Skip to main content

Guidance: Promoting Positive Behavior in School-Age Children

As a school-age staff member, you will encounter challenging behaviors from school-age children. It is important that you understand the behaviors you might encounter and how to respond positively. This lesson will introduce you to behaviors that are typical of children at different stages. It will also help you understand approaches to guidance for children in school-age environments.

  • Describe the relationship between school-age development and behavior.
  • Explain boundaries and expectations and why they are important tools in promoting positive behavior.
  • Develop techniques for managing and guiding behavior in the school-age learning environment.



Understanding Behavior and Development

School-age children are busy developing their bodies and minds as they increase their independence and decrease their reliance on their families and teachers. With their growing level of independence, school-age children will also experience an increase in responsibility, choices and expectations. Most school-age children will have chores and tasks they are responsible for, such as cleaning their room, taking care of a pet, or helping with household chores. In the learning environment, they might have responsibilities such as cleaning up after themselves, putting materials away in the correct spots, and watering plants. The number of choices offered to school-age children and their awareness of what these choices entail will also increase. Children will begin to make decisions about their clothing, hairstyle, room décor, activities, and friendships. Developmentally, school-age children also become more aware of their emotions and feelings. They are able to understand what they feel and why they feel a certain way and gain increased control of their emotional reactions. (For more information on development, please refer to the Cognitive Development and Social & Emotional Development courses.)

Typical Behaviors for School-Age Children

Similar to other areas of development, there are certain behaviors that are typical as children progress through developmental stages. Although these behaviors are often challenging to adults, they are to be expected. Consider the examples of behaviors that are both developmentally appropriate and challenging in the table below and begin thinking about how you can prepare to respond appropriately to these behaviors:

Developmentally Appropriate Behaviors that May Challenge Adults

Young School-Age (5 to 8 years)
  • Very concerned with fairness
  • Begins to notice differences between the sexes and may use sex differences as the basis for play decisions or excluding others from play (“No boys allowed”)
  • Lying or stretching the truth
  • “Tattling” or telling on others
  • “Cheating” at games or getting upset and not wanting to play
Older School-Age (8 to 12 years)
  • Avoiding adults and preferring peers
  • Talking back
  • Experimenting with swear words and “adult” behaviors
  • Wanting to appear “cool” to peers

Since school-age children are developmentally ready to start processing and handling their own emotions and feelings, they will experience higher expectations for their behavior. School-age children will be expected to behave in a way that is appropriate and safe for their environment, and developmentally appropriate for their age. If we think about behavior as a form of communication and revisit the American Academy of Pediatrics’ definition of behavior—“the conduct, actions, and words that children employ—a signal with which they express their thoughts, feelings, needs, and impulses”—then we can see how development and behavior go hand in hand. As school-age children begin to develop their individual personalities and have a world of choices, decisions, and opportunities available to them, they will start trying new and different ways of communicating their complex feelings and emotions. We see these forms of communication as behaviors. As a school-age staff member, it is your job to help children understand and meet their behavior expectations. You support positive behavior by setting boundaries and expectations and using guidance techniques to reinforce positive behaviors and to influence challenging ones.

Supporting Positive Behavior: Setting Boundaries

Boundaries are a positive way of helping school-age children understand what is expected of them. Boundaries can also be referred to as setting limits or expectations. In the physical sense, a boundary, such as a fence, gives a person a line that they should not cross. This is the same for behavior boundaries. You are setting the limit for the acceptable behavior standard in the learning environment while keeping them safe. If a child goes beyond the “fence” they will be held accountable for their actions with a designated set of consequences. While boundaries may have been designed to limit challenging behaviors, they also allow children to have the confidence and freedom to take safe risks, explore, and make themselves accountable for their own behavior. Teaching children to hold themselves accountable for their behavior provides an important skill that they will need throughout their lifetime. Accountability means that a child is expected to justify their actions or decisions. Mastering this skill means children learn they can be purposeful about their behaviors, actions, and choices and not be afraid to admit a mistake or lapse in judgment.

