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Guidance: An Introduction

Guiding children’s behavior is an important part of your role as a caregiver of young children. Positive child guidance helps promote the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children across ages. This lesson will define positive guidance, describe why it is important for infants and toddlers, and detail what you can do to promote it in your program.

  • Define guidance and discuss its importance for infant and toddler development.
  • Reflect on your own experiences associated with guidance.
  • Discuss the meaning of behavior and maintaining a relationship-based approach to providing guidance.



As an infant and toddler caregiver, you play an important role in guiding the behavior of young children. You recognize the opportunity to consider infants’ and toddlers’ strengths, temperaments, skills, development, and family culture as you determine your approaches and strategies to supporting and influencing behavior. In essence, you maintain a relationship-based approach to guiding infants’ and toddlers’ behavior while meeting their needs.

What is Guidance?

What comes to mind as you think about the word guidance? Does your definition change in the context of your work with infants and toddlers?

Guidance is the way you help children learn the expectations for behavior in a variety of settings. It is how you help children know what it means to be a member of your community, learn social rules, manage conflict, and regulate their emotions. It means helping children learn from their mistakes and make positive choices. As you read this information, it is also important to think about what guidance is not. Guidance is not punishment. It is not about control or making children fear adults. It is about knowing children and creating the best physical and social environment in which they can learn.

Your approach to guidance for infants and toddlers is influenced by your childhood experiences and your personal beliefs about caregiving and teaching. Some caregivers may believe it is their responsibility to control the behaviors of infants and toddlers, while others may believe that infants and toddlers learn best through experiences. It is important to explore and reflect on your understanding of your role and the ways your beliefs shape the guidance you are providing infants and toddlers in your program. When guidance is viewed as a process of understanding and supporting the development of skills, the needs of infants and toddlers can be understood, respected, and met.

Guidance for Infants and Toddlers

If you have ever had a guide during a trip to a new place, what was the role of this guide? Your guide was probably someone who shared information, so you knew what to expect. Your guide may have provided you with a map of the area you were visiting or modeled how to do something specific, such as how to swing the golf club at a miniature golf course. A guide, like you as a caregiver, helps show the way, encourages participation and exploration, models appropriate behaviors, and offers support so those being guided can feel and be successful.

Guidance in the field of infant and toddler caregiving is about strategies for helping infants and toddlers explore the world around them and the behaviors that help them to become more involved in their social world, while respecting family and community cultures. For example, as a toddler uses their fingers to mash a banana, a caregiver might say, “It looks like you like the feel of the banana as you squish it through your fingers. Bananas are for eating. When you are finished eating, we will clean up together and go over to the table with the play-doh. Play-doh is for squishing, and will feel good between your fingers, too!” In this example, the caregiver is respecting the natural learning that is happening through the child-directed sensory experience, giving social context to the toddler’s actions (“bananas are for eating”), and helping the child make connections in their world.

Gartrell (2004), in The Power of Guidance, describes six practices of caregivers who are committed to positive guidance:

Practice Implementation Process
  1. The caregiver realizes that social skills are complicated and take many years to fully learn.

Children are learning socially acceptable behavior, and it takes time and practice to develop social skills. Families and caregivers guide children to learn social skills.

  1. The caregiver reduces the need for children to engage in mistaken behavior.

The caregiver uses developmentally appropriate practices in order to have an appropriate match between the program’s expectations and the child’s skills.

  1. The caregiver practices positive teacher-child relations.

The caregiver builds relationships with each individual child and models cooperation and empathy.

  1. The caregiver uses intervention methods that are solution oriented.

The caregiver models how to resolve conflicts peaceably and encourages children to negotiate for themselves as they develop. The caregiver works at managing and monitoring their own feelings and growth as a developing professional.

  1. The caregiver builds partnerships with families.

From the time the child enters the program, the caregiver builds positive relationships with family members through positive notes, phone calls, meetings and conferences.

  1. The caregiver uses teamwork with adults.

The caregiver understands that she or he cannot do everything alone and creates a team with other adults (including family members and volunteers). Positive guidance involves teamwork with other skilled adults, especially if a child has consistent, intensive challenging behavior.

Importance of Guidance for Infants and Toddlers

The first three years of life are prime learning time and infants and toddlers should be intentionally supported through interactions, the environment, and experiences. By doing so, you are helping infants and toddlers develop one of the most important skills for school and lifelong success—self-regulation.  Research has shown that self-regulation, the ability to recognize and control one’s feelings and behaviors, is a critical life skill.  It enables us to focus our attention, inhibit our impulses, plan our actions, cooperate with others, and show empathy. 

