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Guidance: Experience and Activities

This lesson describes how you can create engaging interactions and experiences that help maintain a relationship-based approach to guidance. Tailoring experiences and activities to support children’s temperaments, interacting with families, and using prevention strategies to avoid challenging behaviors will be addressed.

  • Identify ideas for guiding infants’ and toddlers’ behaviors.
  • Describe the importance of learning from families about their approaches to guidance and discipline.
  • Recognize your role in a relationship-based behavior-support planning process.



As an infant and toddler caregiver, you play an important role in guiding each infant’s and toddler’s behavior and learning. Children’s development depends, in large part, on the caregiver creating responsive and engaging interactions and experiences within the environment.

Reflection Regarding Interactions, Experiences and Activities to Support Guidance

Knowing that the environment contributes greatly to infant and toddler development and learning, one of your starting points can be to reflect on the development of the infants and toddlers in your care. Consider your observations, communication with families, and the developmental screening and assessment information you collect. Also, ask questions about each infant’s and toddler’s development and the expectations you have for children. For example:

  • What does this family value most about manners and ways young children should behave? What do I value most? How did adults help me keep safe and guide my behavior?
  • What strategies does the family use to support their child’s strong impulses and emotions? What strategies do I use, and feel are most helpful?
  • What does cooperation look like and what do I expect from young infants? Mobile infants? Toddlers?

By asking these questions and collaborating with families, you have an opportunity to learn how each infant and toddler in your care is expected to learn acceptable behavior considering culture, temperament, and other areas of development. This process can help you and families gather information to support responsive environments, activities, and experiences as infants and toddlers learn new ways to respond to and interact with others. Reflection can also help you further consider meaningful ways to use limits and rules to help guide infant and toddler behavior. For example, young children at certain ages are more apt to play with their food, as they are curious about how the food feels. Establishing a rule that a young child must only eat with a spoon may not fit or be as appropriate of an experience as it is at other ages.

Relationships and people are a large part of the early care and learning environment and they contribute greatly to the interactions, experiences, and activities offered. Reflecting on interactions within your environment is key. The way adults interact plays an important role in how young children interact with peers and adults. Many of the behaviors witnessed in young children are the direct result of behaviors they have seen in adults. In addition, children learn to think about the impact of their words when adults model caring behaviors and make reminders about people’s feelings. Therefore, you have great power to positively or negatively influence children.

Adults can, for example, model acceptance of others by demonstrating kindness. It is normal to experience disagreements and misunderstandings when working with others. Oftentimes, children are shielded from direct conflict. The effects of the indirect conflict, such as negative verbal tones or facial expressions, can also be damaging to the work environment and the children within the program. Everyday staff disagreements should be handled in the presence of children so they can see the full cycle of how problems are properly resolved. The message to young children should be: Disagreements are bound to happen and can be resolved safely through communication. By taking this approach, you are relaying the message, “I want to work this out because I care about you.” Adults who know themselves and are comfortable with expression of emotions are less likely to express feelings inappropriately. Young children who witness adults remaining in control as they openly display and accept their feelings are more likely to learn how to display the same behavior themselves.

Considering Temperament to Support Guidance

After completing Lesson Two, it is likely you continued to think about the developmental possibilities for infants and toddlers. Each infant and toddler develops at their own rate and development is dependent upon ongoing, responsive relationships.

The Social and Emotional Development course highlight the fact that basic elements of personality are seen early in infancy and appear to be fairly consistent throughout life. The traits that affect how individuals respond to the world are referred to as temperament traits. Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess (1977) conducted research on temperament and compiled a list of traits:

  • Activity level—amount of movement and body activity
  • Regulatory or rhythmicity—regularity of basic functions such as eating and sleeping
  • Approach and withdrawal—how an individual responds to a new situation, person, place, or thing
  • Adaptability—how quickly or slowly an individual adapts to change
  • Sensitivity—how sensitive an individual is to outside stimulation from touch, sounds, taste, etc.
  • Intensity—the energy level of the individual when expressing moods
  • Mood—the amount of pleasant and cheerful behavior contrasted to fussy, crying or negative behavior
  • Distractibility—how easily an individual can lose focus on an activity because of outside stimuli (e.g., television on, phone ringing, etc.)
  • Persistence—how long an individual will keep at an activity without giving up

As you identify and extend interactions, experiences, and activities to help guide infant and toddler behavior, you will want to consider and tailor your approach to each infant’s or toddler’s temperament traits. As you become more attuned to temperament, you are likely to become more successful in helping all infants and toddlers as they respond to and engage in activities and experiences. Reflect on your own temperament and preferences. Understanding your own temperament can help to identify the “goodness of fit”, or the connection between temperament of the demands of the environment, for each child in your care. If the experiences and activities planned within an early care and learning environment are sensitive to each child’s temperament, challenging behavior will likely be minimal.

