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    • Distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable guidance strategies in response to challenging behavior.
    • Describe and follow your program’s Guidance and Touch policy.
    • Use positive guidance strategies in your work with children.




    A crying toddler follows Janice around the room. All day long, the toddler has been crying, whining, and clinging to Janice’s legs. To make matters worse, Janice’s co-teacher has been out today, so a new staff member who doesn’t know the children has been filling in. Janice feels like she has been alone in the room all day. After many attempts to comfort the crying toddler, Janice resigns herself to listen to the crying. Finally, the toddler cries, “Need juice.” Janice sighs and says, “OK we’ll get you a drink.” Janice sets the toddler in a seat and hands her a drink. “Nooooo. Want milk!” the toddler screams and arches her back to squirm out of the seat. She throws the cup to the floor, spilling juice everywhere. She screams louder. “Need daddy,” the toddler cries as she pushes Janice away. In a moment of frustration, Janice grabs the toddler by one arm and yanks her out of the seat. “No. You know what you need? A belt to the behind is what you need. If you were my child…” From behind her, Janice hears a man say, “Take your hands off my baby.”

    Janice clearly felt some stress in this situation. When the toddler’s behavior challenged her, she acted aggressively and threatened a child. 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 this child and her 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 the juice flies across the floor, Janice steps back. “I can tell you are really frustrated. You really want your daddy and nothing feels quite right today!” She turns to the substitute staff member and says, “Brandi, I think we’re all starting to feel a little frustrated this afternoon. Do you think you could help Taylor and a few others get ready to go outside while I finish cleaning up the mess?”

    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 children this age. She knew that the only behavior she could control was her own. She acknowledged that the toddler was feeling frustrated. She remained calm and reflected her own emotions. She asked for help when she needed it and made sure the children were safe.

    As you read about in a previous lesson, infants and toddlers 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 behaviors that challenge directly 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 and 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 (Hearron & Hildebrand, 2012). 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 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 the program or the room? 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 her, rocking her, walking 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.

    Mobile Infants

    Just like with younger infants, positive interactions are the foundation of guidance. Your job is to help a mobile infant learn the foundation of self-control by helping her learn to explore safely and begin soothing herself. 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 him 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.


    For toddlers (typically over one year old), the following guidance techniques are appropriate:

    Appropriate expectations for children’s behavior: For children over 12 months old, 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.” For infants and young toddlers, the expectations might be for the adults instead. For example, “I will keep you safe” or “I will respect and respond to your needs.”

    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 used for running.

    Experiences that engage the whole child: The curriculum is the foundation of everything we do. If children are bored, over-stimulated, or disinterested, they will engage in challenging behavior. Busy 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 staff member 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.”It is also about being genuine and expressing your own feelings. A staff member 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 staff member might say, “Jonah, I bet you are really proud for solving that problem….” Or “You are really trying to reach that rattle. You almost have it. Wow, look at you reach.”

    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 how they will do something (with red crayon or green crayon), the order they will do things in, 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 in the hall.”

    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.

    Unacceptable Forms of Guidance and Discipline

    You have a professional responsibility to keep children safe from harm. This includes emotional, psychological, and mental harm. There are certain types of guidance and discipline 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 child development programs:

    • Corporal punishment: You may not, under any circumstances, strike, hit, whip, spank, or use any other form of physical punishment on a child of any age.
    • Withholding physical needs: You may not, under any circumstances, withhold food, sleep, physical activity or other needs like toileting from a child as punishment.
    • Yelling, shaming, belittling, or threatening a child: You may not, under any circumstances, intentionally make a child fear for his or her physical or psychological safety. You may not call children hurtful names, threaten children, or make children feel shame.
    • Isolating a child: You may not punish a child by leaving him or her alone (i.e., leaving a child on the playground alone because he did not line up with the group) or by putting the child in "time out" in an enclosed space like a closet, restroom, or cardboard box.
    • Binding or restricting a child's movements: You may not punish a child by preventing him or her from being able to move or speak (i.e., strap a child into a chair, so he cannot leave group time; covering a child's mouth or hands with tape).

