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The ideas of the Behaviourists: are they still relevant?

The ideas of the Behaviourists: are they still relevant?

I recently attended a Halloween party at my grandson’s nursery, which involved all of the children dressing up. To begin with, the children were read a story and then they sat in groups with their nursery staff and family members who had come along for the party. I was there in my role as grandad. What struck me straight away was how well behaved all of the children were, how attentive they were when the story was being read and how well behaved they were when eating their party food, and later when playing with staff, family members and each other. Throughout the party, my thoughts frequently turned to my work as a psychologist many years ago, and I reflected on how these young children were responding to the positive behaviours of their adult role models, whose own behaviours were influencing and even shaping those of the children. This made me think of the work of those theorists known as the ‘Behaviourists’ who argued that it was possible to shape children’s behaviours through reinforcement.

The Behaviourists

Much of the thinking behind the approach adopted by the Behaviourists can be found in the ideas of the American psychologist, Burrhus Skinner (1904 to 1990), who is regarded by many as the primary figure in the field of Behaviourism. Skinner’s ideas, however, emerged from those of the Russian theorist, Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), who, when carrying out experiments with dogs in his laboratory, noticed how they salivated when an assistant entered the room to bring food. Pavlov then noticed how the dogs salivated even when the assistants did not bring food and that merely entering the room was enough to make the dogs salivate. Pavlov referred to this behaviour in the dogs as ‘associated learning’ and suggested that the dogs had formed an association between the assistants entering the room and being fed. Pavlov then trained the dogs to respond to different associations, such as ringing a bell when food was introduced so that they then salivated at the sound of the bell, which suggested that they had formed an association between the sound of the bell and being fed – in its most basic sense, the dogs were ‘learning’. Pavlov’s ideas about forming associations were taken up by Edward Thorndike (1874- 1954), who saw possibilities in applying these to understanding children’s learning and later by John Watson (1878 to 1954), and more recently by Burrhus Skinner (1904 to 1990).

Do children learn by trial and error?

Thorndike originally saw many aspects of children’s learning as happening through trial and error. However, he also believed that if outcomes of children’s activities were positive, then associations would be formed between the activity and the positive outcome, which would then lead to the repetition of behaviours. Thorndike developed an experiment in which he put a hungry cat in a box built in such a way that the cat could see a fish outside of the box and within the box there was a lever, which when pressed would open the box. He then observed how the cat attempted to escape from the box, to eat the fish. On each occasion when the cat escaped from the box, it was returned to it. At the start, the cat’s attempts to escape were of am trial and error nature, though as time went by, the cat became quicker at escaping. Thorndike reasoned that the cat was making an association between how to escape and a lever on the box, which when it was pressed opened the door in the box. Importantly, Thorndike viewed this process of learning as moving from random acts to more deliberate attempts by the cat to use its paw to push the lever – he called this the ‘law of effect’ and suggested that acts that result in positive outcomes such as having a reward increase; and also that acts that lead to undesirable or non-pleasurable outcomes become weaker and eventually disappear. Later, in 1913, John Watson established the ‘school of Behaviourism’ based, to a greater extent, on the ideas of Pavlov and Thorndike, which focused on children learning through behaviour. Watson’s confidence in Behaviourism as a means of explaining learning in children, can be seen in his often quoted assertion: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant, chief – regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors” (Watson, 1928, p. 82).

The importance of reinforcement

Drawing upon Watson’s ideas and the earlier ideas of Pavlov and Thorndike, Skinner recognised how reinforcement that is positive, strengthens the behaviours of children. Importantly he also observed how the frequency with which reinforcement follows behavioural responses is a key factor in increasing children’s behaviours. Skinner developed what was known as, ‘Operant Conditioning’, which was based on his idea that children’s learning is not wholly a passive process as had been thought by earlier Behaviourists but rather, it was an active process; this was a major step forward in how we came to understand and explain children’s learning. Operant conditioning asserts that it is the child as learner who triggers changes in behaviour and that learning occurs when behaviours are either rewarded or punished, and when associations are formed by the child between their behaviours and the consequences of their behaviours. Skinner believed that children’s behaviours could be shaped and then sustained by consequences. He argued that pleasant responses strengthened behaviours and unpleasant responses weakened behaviours, which would then diminish. Put simply, positive reinforcement strengthens children’s learning whilst negative reinforcement diminishes it.

