- Distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable guidance strategies in response to challenging behavior.
- Develop, describe, and/or follow your program’s guidance and touch policy.
- Use positive guidance strategies in your work with children.
Two girls are fighting over a piece of purple construction paper in the creative area. They begin to yell and rip the paper out of each other’s hands. The provider, Janice, walks over and yells, “Stop.” She begins muttering, “I have had enough. You girls have been bothering each other all day.” She rips the paper out of the girls’ hands and throws it away. “If you’re going to be little brats, nobody gets the purple paper.”
Janice clearly felt some stress in this situation. When the girls’ behavior challenged her, she began to yell and act aggressively. She let that stress get the best of her and she reacted in a way that was not appropriate. Janice made a poor decision, but you can learn from her experience. It’s not unusual to feel stress at work. Nearly everyone does at one time or another. What matters is how we handle our stress. How do you think Janice handled her stress? What do you think she should have done differently? Can you relate to the emotions that led to her actions?
What if Janet had taken a moment to slow down and think about what was happening? How might the situation have been different if Janice had asked herself, "What is the issue? What needs to be done? What do I know about these children and their development? Can I get help from someone in this situation?” Let’s look at that scenario again, but this time let’s imagine that things went differently:
When Janice hears the girls arguing, she walks over. “It looks like there’s a problem here and it sounds like you might be angry. What is the problem?” She listens to the girls explain. They each try to interrupt each other and continue fighting, but she makes sure all sides are heard. After they have explained the situation, Janice summarizes what she has heard. “It sounds like Simone wants to use the purple paper to make a card for her mom, and Destiny wants to make a picture. Simone, what do you think would be fair? Destiny, what do you think would be fair?” The girls arrive at a compromise all can agree to. Janice stays close while they begin acting on the compromise.
What was different this time? What specific strategies did Janice use to defuse the situation? She did a lot of things really well. First, she remembered her knowledge of child development. She knew that this behavior was typical of preschool-age and young school-age children. She remained calm and modeled problem-solving strategies. She reflected the children’s emotions and redirected them to a more positive activity. Finally, she followed through to make sure the children were successful.
As you read in a previous lesson, young children are at heightened risk for abuse and neglect. Often, this is because adults do not know what to do when a child’s behavior challenges them, and the adult makes a terrible decision. Taking the time to think through difficult situations will help you in times of stress. This can protect you and help you make decisions that are healthy for you and children. Knowing how to respond to challenging behavior prevents child abuse and neglect.
Why Do Children Engage in Challenging Behavior?
There are many reasons why children might engage in behavior that adults find challenging. As stated in previous lessons, sometimes the behavior that adults find challenging is part of typical development. In all cases, a child’s behavior communicates a message. It is up to adults to learn the child’s code and interpret the message. Here are some messages a child’s behavior might send:
- I need your attention, but I don’t know how to ask for it.
- I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.
- I need help.
- I’m bored.
- I’m lonely.
- I don’t feel well.
- I’m scared.
- I’m tired.
- I don’t want to do that, or I don’t like that.
- I’m overwhelmed.
What is Guidance?
Guidance is how we help children know what it means to be a member of our community. It is how we help children learn the expectations for behavior in a variety of settings. Guidance means helping children learn from their mistakes to make positive choices.
Guidance is not punishment. It is not about control or making children fear you. It is about knowing children and creating the best physical and social environment in which they can learn.
What are Positive Guidance Techniques?
There are a variety of positive guidance techniques. All of them work best in the context of a strong relationship with each child.
For very young infants who are not yet mobile, the most important thing you can do is to provide consistent care and nurturing. Provide a predictable environment that meets the infant’s needs for comfort, safety, food, and rest. Remember that crying is a form of communication. Respond to the baby’s cues that she or he is hungry, tired, bored, or in need of a diaper change. Always think about each child’s behavior in context of the relationship you have with the child:
- Is the infant new to your program? If so, the infant may be experiencing separation anxiety from loved ones. The baby needs a consistent, nurturing adult to help feel secure.