As a school-age staff member, you will set behavior expectations for your learning environment. It is important to include children in this process as much as possible. Allowing children to have input in their own behavior expectations will help them to hold themselves and their peers accountable. It also gives you a chance to make sure that the children fully understand what is expected of them. Some other aspects to keep in mind when setting boundaries and expectations are:

  • State the expectations clearly and in language that children can easily understand. Use vocabulary that is developmentally appropriate and be as clear as possible.
  • Make the expectations reasonable and achievable. Expectations and boundaries are designed to support positive behaviors, so they should be written to help children be successful.
  • Be consistent in the way the expectations are enforced. Hold all children accountable for their behavior in the same way. Be consistent by always following through with encouragement or consequences as noted in the expectations.
  • Have a combination of broad and specific expectations. An example of a broad behavior expectation would be, “Respect yourself.” This one expectation can encompass many behaviors. You can also create very specific boundaries depending on the needs of the program or learning environment.
  • Be positive in the way you write the expectations.Always reinforce the positive behavior instead of focusing on the challenging one. For example, instead of “no hitting,” you could use “keep others safe” This tells children the behavior you want to see, without using the word “no” or stating the challenging behavior.

There are a variety of ways to write behavior expectations, and some programs have certain core values that are always included, so be sure to check with your trainer, coach, or supervisor for any program-specific lists. In the chart below, you will see four broad behavior expectations and how they correspond with the everyday behaviors you want to see in school-age children. You can use this as a guide when writing behavior expectations in your own learning environment. It may be helpful to use the broad expectations and then let the children brainstorm ideas for the everyday behaviors.

Broad Behavior Expectation and Everyday Behaviors
Respect and Keep Yourself Safe
  • Always try your best
  • Speak and act with kindness
  • Take care of your body
  • Follow classroom and behavior expectations
Respect and Keep Others Safe
  • Keep your hands and feet to yourself
  • Be aware of others' space, belongings, and materials.
  • Promote peer responsibility (if you knock over an item a peer is using, help clean it up.)
  • Share materials and space
  • Recognize others’ achievements
Respect and Keep the Environment Safe
  • Clean up after yourself
  • Keep the environment clean and safe
  • Use equipment, furniture, and materials safely and appropriately
Be Accountable
  • Follow behavior expectations
  • Believe in your actions
  • Admit when you’re wrong

Supporting Positive Behavior: Guidance Techniques

Guidance is the way you can resolve issues, direct behaviors and actions, and share advice, information, and knowledge in the learning environment. As a school-age staff member, you should use guidance techniques that support positive behavior and teach children how to demonstrate appropriate behaviors, resolve conflicts, and manage daily life tasks. The goal of all guidance techniques should be to promote positive behavior and reduce challenging behavior. The guidance techniques below are examples of commonly used techniques and approaches. Be sure to check with your trainer, coach, or administrator for guidance policies and techniques used in your program.

Proactive Guidance

Proactive guidance is a “conscientious effort on the part of teachers to provide a classroom environment that allows students to be themselves, take risks, learn from mistakes, and understand how to take responsibility for their actions and feelings,” according to Louis Denti in Proactive Classroom Management. As a school-age staff member, you should strive to make this technique your guide in influencing the behaviors in the learning environment. Using this guidance technique allows you to stop challenging behaviors, conflicts, and other issues before they start. By being proactive and meaningful about your plans and actions in the learning environment, you will create an atmosphere of mutual respect with a sense of community. Refer to the Social & Emotional Development course for more information on creating a sense of community within the school-age learning environment.

Proactive Guidance: How will you use it?

Proactive guidance is something you will use each day as a way to create a positive learning environment for school-age children. You will create schedules, routines, and transitions that are consistent, predictable, and appropriate. Having a routine that is clearly posted and easy to follow will help school-age children know what to expect and what their options are. Choice boards also allow children to pick their activity and have some responsibility for their schedule. These are examples of proactive guidance because they create a predicable routine for children, which will limit challenging behaviors, confusion, and outbursts. You will learn more about routines and choice boards later in this course.

