- Understand the difference between acceptable and unacceptable guidance strategies in response to challenging behavior.
- Develop, describe, and follow your program’s guidance and touch policy.
- Use positive guidance strategies in your work in a child care program.
Two school-age children 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 staff member, 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.”
As a support staff member in a child care program, and more generally as a community member, you have likely witnessed situations like this before. In the scenario, Janice was challenged by the girls’ behavior, and she responded by yelling and acting harshly. When adults are overwhelmed, stressed, or unsure of what to do, they are more likely to let their emotions determine their actions. It’s not unusual to feel stressed or challenged when caring for children, and some stress can be beneficial. What matters is how you respond to stressful situations. Can you relate to the emotions that led to Janice’s actions? How have direct care staff in your program responded to these types of behaviors?
What if Janice had taken a moment to pause and think about what was happening? How might the situation have been different if Janice had asked herself, "What is the issue? What do we want to happen? What do I know about these children and their development? What can I do to help them learn how to handle this situation?” Let’s look at that scenario again, but this time let’s imagine that things went differently:
Janice hears the girls arguing, takes a moment, and calmly walks over. “It looks like there’s a disagreement here and it sounds like you are angry. What can we do to get through this?” Janice asks for the purple paper and holds onto it as she listens to the girls explain. They each try to interrupt each other and continue fighting, but she makes sure both sides have the opportunity to speak. 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? How did Janice defuse the situation? First, Janice remained calm. Then she stated what she observed and asked a question. Janice held on to the desired material because she knew it would be difficult for the children to focus on a solution if one of them had it. She knew that these types of conflicts are typical of children at this stage and knew that with guidance they can come up with good solutions. She reflected on the children’s emotions and redirected them to a more positive outcome. Finally, she followed through to make sure the children were successful.
Conflict and challenging behavior are to be expected in children, and these experiences help them learn new skills and see others’ perspectives. It is most important that adults pause and collect their thoughts so they can respond in a way that models the behavior we want to see in children and helps children learn. Understanding behavior and 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 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 and provides an opportunity for them to learn. It is up to adults to interpret these messages. 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 learn routines, expectations, self-control, and responsibility. Through guidance, children learn how to adapt to a variety of social and learning situations. Guidance means viewing mistakes as opportunities to teach children new skills.
Guidance is not punishment or use of fear to control children into “good” behavior. It is about supporting children so they understand how the decisions they make help them learn and relate to others.
What are Positive Guidance Techniques?
Caregivers can begin using positive guidance strategies with children from birth. All of them work best in the context of a strong relationship with each child. Positive guidance techniques strengthen children’s social-emotional learning and have positive benefits for adults, too. As a support staff member, you play a critical role in ensuring your program operates smoothly. Positive guidance techniques help your program to operate smoothly as well. Conflict between children, tantrums, and difficult transition times are major causes of delays in child care settings.
Although you do not work with children directly, you are likely present during many of these difficult times in a program. You can watch direct care staff members to make sure proper positive guidance techniques are being employed. If a coworker is having a difficult time helping a child, you should be able to quickly and confidently step in and ask how you can be a support.
For young infants, the most important thing caregivers can do is provide nurturing and consistent care, responsiveness, and positive interactions. Infants thrive in predictable environments and when caregivers meet their needs for comfort, safety, food, and rest. Remember that crying is a form of communication that lets caregivers know infants are hungry, tired, bored, or in need of a diaper change. The key is understanding what the infant is communicating through their behavior and responding appropriately. The most effective guidance strategies for this age group are responsiveness and positive interactions. When you observe infants in your program, consider the following:
- Infants that are new to the program may not be familiar with the people, sounds, sights, and smells in the environment. They might experience separation anxiety and become sad, clingy or fearful. Consistent, nurturing adults will help them grow to be secure in new environments.
- All babies cry, but some cry more than others. If you are supporting direct care staff in the classroom and notice an infant that is crying excessively, look for signs that the baby is uncomfortable. Adults can help soothe an infant by rocking or walking them, burping them, singing songs, and providing soothers like a pacifier.
- Infants often cry or become upset when they are tired or teething. If you are supporting direct care staff in the classroom, look for signs that the infant might be tired or teething, such as rubbing their eyes, laying their head on the ground, putting their hands in their mouth, drooling excessively, and mouthing materials. Family members can give insight into a baby’s moods and behavior. They may have strategies that work at home that staff members have not tried yet.
Just as with younger infants, positive interactions are the foundation of guidance with older infants. The caregiver’s job is to help mobile infants become more aware of themselves and their environments by helping them learn to explore and begin soothing themselves. Babies are not aware of what is dangerous for them or undesirable to others, and it is the responsibility of adults to keep them safe. Perhaps the baby is pulling someone’s hair or trying to wiggle out of the stroller safety harness. According to Zero to Three (2009), adults 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 redirect 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. Caregivers should 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.
- Are responsive 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 a year old), preschoolers, and school-age children, the following guidance techniques are appropriate, according to Hearron and Hildebrand’s Guiding Young Children (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 “safe hands” or “respectful language.” You might hear staff use specific words to teach children expectations and it can be helpful for you to do the same if you encounter a time when children need those reminders.
Managing space, time, and energy: Through guidance techniques, caregivers create a space that promotes positive behavior. You may notice that direct care staff often 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: An engaging curriculum and activities that encourage children to explore their interests can minimize challenging behavior. If children are bored, overstimulated, or uninterested, they are more likely to break rules and stray from expectations. As a support staff member, you will likely observe and interact with children during these experiences.