Interactions and Experiences with Families

Positive guidance that extends into the homes of the families you support helps to strengthen relationships between staff and families. Ongoing communication with families can keep you informed of experiences around guidance in the home and keep parents and guardians informed of behaviors that occur during the day. Having family support can help establish continuity and consistency across environments and reinforce the experiences you are offering to guide developmental progression and skill building. The method of communication can be tailored to meet the needs of each family. Some families may prefer daily communication. Others may prefer weekly or biweekly communication. Communication methods can include written notes, email, phone calls, newsletters, and individual conferences.

Prevention as a Strategy

As part of Ronald Lally’s book, Infant Toddler Caregiving: A Guide to Social-Emotional Growth and Socialization, Alice Honig and Donna Wittmer write about the ways adult caregivers can help avoid problems and challenges by thinking ahead:

  • Child proof the play space.
  • Prepare the play environment thoughtfully.
  • Remind children about expectations and rules ahead of time.
  • Be consistent.
  • Vary the tempos of the day. Have some busy, active periods balanced with less busy, calm times.
  • Keep promises.
  • Be aware of individual differences in tolerating stress.
  • Refocus a toddler’s inappropriate actions.
  • Be nearby and attentive.

You can find information and strategies in the Social and Emotional course that provide the foundation upon which interaction strategies are based. In addition, consider the following guidance strategies from Donna Wittmer and Sandy Petersen’s book, Infant and Toddler Development and Responsive Program Planning:

Guidance StrategyExample
Empathize with the child’s goals, struggles and feelings.“I can tell you are unhappy. What can I do to help make you feel better?”
Build emotional vocabulary—acknowledge and help children express strong feelings.“I see you crying. You seem sad.”
Patiently guide children toward controlling their own impulses and behavior.“Sand stays in the sand table. Let’s see if we can make noises with the shovel in the table.”
Recognize behavior as communication and teach children to communicate.“You pushed your cup and I wonder if you are trying to tell me you are all done with your milk.”
Explain and teach the child what to do. Make clear, positive statements to children.“Please walk.”
Provide limits that keep the child safe, others safe, and materials safe.“I will keep you safe. I do not want you to climb on the chair because you could get hurt.”
Help children take the perspective of others through other-oriented guidance.“Look he is crying. You stepped on him. That hurt his hand. Let’s go help Jerry.”
Help children learn how to problem solve and handle conflicts.“What could we do to help Amy?”
Give children choices that you can live with.“It’s time to have your diaper changed. Would you like to walk, or would you like me to carry you?”
Create routines to provide security for mobile infants and toddlers.“It’s cleanup time, it’s cleanup time. It’s time to put our toys away.”
Gradually build toddlers’ ability to wait or to handle disappointment.“I feel disappointed, too. We cannot go outside today because it’s raining.”
Use time-in—spend time with a young child helping calm the child and teaching the child what to do instead.“When you hit, I can tell something is not right for you. I can help you with your strong emotions.”

Practical Guidance Strategies for Infants and Toddlers

As an infant and toddler caregiver, you recognize the importance of being intentional about preventing challenging behavior. During moments of intense emotions and behavior that has you feeling worried about a child, however, it can be hard to remember your goal of helping infants and toddlers develop and learn the skills to become more aware of their own and each other’s feelings and to express emotions in healthy ways.

Even with consistent observation and planning, stressful moments can occur. This is the moment when it is most important for the adult caregivers to pause, take a deep breath, and move forward in a calm fashion. As an infant and toddler caregiver, you recognize that when you feel anxious and stressed, infants and toddlers can begin to feel anxious and stressed. Feeling calm can help you offer comfort to children in distress and express your understanding that they need you. Try to use the following strategies to help prevent challenging behaviors:

  • Establish trusting relationships with infants and toddlers as a foundation for positive guidance and behavior support.
  • Recognize and accept all emotions and help young children learn ways to define and express emotions in healthy ways.
  • Provide simple, appropriate, and consistent guidelines, limits and rules to help keep children feeling safe and to encourage self-regulation.
  • Give warnings to help infants and toddlers know what is happening next.
  • Provide clear directions in a positive way — “Use your walking feet,” instead of “Don’t run.”
  • Observe and change play when it becomes overstimulating for young children.
  • Be aware of each young child’s abilities and skills and use guidance strategies accordingly.
  • Teach desired and acceptable behaviors—explain and model to young children what they can do. For example, if a toddler is throwing balls around the care setting, provide a bucket or other object that he or she can throw them into.
  • Support early negotiations between infants and toddlers. Show them how they could ask to be next or use an item in “5 minutes” (e.g., with simple words, by signing, or holding up their hand to signal their desire to have a turn in 5). Help be a voice to their perspectives and provide possibilities to work together. “I see you both want to jump off the step. What could we do? If we move this way, there is room for both of you.”