Behaviourism in practice

The principles of Behaviourism can be seen every day in classrooms and early years settings where practitioners offer stimuli to children and then positively reinforce the children’s behaviours and their learning, often without being fully aware of what they are doing. Examples of positive reinforcement between an adult and a child might, for example, include the adult’s smile or some verbal praise in response to a new activity that the child has become engaged in, such as, “that’s really good” or, “you have tried very hard, well done!”. Indeed, a common practice in many settings is when practitioners place a star on a chart after a child has successfully completed a task or shown a desired behaviour. In order to gain the star, the child has to demonstrate the desired behaviour. In contrast, examples of negative reinforcement might be where practitioners use ‘time out’ for a child who is presenting with unacceptable behaviours.

In summary then, my reflections on the party at my grandson’s nursery can be explained by applying many of the principles of Behaviourism. The children were well behaved and attentive because the adults who worked with them in the nursery had modelled good behaviours within the nursery and then reinforced these with the children thereby establishing positive behaviour patterns, such as sitting quietly, listening to the adult reading the story, being attentive to what adults were saying and sitting quietly when eating. All of this, of course, reflects the hard work and commitment by practitioners in early years settings and their understanding of how children learn.


Watson, J.B. (1928) Psychological Care of Infant and Child. New York: Norton.
For further information on how an understanding of the Behaviourists can support practice in the early years, see the following link to Sean’s latest book: MacBlain, S.F. (2018) Learning Theories for Early Years Practice. London: Sage.Readers

Readers can also find some of Sean’s other publications here.

About the author

Professor Sean MacBlain PhD, C. Psychol., C. Sci., FRSM, FHEA, AMBDA is a distinguished author whose most recent publication is: MacBlain (Sage, 2018) Learning Theories for Early Years Practice. Other publications include: MacBlain (Sage, 2014) How Children Learn; Gray and MacBlain (Sage, 2015) Learning Theories in Childhood, now going into its 3rd edition; MacBlain, Long and Dunn, (Sage, 2015) Dyslexia, Literacy and Inclusion: Child-centred Perspectives; MacBlain, Dunn and Luke (Sage, 2017) Contemporary Childhood; Sean’s publications are used by students, academics and practitioners worldwide. He is currently a senior academic at Plymouth Marjon University where he teaches on a range of undergraduate programmes and supervises students at masters and doctoral level. Sean worked previously as a Senior Lecturer in Education and Developmental Psychology at Stranmillis University College, Queens University Belfast and for over twenty years as an educational psychologist in private practice. Sean lives with his wife Angela in Somerset, England.  

5 different ways of using visuals in your early years setting to support children with SEN

5 different ways of using visuals in your early years setting to support children with SEN

What are visuals? Visual aids are a set of individual pictures that communicate a meaning to someone through the use of an image. Otherwise known as visual aids or just visuals, it could be a picture of a toilet/ apple/sand tray/story time/a particular emotion – anything! You can use drawn images or you could use photos. The important thing is that you are using a picture that someone can easily recognise to illustrate an item. These usually have the word written underneath as well, to help encourage early reading.

Why visuals?

As early years professionals, you will be aware that the child that knows what is happening in their day, is likely to feel much calmer and less anxious in your setting than the child that doesn’t know. Imagine if someone took you somewhere for the first time and you didn’t know where you were, what you were going to be doing all day, where the toilet is, when (or if) you were going to get fed, and when you get to go home again. And all of that at a very young age. Wouldn’t that be scary? Compare that with knowing where the toilet is, when food is coming, and you can see that eventually you are going to go home – it’s not hard to realise that this is bound to make a small child feel a lot more settled.

So how do we communicate to children what is going to happen in their day and where everything is? We can’t just write a list since the majority of children in an early years settings are unable to read yet. Using words is great but can be overwhelming, easy to forget and, for some children, hard to process. Using clear visual images around your setting provides a great way of supporting children to become as calm and settled as possible, and therefore reduce anxiety.