- Does the infant cry a lot, or is crying unusual? All babies cry, but some cry more than others. Look for signs that the baby is uncomfortable. Help soothe the baby by holding him or her, rocking or walking him or her, singing songs, and providing soothers like a pacifier. Try burping the baby.
- Is the infant tired or teething? Talk to family members to gain insight into a baby’s moods and behavior.
The key to guidance is trying to understand the infant and what he or she is communicating through behavior. There is rarely a reason to tell a non-mobile infant “No.” As you focus on meeting each infant’s needs, you will naturally use the most effective guidance strategies for this age group: responsiveness and positive interactions.
Just as with younger infants, positive interactions are the foundation of guidance. Your job is to help mobile infants learn the foundation of self-control by helping them learn to explore safely and begin soothing themselves. To keep the baby or others safe, there may be times when you need to help the baby stop a certain behavior. Perhaps the baby is pulling someone’s hair or trying to wiggle out of the stroller safety harness. According to Zero to Three (2009), you should focus on redirecting the baby’s attention: Set limits clearly and firmly, but do not get angry. For example, you might say, “That hurts Bryson’s head. Let’s pull on this squishy ball.” You might distract the child who is trying to escape the stroller by pointing out an interesting animal, offering something to hold, or singing a song together. Mobile infants respond well to guidance techniques that:
- Help them know what to do rather than what not to do. Use positive language like, “Come to the climber” instead of “Stop climbing the book shelf.”
- Provide safe spaces for exploration. Make sure everything in the room is safe for tiny fingers and mouths.
- Continue responding to the infant’s needs. Remember, crying communicates. Respond quickly when an infant is hungry, tired, hurt, or uncomfortable.
Toddlers, Preschoolers and School-Age Children
For toddlers (typically over one-year-old), preschoolers, and school-age children, the following guidance techniques are appropriate, according to Hearron and Hildebrand (2012):
Appropriate expectations for children’s behavior: Child guidance begins with establishing a limited number of positively stated expectations for behavior. These expectations apply to everyone in the setting. Examples might include “be safe” or “be respectful.”
Managing space, time, and energy: Through guidance techniques, you create a space that promotes positive behavior. Adults arrange and rearrange the physical space and the schedule of the day to meet children’s needs. A common example is moving furniture to eliminate a large open space that children use for running. Another example is making large-group times shorter to eliminate challenging behavior as children get bored.
Experiences that engage the whole child: The curriculum is the foundation of everything we do. If children are bored, overstimulated, or uninterested, they will engage in challenging behavior. Thoughtfully engaged learners don’t have time for challenging behavior!
Maximizing our relationships: Guidance is based on relationships. Strategies develop as you get to know the children, observe them, and listen to their play and their stories. It is based on finding the positive attributes of every child and recognizing them. Spend “neutral” time with children, just listening, playing, and enjoying time together.
Expressing feelings: A provider might say, “I can tell you’re sad about cleaning up right now, but it’s not safe for you to stay here by yourself. Would you like to write a note to let everyone know you are saving your work for later?” It is also about being genuine and expressing your own feelings. A provider might say, “What you are doing makes me feel scared. I don’t think it’s safe. Let’s do this instead.”
Notice and recognize positive behaviors: An important part of positive guidance is encouragement. We notice and describe accomplishments or positive behaviors. A provider might say, “Jonah, I bet you are really proud of yourself for solving that problem.” Or “I noticed that you gave Sonya a turn on the computer. She really appreciated that. Thank you.”
Provide short, clear directions: Use a natural tone of voice and make eye contact. Check in to make sure children understood.
Provide choices: Whenever possible, offer children a choice. You can let children decide where they will play, what they will play (e.g., build a castle or a farm in the block area), how they will do something (sit or stand at the art easel), the order they will do things in (first block area then water table), and whom they do things with.
Redirect children to appropriate behaviors: When a challenging behavior occurs, adults must know how to get the child back on track. “No,” “stop,” and “don’t” do little to help a child know what to do. An example of a positive redirection is, “Keep the water in the table” or “Walk inside.”
Use gestures, pictures, or other cues to help children understand: You might point to a picture schedule on the wall to help a child move to a new activity.