Two strategies are further highlighted below: redirection and a relationship-based approach to behavior-support planning.


When a young child engages in a challenging behavior, adults must be responsive and prepared to provide the child with acceptable alternatives.

For very young infants, a common concern caregivers experience is a crying infant. While crying can create strong emotional responses for adults, it is a form of communication and has meaning behind it. As an infant and toddler caregiver, one of the most important things you can do is provide nurturing, responsive, and consistent care. You can provide a predictable environment that meets the infant’s needs for comfort, safety, food, and rest. Think about crying as a possible cue that the child is hungry, tired, bored, or in need of a diaper change. Continue to think about and see each young child’s behavior in context of the relationship you have with him or her: is the infant or toddler teething, new to the program, or in some kind of distress?

With mobile infants and toddlers, you can support the development of self-regulation by helping them learn to explore safely and to begin soothing themselves. To keep the young child and others safe, there may be times when you need to help the infant or toddler stop a certain behavior. Perhaps a toddler 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 toddler’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 toddler who is trying to escape the stroller by pointing out an interesting animal, offering something to hold, or singing a song. Mobile infants and toddlers 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 bookshelf.”
  • Provide safe spaces for exploration. Make sure everything in the room is safe for tiny fingers and mouths.
  • Respond to the infant’s needs—crying communicates. Respond quickly when an infant is hungry, tired, hurt, or uncomfortable.

Relationship-Based Approach to Behavior-Support Planning

It is beyond the scope of this lesson and course to teach you everything you need to know about positive behavior-support planning. However, there are excellent resources available to help you learn about this subject. You can explore the resources available through the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI). There is more information about this in the Apply section. If you are responsible for facilitating behavior-support plans, take some time now to learn about your role using these resources.

Here are a few important points:

  • Behavior support is a team-based process and should include those individuals who know the infant or toddler best.
  • Behavior support is person-centered. This involves bringing the team together to clarify a vision for the infant or toddler.
  • Behavior support is focused on understanding the distress and meaning behind the behavior—all behavior communicates a message. The behavior-support process helps you understand that message.

NCPMI suggests the team develops a hypothesis, or “best guess,” about why a certain behavior is occurring and then develops a support plan that includes a young child’s strengths, prevention strategies, ways to meet possible unmet needs, ways to support the development of new skills, and new ways to respond to behaviors. The team then monitors outcomes.

Whether the behavior you are observing and planning for is biting, hitting, tantrums, sadness, flat affect, or frequent crying, it’s important to remember that these expressions of an infant’s or toddler’s needs and distress are individually specific and can feel difficult to understand and make sense of. They are trying to tell you, with their behavior, that something does not feel right and that they, too, have strong feelings in response to their experiences. The ways each infant and toddler express emotions to their caregivers will look different. For example, Wittmer and Petersen highlight several different reasons why young children may bite, along with possible strategies to support the child. Some of these reasons are noted below.

Reasons Why Young Children May BiteStrategies to Support Children
AutonomyEstablish a balance for toddlers between their need for control and their need for loving, firm limits. Offer age-appropriate choices in your program.
ExplorationProvide a variety of sensorimotor experiences.
TeethingProvide infants and toddlers with teething toys or clean frozen cloths.
Peer InteractionHelp children learn how to interact with others: “Touch gently—that makes her feel happy.”
Cause and effectProvide time for play and materials and experiences for the young child to make things happen.
ImitationModel and notice loving, nurturing, sharing, positive behavior for young children to imitate.
AttentionNotice when children display positive, curious, and helpful behaviors.
FrustrationHelp young children further develop their own ways of handling frustration: For example, you can say, “I feel angry!” or “Not now!” to a child who grabs the toy you are playing with.
AnxietyWork with families to determine the source of anxiety and provide calming activities such as water play.

When biting occurs, you can follow a guidance approach that helps a young child know you are there to help them learn new positive ways of interacting with others. For example, Wittmer and Petersen highlight the process below:

  • State the behavior – “You bit Candace.”
  • Point out how the bite’s behavior affected the other child – “She doesn’t like it. She’s crying.”
  • Say what the child can do instead – “You can bite this cloth” (food, biting toy, etc.)

You can also consider helping the child check on their peer to see if there is anything they can do to help them feel better, or modeling this behavior yourself, e.g., “Let’s get Candace an ice pack,” or “Candace, can I give you a hug to help you feel better?" Knowing and understanding each child’s development and temperament will help guide you in selecting the words and an appropriate approach.