One of the very early signs of reading is children being able to recognise familiar signs and logos around them. Many children will recognise the ‘Asda’ sign as they arrive at the supermarket car park – not because they can read the individual letters, but because they recognise the big, bold, green group of letters and they correlate this with the car park and big building full of food! Likewise, clear visual images in your setting can quickly become familiar to children, allowing them to have some control in their day by knowing what is happening and where things are.

Different uses
  • To demonstrate routine

A visual timetable is a set of visual symbols displayed one after the other, showing what is going to happen in the day. A display such as this is great for showing children what is going to be happening in their day. This is really helpful for all children but vital for those that feel anxious because they don’t know what the day will hold. Visuals allow children to see what they are going to be doing next, plus, if there is a change to the usual routine, visuals offer the added bonus of helping a child to process that change.

  • To label areas and resources

As you will already know, it is essential that a child feels comfortable in your setting in order for them to flourish. By labelling the areas, drawers, cupboards, boxes, toilet etc. then children will be able to learn their way around their environment, allowing them some control over what they can access. This is also vital for tidy-up-time – you can’t expect children to tidy up effectively if they can’t see where things go.

  • To allow children to be themselves

Giving children access to visuals allows them to communicate with you where they otherwise may have been unable to. A chart displaying emotions symbols helps children identify how they are feeling and, in time, will hopefully allow them to share this with you.

  • To give instructions

Visual images are a great way to show children a step-by-step guide of how to do something without you having to constantly remind them with verbal instructions. This lets them learn a new skill and provides them with a reminder as they practise that skill. Hand washing is a great example of this. Have visual images above a sink showing a child each step of washing their hands. They will then be able to follow these at their own pace rather than depending on an adult showing them, thereby encouraging independence as well as good hygiene.

  • To support children with additional needs

Visual aids are a great support for all children, but for some children with additional needs, they are vital. Children on the autism spectrum can find it particularly hard to process language. Visuals offer a consistent way for children to communicate without the added complications of tone of voice and different choice of words etc. which are aspects of communication that some people struggle with. Such children may benefit from having their own particular set of visual aids that is specific to their routine and their needs. This could be in the form of a personal visual timetable; visual symbols on a keyring or in a communication book; or a board that displays what is happening ‘now’ and ‘next’. For the non-verbal child, giving them visuals allows them to share their wants and needs with you, such as ‘drink’ or ‘toilet’.

It’s important to emphasise that these visuals are by no means intended to replace spoken language. Modelling and encouraging speech are vital to a young child’s language development. These are intended to support spoken language and are often a first step for children before understanding or using spoken words.

It’s worth considering that visual symbols are not the only way to provide visual learning in your setting. Other visuals such as sand timers, puppets and Makaton signing are great ways to provide even more visual clues to the young learner.

About the author

Gina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.

Website:     Email:

Sniff your way to mental wellbeing

Sniff your way to mental wellbeing

In this third of four articles exploring sensory support for emotional regulation, Sensory Engagement Specialist and Sensory Projects founder, Joanna Grace, explores how we can use our noses to support wellbeing. This article is based on one of Joanna’s free leaflet guides, more can be found at:

Our uniquely emotional sense of smell

In our settings, we often play with colour and texture, but how often do you employ your children’s olfactory sense: their sense of smell?

Our olfactory sense is unique among the senses, being the only one processed directly by our limbic brain – our emotional brain. All the other senses can end up with limbic responses but they are processed by the thalamus first – the thinking brain – which acts as a kind of ‘gate-keeper’.

You probably have a smell or two that when you smell them transport you through time to a special place. Usually, such scent time-travel experiences take us to happy memories which is wonderful, but from time to time they can link to frightening times – no one likes the smell of hospitals!

This emotional processing of the sense of smell means that scent has a big effect on our emotional wellbeing. An engagement with your sense of smell has actually been shown to be preventative of stress, depression and anxiety. So we might do well to take that old phrase “wake up and smell the roses” literally! The connection between scent and wellbeing goes both ways, and people who are depressed often experience a physical impairment to their sense of smell. This, in turn, often affects their eating habits, as much of the joy we get from food comes to us through our olfactory sense. People no longer receiving the input they once had from food, will either eat more to try and find it, or go off eating as it no longer holds the joy it once had, which accounts for why people experiencing depression often find it affects their weight.