Maximizing relationships: Guidance is based on supportive relationships. As you get to know the children, listen to their play and stories, and interact with them and their families, you develop relationships with them. They become eager to have your support. Find the positive attributes of every child and recognize them.
Expressing feelings: You might overhear a caregiver 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 caregiver 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. Notice and describe accomplishments or positive behaviors. A caregiver 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: When you give directions use a neutral tone of voice, make eye contact, and use clear language. Check in to make sure children understood.
Provide choices: Whenever possible, offer children choices. Caregivers 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 in which they will do things (first block area then water table), and with whom they do things.
Redirect children to appropriate behaviors: When a challenging behavior occurs, adults must know how to get the child back on track. Directives like “No,” “stop,” and “don’t” do little to help a child know what to do. An example of a positive redirection that you might use is, “Use your utensils to eat” or “Walk inside.”
Use gestures, pictures, or other cues to help children understand: You will likely observe direct care staff using visual cues, such as pointing to a picture schedule on the wall to help a child move to a new activity. Gestures such as pointing, looking toward something, and facial expressions help communicate an adult’s message.
Facilitate social problem-solving: Adults can help children know what to do when they have a problem. Adults can 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
All staff members regardless of their role have a responsibility to keep children physically and emotionally safe. Some responses can inflict harm and model aggression. When we use harsh techniques with children, they and their families learn that harsh responses to behavior are OK. That is not the message we want to send children and families. The following practices are never acceptable in child care programs:
Your program should have guidance and touch policies. It is your responsibility to know these policies. If something is unclear, ask your program administrator to explain. In the Child Abuse Identification & Reporting for Support Staff course, you can work with your trainer, coach or administrator to learn about appropriate guidance and touch policies. It is a good idea to review your program’s policies now and regularly as you begin your work in a child care program. Make sure you can answer these questions:
- What guidance practices are not acceptable in my program?
- What are the boundaries for touch between staff members and children?
- Who can I go to if I have questions?
You observe interactions between children and staff in your work as a support staff member. It is important to learn to discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate 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 staff member 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 staff member 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 have caused the accident: Did she forget to remind her to use the toilet before a fun activity? Is the child 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 staff member 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 ways to soothe (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 staff member threatens to “bite the child back” herself or encourages the other child to do so.
A staff member comforts the bitten child, tends the child’s wound, 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 and a coach or trainer to develop a plan.
An infant refuses a bottle.
A staff member forces the bottle into the child’s mouth.
A staff member 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 staff member snatches a toy away and tells the infant to “Stop pushing.”
A staff member 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 staff member 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 staff member says, “Walking feet” and redirects the children to a dancing game on the carpet. The staff member 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 staff member finds a chair with a seat belt and restrains the child in his chair (although he is physically capable of sitting safely).
A staff member says, “We sit at the table when we eat.” She offers the choice to continue eating or clean up and play.
A child is acting silly and playing with food at lunch.
A staff member 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 staff member makes a game out of taking tastes of different foods.
Two children are pretending to fight and roughhouse on the carpet.
A staff member makes the children write the words “Be Safe” for five minutes.
A staff member 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 the staff member provides a safe place and rules for rough-and-tumble play.
Children are running up the slide on the playground.
A staff member closes the playground and does not take the children to play outside for a week.
A staff member 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 staff member offers another choice for the child instead of group time or changes group time so it is interesting.
A child scratches another child’s face.
A staff member threatens to get out a belt and whip the child and tells the children they are “bad.”
The staff member separates the children, comforts the scratched child, 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 staff member calls the child “stupid and forgetful.” She talks about him in front of other children in the program.
The staff member 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 staff member.
The staff member hits the back of the child’s head and says, “Cut it out.”
The staff member 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 staff member grabs the child by the arm and pulls him into line.
The staff member says, “You can line up with your friends or walk with me. What’s your choice?” The staff member gives the child a job to do (count the children, carry the basketballs, etc.).
A staff member 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 staff member 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 staff member helps the child to the restroom without drawing attention to the accident and gets the child a change of clothes.
Challenging behaviors occur in all programs and it is important that all staff have supportive and nurturing interactions with children during these times. Watch these videos to learn more about positive guidance and how you can support children’s behavior and social emotional competence.
All staff members will encounter behavior that challenges, and it is important that you respond using positive guidance techniques. Consider these points so you are consistent with the positive guidance provided by direct care staff in your program:
- No matter what your role is, you are a visible member of your program community. Children and families notice how you respond to them and others. When you interact with children and families, use these opportunities to create a positive experiences for them.
- Keep a copy of your program’s guidance and touch policy near other information that you share with families.
- Practice positive guidance. Think about the times when you interact with children and adults during difficult circumstances and how you can use positive guidance in these situations.
- If you encounter a challenging situation with a child, family member, or staff member, pause and collect your thoughts. This will help you thoughtfully respond rather than respond based on your immediate emotions.
- Watch your words. Harsh or critical words can affect people for a long time. 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 staff members. Use the tips when you interact with children, and share the materials with families.
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 administrator. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.
Many families will look to your program for guidance when they have questions about their children’s development, behavior, and care needs. These resources can help families, especially when they are learning to respond to behaviors that challenge them. By providing this support, your program can give families information that may prevent child abuse and neglect. Know where to find family resource information in your program and familiarize yourself with these resources. If a family member asks you a question about their child and you are not sure how to respond to, ask another staff member or program leader to assist you. Review the information in the documents here about responding to challenging behavior and managing stress. Discuss any questions you have with your coach, trainer, or administrator.
Hearron, P. F., & Hildebrand, V. (2012). Guiding Young Children. Columbus, OH: Pearson.
Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Retrieved from 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: 2016 Prevention Resource Guide Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/guide.pdf