Facilitate social problem-solving: Help children know what to do when they have a problem. Help them learn to recognize their problem, come up with solutions, make a decision, and try it out. As children get older, you can simply facilitate this process and be available to help them work through social problems. Young children will likely need your help coming up with possible solutions to try.
Unacceptable Forms of Guidance
You have a professional responsibility to keep children safe from harm. This includes emotional, psychological, and mental harm. There are certain types of guidance that have the potential to inflict harm and model aggression. When we use aggressive techniques with children, they and their families learn that aggressive responses to behavior are OK. That is not the message we want to send children and families. The following practices have no place in family child care programs:
Your family child care homePUB should have guidance and touch policies. It is your responsibility toPUB establish these policies and to assure any other individual who may work with you understand them, for example, back-up providers. In the Identification and Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect course, you worked with your trainer, coach or family child care administrator to learn about whatPUB appropriate guidance and touch policies include. It is a good idea to reviewPUB yourPUB appropriate guidance and touch policies include. It is a good idea to reviewPUB yourPUB own policies now and regularly as you begin your work with children. Make sure you can answer these questions:
- What guidance practices are not acceptable in my program?
- What are the boundaries for touch between providers and children?
- Who can I go to if I have questions?
If you observe other child development programs or family child care providers, you will see a lot of guidance strategies. It is important to learn to discriminate between acceptable and unacceptable guidance strategies. The table below provides examples of each. Remember, many of the behaviors you see listed might be challenging to adults, but they are typical behaviors for children at each age.
A 2-year-old has begun toilet training at home. She tries using the toilet in the program, but she begins to urinate while the provider is helping her undress. Urine spills onto the floor and her pants.
A child is left in soiled clothing as punishment for urinating on her pants.
A provider helps the child change into dry clothes. She reminds the child to let her know if she feels like she needs to use the toilet. The adult stops and thinks about what might be causing the accident: did she forget to remind her to use the toilet before a fun activity? Is she just beginning toilet training?
An infant has been crying and does not seem to need food or diapering.
A provider puts a crying infant in a crib as “time out” and leaves him in the sleeping area.
A provider uses what she knows about the infant to soothe him: She holds the infant and rocks him while humming a gentle tune. If the child does not stop crying, she tries other soothers (e.g., a walk). If crying persists, she checks with the child’s family.
A toddler bites another child who has taken his toy.
A provider threatens to “bite the child back” herself or encourages the other child to do so.
A provider comforts the victim, tends the child’s wounds, and helps the child who bit use more positive interactions. She stays close and steps in if it looks like the child will bite again. If the problem persists, she works with the family to develop a plan.
An infant refuses a bottle.
A provider forces the bottle into the child’s mouth.
A provider notes that a bottle was offered on the feeding log and remembers to try again later.
A mobile infant snatches toys from other children and pushes other children over.
A provider snatches a toy away and tells the infant to “Stop pushing.”
A provider offers the infant a duplicate toy and engages in play with the children to model playing in the same space safely.
Running in Circles
Toddlers are running in circles around the room.
A provider makes all the children sit against the wall until they can calm down or she makes the children who were running stay inside while others go outdoors.
A provider says, “Walking feet” and redirects the children to a dancing game on the carpet. The provider also considers the room arrangement and schedule to see whether adjustments can be made.
A toddler keeps getting out of his chair at snack time although he is not finished eating.
A provider finds a chair with a seat belt and restrains the child in his chair (although he is physically capable of sitting safely).
A provider says, “First eat, then play.” She offers the choice to eat or clean up.
A child is acting silly and playing with food at lunch.
A provider throws the lunch away and tells the child to go sit in the bathroom (out of sight of the other children) until the other children finish eating.
A provider makes a game out of taking tastes of different foods.
Two children are pretending to fight and roughhouse on the carpet.
A provider makes the children write the words “Be Safe” for five minutes.
A provider suggests different activities to the children (“Braden, there’s a spot at the water table. Dan, come help me set the table for snack.”), or a provider provides a safe place and rule for rough-and-tumble play.
Children are running up the slide on the playground.
A provider closes the playground and does not take the children to play outside for a week.