The good news is that as you go about sourcing smelly activities for your setting, you’ll be doing something good for your own mental wellbeing too – sniffing stuff is good for everyone!

Bonding with our noses

Scent is very important when it comes to bonding. Although we may feel ourselves to be very different to animals, we still choose our partners partly dependent on their smell. Our personal scents carry information about our genetic makeup and we are likely to be more attracted to someone whose scent indicates biological compatibility. For those closest to us, especially children, our personal scent is naturally very comforting and smelling that scent helps us to form tight, emotional-bonds with one another.

By scent I do not mean we stink. There are two types of smells: volatile ones and pheromone ones. It is the volatile ones that we think of as being “smelly.” Pheromone ones are much more subtle – they are not B.O. – they are the scent of a person. If you have ever smelt the clothes of a loved one who has died, or held a partner’s t-shirt to your face, you’ve probably had an experience of searching for these smells.

You might think that you do not want pheromones racing around your setting but actually they can be a very useful tool for supporting children who are anxious or who have attachment problems. If you’re curious to learn more, look at the “Smell the Roses” guide on guides or connect with me on Facebook where I share photos of sensory-makes, some of which are connected to sharing pheromone smells therapeutically. There is also further information in my book “Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” published by Routledge.

Playing with smells

Fostering an engagement with smell is a fun way to support mental wellbeing. Different smells will produce different emotional responses. Try some of the following:

  •  Smells with heavy base notes, for example chamomile or bergamot
  •  Zingy smells, for example peppermint or lemongrass
  •  Sickly-sweet smells, for example, banana or vanilla
Smelly ideas
  • Make some smelly playdough – simply add drops of essential oil to a plain dough. Handling the dough will warm it and make the scent stronger
  • Offer the children fresh herbs to play with. They can practice their knife skills, snip them with scissors, or rub and squash them with their fingers to release the scent. Making potions is a favourite hobby of my small assistant (aged 4) and a great way to explore scent. Provide warm water for potions to increase the scent released (as hot things release more odour than cool things)
  • Dab a little scent on to a cuddly toy as if it were wearing perfume
  • Take time when shopping to smell different products
  • Find things in the natural environment to smell
  •  Make a scent shaker: to do this, you need an empty pop-lid drinks bottle or an empty Pringles tube (other crunchy tube-based snacks are available!) Use a heated metal prong to melt small holes into the sides of the bottle or the lid of the tube. Be sure to have the windows open as the fumes are not pleasant. Pop fresh herbs into the container and secure the lid. With the drinks bottle you can just tighten it beyond the point where children would be able to open it, with the tube you may want to tape the lid on. Along with the herbs, place a small piece of gravel or a small dryer ball, something which when shaken will bash the herbs causing them to release their scent. When the child first picks up the container it will have a mild smell, shaking it will make the smell stronger.

It is easy to overwhelm people with smells, so it’s a good idea to just play with one or two at a time. Rather than have ten smells to play with at once, simply take time out from your day as it progresses to stop and smell the roses…or the grass… or the dinner…or the soap….Enjoy your connection with the olfactory world – it is a gorgeous, gorgeous thing!

About the author

Joanna Grace

Joanna Grace is an international sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.

Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.

Joanna has published three books: Sensory Stories for children and teens, Sensory-being for Sensory Beings and Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia. Her latest two books were launched at TES SEN in October.

Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.


The bigger picture

The bigger picture

Children behave the way that they do for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s just a bad day, sometimes they are frustrated because their thoughts and emotions are bigger than their ability to communicate and sometimes it runs far deeper and is a reflection of their life outside of our care. Children often imitate what they see and are also silently guided by the belief systems and values they have been programmed with. It is, therefore, crucial that we see behaviour as a symptom of a child’s circumstances or a form of communication, rather than a determining factor of who they are.