Involving Families

There are several things to keep in mind to help you communicate with families about challenging behavior and to support planning meetings with families. Here are some suggestions adapted from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning:

  • Begin the discussion by expressing concern for the infant or toddler.
  • Let the family know that your goal is to help their young child.
  • Ask the family member if he or she has experienced similar situations and are concerned.
  • Tell the family member that you want to learn from them to help support the development of social and emotional skills.
  • Share with the family what you are noticing and observing after the family understands that you are concerned about their child and that you are not blaming the family.
  • Offer to work with the family in the development of a behavior support plan that can be used at home and in the care setting.
  • Emphasize that your focus will be to help the infant or toddler continue to develop the skills needed to be and feel successful in the care setting.
  • Stress that if you can work together, you are more likely to be successful in helping the infant or toddler feel understood, safe, and cared for while supporting the development of key skills to help them navigate their social world.

You can also connect families with community agencies that provide behavioral support. Families can get the individualized support they need from experts in their own homes. Many behavior consultants will work with your program to make sure the child has a consistently implemented plan.

When there is reason to believe that an individualized behavior support plan is necessary for an infant or toddler, families should be involved from the very beginning. Families can be partners in observation, and they should have opportunities to share their perspectives on concerns in the home and in the program. Families should participate in developing a hypothesis about the child’s behavior, contribute strategies to the plan, and be involved in implementing and evaluating the plan.


Strategies that Support Caregivers

Watch this video and think about what guidance strategies you would use.


There are many different strategies you can use to help guide infants and toddlers so they can continue to learn skills that support their curiosity and active participation in the world:

  • Seek to understand and respond consistently to infants’ and toddlers’ cues and expressed needs as a way to establish a trusting relationship.
  • Examine your environment—infants and toddlers are naturally curious and rather than telling them “no,” provide them with a variety of items they can freely explore in a safe way.
  • Keep in mind particular times of day—be consistent in routines and remember the times of day when infants and toddlers might be feeling hungry and sleepy.
  • Provide a predictable environment and appropriate expectations.
  • Redirect their attention to focus on items with which they can safely play and areas in which they can safely play.


Think about the ways you connect with families in your program regarding child guidance strategies. Take time to review your program policies and read over the attached Practice Guide from the American Academy of Pediatrics. What are some thoughts or ideas you have to improve some of your existing practices? Share and discuss your reflections with a colleague, trainer, coach, or administrator.

If you are a CDA candidate, use the CDA Competency Statement III handout to reflect on how you support children’s social and emotional development and provide positive guidance. This is a required item for the CDA Professional Portfolio. 


The Backpack Connection Series is a collection of resources that provides a way for caregivers, teachers, and families to work together to help young children develop social and emotional skills and to reduce challenging behavior. Print and use the handout, Backpack Connections, as a resource for both yourself, your colleagues, and families of the children in your care.


Behavior Support Plan:
An individualized plan that focuses on understanding the meaning (or function) of a child’s behavior; it includes strategies for preventing the behavior, teaching new skills, and responding to challenging behavior
A strategy to focus a child’s attention on appropriate behaviors or interactions


Finish this statement: As an infant and toddler caregiver, you can prevent some challenging behaviors by…
True or False? It is important to consider a child’s temperament when using guidance approaches and strategies.
A parent shares with you that her twelve-month-old will not stop getting into the lower kitchen cabinets and playing with the pots and pans that are stored there. She keeps telling her child “no,” but she just goes right back to it a few minutes later. What advice do you offer?
References & Resources

Center on the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (n.d.). Talking with families about problem behavior: Do’s and don’ts.

Fields, M. V., Merritt, P. P., Fields, D. M., & Perry, N. (2014). Constructive guidance and discipline: Birth to age eight. Pearson Higher Ed.

Gartrell, D. (2012). Education for a civil society: How guidance teaches young children democratic life skills. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Gunnar, M. R., Obradović, O., & Tarullo, A. R. (2009). Self-control and the developing brain. Zero to Three, 29(3), 31-37.

Hewitt, C., & Leon-Weil, A. (2008). Trust as a teaching skill. Young Children, 63, 24-26. 

Kern, L. (n.d.). Addressing persistent challenging behaviors. Center for Evidence-Based Practice: Young Children with Challenging Behaviors.

Keyser, J. (2006). Socialization and guidance with infants and toddlers. In Lally, R., Mangione, P., and Greenwald, D. (Eds.), Concepts for care (pp. 101-104). WestEd. 

Lally, J. R. (Ed.). (1990). Infant toddler caregiving: A guide to social-emotional growth and socialization. WestEd.

Lally, J.R. (2006). Metatheories of childrearing. In Lally, R., Mangione, P., and Greenwald, D. (Eds.), Concepts for care (pp. 7-13). WestEd. 

Merrill, S. (2020, September 11). Trauma is 'written into our bodies'-but educators can help. Edutopia.

Myers-Walls, J. A. (2000). Finding the causes of misbehavior: Provider-parent partnerships. Purdue Extension.  

Wittner, D. S. & Petersen, S. H. (2013). Infant and toddler development and responsive program planning: A relationship-based approach (4th ed.). Pearson.