A provider stands near the slide and reminds children to slide down.
A child does not want to sit at group time.
An adult restrains the child on her lap while the child kicks and screams.
The provider offers another choice for the child to do instead of group time or changes group time so it is interesting.
A child scratches another child’s face.
A provider threatens to get out a belt and whip the child and tells the children they are “bad.”
The provider separates the children, comforts the victim, tends to the child’s wounds, and addresses the child that scratched; providing alternative ways to communicate or express frustration.
A child lost his backpack on a field trip, and the others had to wait for him while he looked for it. The boy began to pout and stomp his feet. He plopped onto a picnic table and refused to look anymore.
The provider calls the child “stupid and forgetful.” She talks about him in front of other children in the program.
The provider helps him find the backpack while making sure the remaining children are supervised and active.
An 11-year-old uses profanity and insults toward a provider.
The provider hits the back of the child’s head and says, “Cut it out.”
The provider remains calm and reminds the child that the program requires respectful language.
A child will not line up to begin the walk from his school to the after-school program.
The provider grabs the child by the arm and pulls him into line.
The provider says, “You can line up with your friends or walk with me. What’s your choice?” The provider gives the child a job to do (count the children, carry the basketballs, etc.).
A provider asks a 5-year-old if he needs to use the restroom. He says “no,” but five minutes later he has an accident and soils his pants.
The provider shames the child in front of other children by saying, “Kids in my program don’t pee their pants. You must be a baby.”
The provider helps the child to the restroom without drawing attention to the accident and gets the child a change of clothes.
Now watch experts talk about positive child guidance.
The following strategies will help you remain positive and create a caring community:
- Remember that children (and families) are always watching. You are a role model even when you think no one is watching. The way you respond to children and to stressful situations is important.
- Keep a copy of your program’s guidance and touch policy near other information that you share with families. Make revisions as necessary.
- Practice positive guidance. Ask your trainer, coach, family child care administrator, or fellow family child care provider to observe your work with children. Ask for feedback on whether you provide positive directions, how many positive comments you make, how many negative comments you make, etc. Set a goal to say four positives for every negative.
- If you get overwhelmed, step away from the situation. Make sure children are safe, and never leave children unsupervised. Simply step away to a different part of the room. Or if a back-up provider is present, ask them to take over what you were doing. Everyone needs a break sometimes. You can even model anger-management techniques by saying, “I’m going to go take a deep breath and come back ready to help you think of some solutions to this problem.”
- Watch your words. Harsh or critical words stick with us. Children are especially vulnerable because they look up to you. Make sure you use words that encourage and support. Do not use words that shame, belittle, or insult a child.
- Read the resources in the Apply section. They were designed for families, but the ideas are just as valuable for providers. Use the tips as you work with children, and share the materials with families.
In a previous course, you learned about institutional abuse. You learned that abuse and neglect can occur in your program or other programs that serve children in your care. For some, it can be difficult to distinguish between practices that violate your program’s guidance and touch policy and practices that could be abusive. In this activity, you will practice distinguishing between the two. Read the Guidance Continuum Activity. Read each scenario and mark where you think it falls on the continuum. Share your answers with your trainer, coach or family child care administrator. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.
We can all use resources to help us respond to challenging behavior. The resources below are great for your own professional library or to share with families. The first two behavior guides are helpful for infants and toddlers; they focus on reading pre-verbal children’s cues and responding to biting. The third guide offers eight practical tips for families with young children. There are even more guides available from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (www.vanderbilt.edu/csefel). Read and review those below and use what you learn to help guide children’s behavior.
In addition, caring for children, especially as a family child care provider, can be a stressful job. There will be times when you feel like children are testing the limits or challenging you. It can feel overwhelming. In these times, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself. Read the Managing Stress Guide. This guide will help you identify signs of stress and steps you can take to manage stress in your program and beyond.
Hearron, P. F., & Hildebrand, V. (2012). Guiding Young Children. Columbus, OH: Pearson.
Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning: www.vanderbilt.edu/csefel
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children Youth and Families Children’s Bureau. Building Community, Building Hope: 2106 Prevention Resource Guide: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/guide.pdf