It can be very challenging when a child displays consistently ‘bad’ behaviour and it can be even more frustrating when this behaviour has an impact on other children in our care. However, it is important that we look at the bigger picture and try to support these children to heal the reason they are behaving this way, rather than suppressing it with punishment and control.


Every action or reaction has a consequence and it’s important to teach children about these consequences. If a child hurts someone, they need to be moved away from that person. If they hit someone with a toy, the toy needs to be removed temporarily until they learn to use it safely. These are all natural consequences that are directly linked to the behaviour. It is also important to spend time talking to that child explaining why they have been moved away or had their toy removed. Getting them to identify how people may feel on the receiving end of their behaviour gives them an opportunity to develop their empathy and to learn about right and wrong.


By using methods like timeout, you get quick wins because it allows you to control the child and their behaviour. However, the problem with this is that it is like putting a sticking plaster on the issue because it doesn’t deal with the crux of the problem. It also teaches children to be externally-driven rather than intrinsically-motivated to do the right thing because they change their behaviour through fear of being punished, rather than because it’s the right thing to do. Another problem with this method, which for me is the most important, is that it teaches children that when they make a mistake, they get ostracised from everyone.


What a child consistently sees, hears and feels throughout their childhood, creates belief systems and values that then silently guide them through life. Our subconscious mind controls 95% of what we do and as adults we are very much on ‘autopilot’ most of the time. Our actions and reactions are often driven from the internal programming we have been given in our formative years. If we are consistently taught as children that we get removed from people and are ignored when we get things wrong, there is a good chance that this is going to form a ‘default’ setting that makes us do the same as teenagers and adults.


If we want teenagers and adults to be able to come to us and to talk to us when they are worried or have made mistakes so that we can help them to move forward and put it right, we need to teach them that it’s okay to do this in their early years.


If children face natural consequences (directly linked to their behaviour) and then have time spent with them talking about why they did what they did and the impact that it had on others, this still sets strong boundaries. However, it also teaches them to face their mistakes, that they can talk to people and still be loved when they get things wrong, and that failure is an opportunity to learn and grow.


It’s also important to look beyond a child’s behaviour and to work out how their internal programming, circumstances or stage of development could be influencing it. If a child is consistently acting out, look at their home life and ask yourself why this could be. What message is that child consistently being given? Does their environment teach them that they are good enough? Does it teach them how to behave in a respectful way? If not, there’s no wonder their behaviour reflects this inner programming and perpetuates the reality of how they feel and what they see outside of your care. It’s also important to remember that babies are not born with the ability to regulate emotions and some young children take longer than others to develop this skill.


“A child is not their behaviour. If we look at what they are doing as a form of communication, we can support them to move forward in a better way.”


It’s imperative to have strong boundaries and to allow children to face the natural consequences of their actions. However, if we can also see the bigger picture, we can deal with children’s behaviour on a holistic level and support them to heal whatever it is that is at the root of the problem. If they struggle with communication and lash out in frustration, we can support them to find strategies that help them with this. If they struggle with self-worth and crave attention, we can find ways on a day to- day basis to build their self-esteem and make them less likely to act in a negative way to gain that attention.


A child is not their behaviour. If we look at what they are doing as a form of communication, we can support them to move forward in a better way. A child that feels safe and secure is more likely to make better choices than one that feels rejected and fearful. By setting strong boundaries that are cushioned with empathy and compassion, rather than punishment and control, we not only teach children right from wrong, but build their self-worth and confidence, which can, at times, be at the root of the problem.



About the author


Stacey Kelly is a former teacher, a parent to 2 beautiful babies and the founder of Early Years Story Box, which is a subscription website providing children’s storybooks and early years resources. She is passionate about building children’s imagination, creativity and self-belief and about creating awareness of the impact that the Early Years have on a child’s future. Stacey loves her role as a writer, illustrator and public speaker and believes in the power of personal development. She is also on a mission to empower children to live a life full of happiness and fulfilment, which is why she launched the #ThankYouOaky Gratitude Movement.