    Your program has a Guidance and Touch policy. It is your responsibility to read this policy and to understand it. In the Identification and Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect course, you worked with your manager to learn about this policy. It is a good idea to review it now and again regularly as you begin your work with children. Make sure you can answer these questions:

    • What guidance practices are not acceptable in my workplace?
    • What are the boundaries for touch between staff members and children?
    • Who can I go to if I have questions?


    As you begin observing and working in classrooms, 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, the behaviors you see listed might be challenging to adults, but they are typical behaviors for children at each age.

    Acceptable and Unacceptable Guidance Strategies




    Scenario A: Accident

    A two year old has begun toilet training at home. She tries using the toilet in the classroom, but she begins to urinate while a staff member is helping her undress. Urine spills onto the floor and her pants.


    Wrong Way to Respond

    A child is left in soiled clothing as punishment for urinating on her pants.


    Right Way to Respond

    A caregiver helps her change into dry clothes. She reminds the child to let a teacher know if she feels like she needs to use the toilet. The adult stops and thinks about what might be causing the accident: did staff forget to remind her to use the toilet before a fun activity? Is she just beginning toilet training?



    Scenario B: Crying

    An infant has been crying and does not seem to need food or diapering.


    Wrong Way to Respond

    A caregiver puts a crying infant in a crib as "time out" and leaves him in the sleeping area.


    Right Way to Respond

    A caregiver 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 (i.e., a walk). She asks another caregiver to take over when she gets tired. If crying persists, she checks with the child’s family. 



    Scenario C: Biting

    A toddler bites another child who has taken his toy.


    Wrong Way to Respond

    A caregiver threatens to "bite the child back" herself or encourages the other child to do so.


    Right Way to Respond

    A caregiver 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 her team to develop a plan.

    Bottle Feeding


    Scenario D: Bottle Feeding

    An infant refuses a bottle.


    Wrong Way to Respond

    A caregiver forces the bottle into the child's mouth.


    Right Way to Respond

    A caregiver notes that a bottle was offered on the feeding log and remembers to try again later.

    Playing Nice


    Scenario E: Playing Nice

    A mobile infant snatches toys from other children and pushes other children over.


    Wrong Way to Respond

    A caregiver snatches a toy away from him and tells him to "Stop pushing."


    Right Way to Respond

    A caregiver offers the infant a duplicate toy and helps him find a place where he can climb.



    Scenario F: Running

    Toddlers are running in circles around the room.


    Wrong Way to Respond

    A caregiver 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.


    Right Way to Respond

    A caregiver says, "Walking feet" and redirects the children to a dancing game on the carpet.

    Snack Time


    Scenario G: Snack Time

    A toddler keeps getting out of his chair at snack time although he is not finished eating.


    Wrong Way to Respond

    A caregiver finds a chair with a seatbelt and restrains the child in his chair (although he is physically capable of sitting safely).


    Right Way to Respond

    A caregiver says, "First eat, then play." She offers the choice to eat or clean up.


    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. If revisions are made, make sure you have the most recent version of the policy.
    • Practice positive guidance. Ask your trainer, supervisor, or a co-worker 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 a room out of ratio. Simply step away to a different part of the room, or ask another adult 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 new staff members. Use the tips you read there 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. For some people, it can be difficult to distinguish between practices that violate your program’s Guidance policy and practices that could be abusive. In this activity, you will practice distinguishing between the two. Download and print the Guidance Continuum activity. Read each scenario and mark where you think it falls on the continuum. Share your answers with a trainer, supervisor, or coach. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.



    We can all use resources to help us respond to challenging behavior. Download and print the Behavior Guides.  The guides are great for your own professional library or to share with families. Use what you learn to help you guide children’s behavior.


    Picture scheduleA way of using photos, drawings, or other visuals to show the sequence of the day’s activities




    Laszlo is crying and following his teacher around. What might his behavior be communicating? Choose the best answer.


    Deandra spends time sitting and talking to each child every day. What guidance technique is she using?


    Which of the following statements is not a good way to recognize, praise, or encourage positive behavior?


    Which of the following guidance practices is never OK? Choose the best answer.


    Marissa just hit another child. Which of the following is an appropriate guidance strategy?

    References & Resources

    Hearron, P. F., & Hildebrand, V. (2012). Guiding Young Children. Columbus, OH: Pearson.

    Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning:

    Zero to Three (2009). Coping with Agression and Teaching Sefl-Control in the Early Years. Available from: