of their own age?  If not, they will need much more support to share and take turns.   It’s easy to underestimate how overwhelming it is for a young child to be in a room filled with other children and adults they don’t know as well as endless exciting resources, some of which they cannot touch.

Ask parents how their child responds if they ask them to stop doing something as this can give you an indication of the boundaries set at home.  This isn’t about making judgements; it’s providing an opportunity for you to explain your behaviour policy and offer support, advice and signposting if appropriate.  It’s far easier to ask all parents the same questions during the induction process than to ask additional questions when you have concerns as this can provoke anxiety.

2.Consider the child’s developmental stage

Children’s behaviour will usually be in line with their stage of development.   The Statutory Framework for the EYFS makes it clear that the key person “must help ensure that the child’s learning and care is tailored to meet their individual needs” (1.11) and this includes Personal, Social and Emotional Development.   Sometimes we have unrealistic expectations of children’s behaviour, giving them time to learn self-help, literacy and mathematical skills but not providing the same amount of patience and support with their behaviour.  Use the non statutory Early Years Outcomes to assess a child’s level of development or the “What to Expect When” parent’s guide.

3.Evaluate your environment

When I was an Area SENCO, some of the children I visited attended two settings and their behaviour was often different in each one; this was purely due to the environment.  It’s vital that all practitioners are aware of the setting rules, whether or not these are displayed.  For example, if each of you were asked to write down the rules, would you all write the same and are there any exceptions?

We need to model the behaviour we want to see, this means getting on the floor and playing alongside the children, giving them the words they need such as “You need to say – can I have a turn please?” and “You need to say – please can I play?”  Are there particular areas of the room where children aren’t engaged?  If so, you either need a practitioner placed in this area to show the children how to use the equipment or you need to change what you offer in that space.  Transition times where large groups of children are on the move can also be problematic so try to limit these and sing songs to help children focus.  I find the tune “The Farmer’s in his Den” a great one to link any words to.  For example “It’s time to tidy up/It’s time to put on your coats/It’s time to sit on the carpet.”  The children will join in and this means you don’t have to keep repeating the same instruction.

Asking children to sit still is one of the hardest things we can ask them to do so limit any whole group carpet time without movement to a maximum of ten minutes for 4 and 5-year-olds and five minutes for 2 and 3-year- olds and remember - it’s their developmental stage not chronological age we need to consider.

4.Record what you see

When a child’s behaviour is challenging us, it’s essential that we record information without making any judgements - remember that parents have a right to see all our observations and assessments.  I find the simple ABC (Antecedent, Behaviour and Consequences) format very effective as it requires us to write factual information and enables us to look for patterns in behaviour.  For example, when, where and how often it occurs, the triggers and most importantly, how all practitioners respond.  Consistency is the key and often, although we think we’re being consistent, in reality we aren’t.

Most importantly, remember that all behaviour is communication; it’s a child’s way of showing us they are struggling and need our support.   If you need further advice, the national charity Young Minds has a free telephone helpline and enquiry service.

About the author

Kathryn is a specialist early years teacher and trainer who has worked with children for nearly 25 years, including 10 years as an Area SENCO. She is a licensed Tutor for ICAN Talk Boost as well as an ELKLAN Speech and Language Trainer.  She regularly writes and delivers courses for early years practitioners on all aspects of SEN.  You can follow her on Twitter @kathrynstinton, find her on Facebook or visit her website for more information.

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