Sign up to Stacey’s Premium Membership here and use the code PARENTA20 to get 20% off or contact Stacey for an online demo.                                    Email                              Facebook                             Twitter                              Instagram




Rainbow emotional regulation

Rainbow emotional regulation

In this second of four articles exploring sensory support for emotional regulation, Sensory Engagement Specialist and Sensory Projects Founder, Joanna Grace, explores how we can support children’s emotional regulation by labelling the full spectrum of their emotions. This article is based on one of Joanna’s free leaflet guides, more can be found here

Labelling the rainbow

Labelling emotions from an early age helps promote an individual’s ability to regulate their emotions. Knowing what an emotion is, goes a big way to helping a child to address it. This might sound a little strange – why do you need to be able to put a word on something you feel – surely feeling it is enough? But actually our internal feelings are quite confusing and the act of labelling helps us to distinguish what is going on. It is not that the word has some magical powers, it is simply the sorting process that is useful. Consider how you actually FEEL when excited, frightened, or like you might be getting a stomach upset. All three are a low level burbling in the pit of your stomach, how do you know which is which? Children often FEEL without knowing that what they are experiencing is a feeling, an emotion, rather than a physical bodily response.

Knowing what your emotions are, and being able to label them, is a vital first step in working out what is going on with them and how to manage them. Yet at a time when we expect a child to be able to name seven colours of the rainbow, we mistakenly think we make life easier for them by making their emotions binary: they are either happy or sad. Their emotions are just as real to them as the colours they see in the world around them, being given names for them helps them to understand them and to process them. A label for an emotion also means you can collect understanding from places outside of yourself, for example when you hear a story about a person who felt embarrassed, you can link what you learn from the story to your own life and situations in which you feel embarrassed. Words are powerful tools in emotional regulation.

Ways to label emotions

  • You can label emotions with words, spoken or written.
  • You can label emotions with toys showing particular emotional states, for example you may have a toy whose face can be manipulated to show different expressions.
  • You can label emotions with symbols, diagrams or photos. Symbols and diagrams can be harder for a child to translate, photos of themselves genuinely (not mock acting) expressing the emotion will be much easier for them to understand and more accurate in their representation.
  • You can label emotions with the tone of your voice or with sounds, you might even be able to use objects-of-reference or figurines displaying different emotions.

Objects-of-reference are often used with children who have profound physical and cognitive disabilities. Objects are chosen to represent key things important in that child’s life, for example a seat-belt buckle might be used to indicate that they are going in a car. For a child who struggles with particular emotions – for example, often becoming sad or angry – a representational object could be chosen and handed to them when they feel that emotion. In time, reaching for said object could become their way of expressing their distress rather than through means that are sometimes self-injurious.

How to use educative emotional expression

You can use your labelling of a child’s emotions as a miniature opportunity to teach them emotional regulation. This is a very neat trick – and done consistently – will both demonstrate your empathy with that child and let them feel understood whilst simultaneously teaching them how to regulate their emotions. Little and often is often the best approach to teaching tricky things like this. Whilst a good story about emotions, such as “The Colour Monster” by Anna Llenas, or “The Jar of Happiness” by Alisa Burrows can provide a great opportunity to reflect and consider emotions in the safety of the book corner, it is unlikely that young children reach for the insights gained in such a setting when they have that toy snatched from them, or are bumped to the floor by an overly-zealous peer. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Label their emotions as they experience them, try to always make this your top priority. So instead of “stop kicking the stairs”, say “You are feeling angry” and save your instruction for further down the line. Remember children do not necessarily know what they are feeling so it is our job to recognise and to label their emotions for them, and go for the whole rainbow of emotions – not just happy or sad.
  2. Try to match their emotional state as you label it. For example the example above you would say “You are feeling angry” in a tone that matched the anger they were expressing. This will help the child to feel understood. Of course, I am not suggesting that you get angry with them yourself, simply that your tone empathises with their emotional state. Don’t say ‘angry’ in a cutesy way, angry is not a little butterfly or a pink feather – “ANGRY” is a monster, is gritting your teeth, is a big roaring word as you say it. You are not being angry with them, you are demonstrating that you feel their anger with them. Angry, said as “ANGRY” generates a greater empathetic connection than “angry” said in a sickly-sweet way.
  3. Once you have labelled their feeling in an empathetic, connected tone, quickly begin to demonstrate emotional regulation as you give your advice. For example: “YOU ARE FEELING ANGRY” said in an angry tone.
    “You do NOT want to FEEL this way” said in an urgent tone.
    “You are trying to get rid of your anger by kicking the stairs” said in an informative tone.
    “But it is not working” said in a compassionate tone.
    “Try ______ instead” said in an optimistic tone.