Providing appropriate guidance for infants and toddlers can help ensure developmentally appropriate learning of self-regulation and the opportunity to learn which behaviors are most appropriate and acceptable within different situations and environments. Caregivers use many different guidance strategies that help nurture and support self-regulation, such as:

  • Observing
  • Listening
  • Providing clear and consistent limits
  • Describing and modeling appropriate behavior
  • Anticipating problems and using relationships to help infants and toddlers feel supported when solving problems
  • Helping infants and toddlers feel safe and recognize and respond to their strong emotions

The consistent use of supportive guidance strategies allows infants and toddlers to feel your respect and concern for their wellbeing. Your guidance provides infants and toddlers with time to learn all that you are striving to share with and teach them.

Recognizing the Needs of Infants and Toddlers

When considering approaches to guiding infant and toddler behavior, it is most helpful to start with a recognition and understanding of the particular needs of infants and toddlers, specifically needs of safety, respect, understanding, and secure and responsive relationships. The importance of adult caregivers supporting and meeting these needs is highlighted throughout all of the Infant and Toddler courses, as these needs are not only the foundation for considerations around guidance, but overall growth, development, and learning.

Impact of Culture and Experience on Guidance

There are multiple factors that can influence how we, as adults, respond to a child’s behavior, including how we were raised, our personal values and beliefs, and our understanding of child development. Through careful consideration of these factors, we can better understand and improve our interactions with children and their families. This will positively influence the overall development of the infants and toddlers we serve. Consider a few examples of culturally determined adult expectations of children:

  • The age at which a child feeds or dresses herself or himself
  • The age at which a child uses the toilet independently
  • Whether and when a child sleeps independently
  • The amount and nature of eye contact between children and adults
  • Expectations for how adults and children talk to one another (e.g., acceptability of questioning adults, talking over one another, etc.)
  • The ways adults and children show affection (hugging, etc.)
  • How children express emotions

A mismatch between our own expectations and a child’s behavior (or family’s priorities) may cause tension. It is important to understand the variability in behaviors that might be culturally determined. Consider your own childhood. If you grew up in a strict home, you may view guidance very differently from a colleague who grew up in a home with fewer rules. You will learn more about the importance of understanding culture-based behaviors in Lesson Two.

Your own upbringing may influence the kinds of behaviors you tolerate. For example, think about how you would respond if an older toddler left your short circle time without permission. While some teachers may consider this child’s behavior challenging or problematic, and therefore may expect the child to return to circle, others may think that this behavior demonstrates the child’s sense of independence and choice-making. This belief could cause the teacher to ignore the behavior. Neither of these responses are right or wrong; they are simply representations of how culture and experiences shape individuals’ approaches to guidance.


Infant and Toddler Guidance: An Introduction

Listen as a professional talks about appropriate expectations for infants and toddlers.


Infants and toddlers need the support of nurturing and responsive adults to help them grow and develop. Below are some ways you can provide guidance for the infants and toddlers in your care:

  • Continue to get to know the infants and toddlers in your care—observe their actions and interactions and learn about their temperament, interests, and culture. Getting to know infants and toddlers helps you to provide guidance that is respectful, responsive to their needs, and supportive of their relationships.
  • Examine and evaluate your environment. Can mobile infants access areas with ease? Are there enough materials for infants and toddlers?
  • Watch and stay close during play and social interactions.
  • Build in opportunities throughout the day to help young children relax.
  • Model positive behavior to show that you accept, control, and express strong feelings in safe ways.
  • Maintain developmentally appropriate expectations for infants and toddlers.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course, the Positive Guidance Competency Reflection, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Infant & Toddler Positive Guidance Course Guide

Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Review the What’s Your Philosophy? activity. Take a few minutes to respond to these questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


Working with your trainer, coach, or administrator, review what is written in your program documents about 1) the approach of the program to the guidance of infants and toddlers, and 2) how you learn from families about what is important in terms of guidance.


How you help children learn the expectations for behavior in a variety of settings


True or False? The goal of guidance of infants and toddlers is for caregivers to learn how to maintain and control young children’s behavior.
Finish this statement: The ability to control one’s own feelings and behavior…
Which of the following are ways you can provide guidance for infants and toddlers?
References & Resources

Elliott, E. & Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2011). Babies’ self-regulation: Taking a broad perspective. Young Children, 66(1), 20-25.

Galinsky, E. (2010). Mind in the making: The seven essential life skills every child needs. Harper Collins.

Marion, M. (2018). Guidance of young children (10th ed.). Pearson.

Whittaker, J. E. V., & Harden, B. J. (2010). Beyond ABC’s and 123’s. Enhancing teacher-child relationship quality to promote children’s behavioral development. NHSA Dialog, 13(3), 185-191.

Wittmer, D. S., & Petersen, S. H. (2017). Infant and toddler development and responsive program planning: A relationship-based approach (4th ed.). Prentice Hall.