The magic of mirror neurons

As you grade your expression, you give the child a guide for their own emotional regulation. Show the transition in your facial expressions too. We all have mirror neurons in our brains that enable us to feel a little of the emotions we see in others. By providing strong input for their mirror neurons you give them a little of your emotional state. Our bodies have a range of ways, of which mirror neurons are just one, in which they connect with each other. Your emotional state will directly and physically affect theirs – slow your breathing to slow their breathing, exude the calm you want to create. Get tense and frustrated and you will find yourself in a room full of very trying children. You may have heard the phrase “You create the weather in your classroom” – well I’m here to say it is true. The biggest hurdle we face in teaching children emotional regulation is regulating our own emotional responses!

It is important to match their expression to form the connection at the start and then gently blend it into an emotion that will be better for their wellbeing (and yours). For example, if a child is crying, you might begin talking to them showing a high level of distress in your own face; “You are very sad,” and then let this fade and your muscles relax, “but I am here with you” and introduce a smile that grows. “I will help you to feel happy again” – big smile.

Label the rainbow as you see it

As you would do with colours, take time to point out and discuss emotions as you encounter them in daily life. They do not always have to belong to the child – recognising emotions in peers will help them to understand their own emotions and to become empathetic and considerate towards their friends.

Try to avoid labelling particular emotions as bad or good – that is reverting to the binary expression we are trying to escape. We do not want to teach children that they are only acceptable to us when happy. Feeling the whole spectrum of emotions is normal and healthy. What we are looking to teach is not suppression of emotion, but regulation and appropriate response. Enjoy the rainbow!

About the author

Joanna Grace

Joanna Grace is an international sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.

Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.

Joanna has published three books: Sensory Stories for children and teens, Sensory-being for Sensory Beings and Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia. Her latest two books were launched at TES SEN in October.

Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.



Dear Sympathetic Sue – Discussing schemas with parents!

Dear Sympathetic Sue – Discussing schemas with parents!

During their play, children regularly behave in interesting and unusual ways that are sometimes confusing or even frustrating, such as lining up the toy animals, climbing inside boxes or repeatedly playing with the taps. As early childhood educators, we recognise these play patterns as children learning through schematic play, but the families of our children might not know anything about schemas. We are regularly asked by parents and carers why their child is doing these things and part of our role is reassuring them that schematic play is a common occurrence in early childhood and nothing to be concerned about. The other day, I was considering how parents feel about schematic behaviour and this led me to wonder what they would write if they asked an agony aunt about patterns they have observed in children’s play and how Sympathetic Sue might respond:


Dear Sympathetic Sue,

My son is driving me crazy! Johnnie is 18 months old now and keeps dropping his beaker from his highchair, again and again! As soon as he drops it, he looks at me to pick it up for him. When I do and place it on his tray, he immediately drops it again! He will repeat this until I get fed up and stop giving it back to him. Please help!

From Frustrated in Ferryport

Dear Frustrated in Ferryport,

I can understand your frustration with this, Johnnie has turned this into a turn-taking game and it can feel very annoying when all you want him to do is sip his beaker! Don’t worry, this sort of behaviour is perfectly normal for a child of his age. Johnnie is working out how the world works in terms of both his relationship with you and also what happens when you throw things off a highchair. Educators would say that Johnnie is engaging in schematic play and has a fascination with trajectory, or the movement of things. The word trajectory comes from the Latin ‘trajectoria’ and literally translated means ‘throw across’ so Johnnie is exploring the movement of his cup when he drops it from his highchair. In a basic way, he is learning about gravity and forces as well as engaging in play that involves turn-taking with an adult, which is essential for social interaction and conversation. If you are worried about the mess when he throws things, then you can take practical steps like placing a splash-mat under his highchair or sitting him in a small chair at ground level. Alternatively you could accept that he will throw things and only give him things that you are happy for him to throw. You may like to play other games with him like throwing some soft balls or beanbags into a waste-paper basket or share with him some cause-and-effect-toys like shape-sorters and pop-up toys.

Sympathetic Sue


Dear Sympathetic Sue,

I am worried about my daughter Sarah’s behaviour. She is a lovely little three-year-old who happily plays with her friends, but when she is on her own, she spends hours lining up her teddies or carefully arranging her unicorns in rows, often in a colour order. If I try to touch them, she gets very upset and I’m running out of floor space! I am worried that she might be autistic. Please help!

From Panicking Pamela 

Dear Panicking Pamela,

Please do not panic! Although I do not know Sarah, no one has ever been diagnosed as autistic on the basis that they line up their toys alone! She sounds like a sociable little girl who is engaging in a positioning schema. This type of play is very common and is helping Sarah to make sense of the world. Through lining up her toys, she is learning important organisational skills and working out how to order and sequence her unicorns. Her ability to focus for long periods of time is great and will be a huge asset when she begins school. You could talk to Sarah about creating her lines in the space in which you would prefer her to create them, which still enables people to walk past, explaining that you love her lines of toys and are worried that you might step on them. Sarah might want the opportunity to order and line up other toys so perhaps you could introduce some unicorns of different sizes? She might enjoy positioning her toys on an old flattened box to create a magical background scene and you could invite Sarah to introduce a narrative to run alongside her lines of toys, explaining to you why she has placed each toy in that specific place. You will probably find that she has carefully thought this through and has a great brain for planning things, which will prove very useful in years to come!

Sympathetic Sue


Dear Sympathetic Sue,

My son, Xavier, enjoys painting but has been coming home from nursery school lately with black pictures. His key person said that he spent ages painting a lovely picture and then covered it all with black paint! Why would he want to cover up his lovely work? Oh, and he’s also been hiding a lot recently, under duvets, blankets and even putting my dressing gown over his head! Please help!

From Confused in Creeton

Dear Confused in Creeton,

Firstly, do not worry about Xavier’s confusing behaviour. He is interested in enveloping, which is a common schema of play. Covering himself or his paintings links with the idea that things can appear and disappear and he is playing with the concept. While hiding, he is exploring and thinking about when he can and can’t be seen – which you can play along with. You might like to offer him some large pieces of material, a clothes horse and some clothes pegs with which he can make a den or offer him wrapping paper to ‘hide’ his toys inside. He will love playing hide and seek with you and may want to cover some toys and play a treasure hunt game to find them. Some children who enjoy enveloping also like to explore this concept when cooking, so making pies, pasties, filling pitta bread or samosas will be a great hit!

Sympathetic Sue

We can share information about schemas with parents and carers, offering them practical ideas of how they can support their children’s development at home in ways that link into the schema they are interested in. You may be interested in reading my book “Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children” which looks at 12 different schemas, what they are, interpreting this behaviour and it also offers ideas of how to further extend the schema. It also considers how occasionally-schematic-play can be misinterpreted as poor behaviour.

Here are some ideas of how to support parents to better understand schemas:

  • Help them to recognise and identify schemas and play patterns
  • Talk about behaviours that could be described as schematic
  • Reassure them that schemas are a common way that many children learn and develop
  • Explain that children repeatedly behaving in unusual, odd or frustrating ways is how they are learning about the world around them
  • Display photos of children engaging in specific play relating to schemas, for example, rotation – with pictures of children spinning wheels, playing with balls, drawing circles etc.
  • Share how repeating actions helps children’s brains to develop
  • Provide ideas of how to extend children’s play including simple games or activities that they can play together at home
  • Plan a workshop to share ideas about schematic behaviour
  • Set up your room with lots of schematic activities and add posters stating what children are learning through this repetitive play
  • Create a series of little information leaflets, each focusing on one schema at a time.

When it comes to schemas, you may need to be ‘Sympathetic Sue’ for your parents and carers, reassuring them that schemas are a common way in which children investigate and explore the world around them.

About the author

Tamsin GTamsin Grimmer photo2rimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email

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