Another way you will use proactive guidance is by learning the behavior patterns and triggers of the children in your program. It is important for you to spend time building relationships and observing children so that you understand their temperaments and responses to events or personalities that may upset them. These events may cause them to react with non-desirable behavior. You can help these children avoid challenging behaviors by working to stop them before they start. For example, you might notice that many of the children are irritable and seem to often have conflicts with one another. To avoid any further challenging behavior, you might decide to bring the children outside to play, have an impromptu dance party, or play a program game. All of those activities will help to release energy. Physical activity and providing ample space to move one's body is always a great way to lessen challenging behavior. It is important to remember that school-age children often are in a classroom setting during the day and do not have many opportunities for free play. Allowing children time to run, play, chat, and relax will help to avoid challenging behaviors.

In order for children to feel emotionally safe in the learning environment, encourage children to set appropriate limits and boundaries with other kids and ensure that kids respect others' limits. This is also an important lifelong skill. The goal is to empower children to handle social and emotional conflicts when there isn’t a teacher or caregiver around. You can do this by observing the daily interactions of the children, supporting children in setting and listening to limits, being aware of any drastic changes in personalities, and creating an atmosphere that encourages open discussion and problem solving

Positive Reinforcement

Using the positive reinforcement guidance technique, you will support appropriate behaviors by rewarding them in a positive way. The theory of positive reinforcement was developed by B.F. Skinner, a theorist who focused on behavior modification. This technique can be used in a variety of ways such as recognizing positive behaviors with encouragement, small tokens, or privileges. According to Skinner’s research, children who are recognized or rewarded for their positive behavior will continue to behave accordingly, while those children who were demonstrating challenging behaviors will attempt to change their behavior in an effort to receive the recognition or reward.

Positive Reinforcement: How will you use it?

Providing encouragement and recognition for positive behaviors is one of the most basic forms of positive reinforcement and usually yields the best outcomes. When children behave within the expectations and boundaries you have set for them, they should be given verbal encouragement and recognition. Some examples of positive reinforcement are:

  • Giving a nonverbal acknowledgment like a smile, nod, or thumbs up. For example, when a child is following everyday guidelines, like cleaning up after snack, you can acknowledge this by a quick smile or thumbs up.
  • Providing recognition for a job well done. For example, if you observe a child complete an art project or work hard to master tying their shoes, you can acknowledge this by saying how hard they worked. (“I love the way you kept working at tying your shoes—You worked really hard on that!)
  • Acknowledging an act of kindness. For example, you notice a child helping a peer clean up a mess, you can acknowledge this “I noticed you helped Daniel clean up the construction zone. That was really helpful, I appreciate that.” However, it is important to know the individual personalities and temperaments of the children and youth in your care. Some children may prefer more private recognition of their kindness.
  • Encouraging a positive behavior through verbal recognition. For example, when you know a child is working on a behavior that has been a challenge in the past, you want to provide encouragement when you observe their positive behavior. For example, “Louis, I noticed that you took turns with Elizabeth at the computer station today. I saw how happy Elizabeth was to work out that computer plan with you!”

The Self-Regulation Approach

Self-regulation is a learning process that involves the development of a set of positive behaviors that affect one's learning, according to Barry Zimmerman in A Social Cognitive View of Self-Regulated Academic Learning (1989). These behaviors may not come naturally to children, but can be taught or learned (Zimmerman, 1994; Zimmerman, Bonner, & Kovatch, 1996). As a school-age staff member, it is important that you provide positive guidance that enables children to make their own decisions, solve problems and tell the difference between right and wrong. Self-regulation is an approach you can teach school-age children to help them learn how to respond and react to their environment and how to set goals for desired outcomes. This guidance technique also focuses on allowing children to determine their needs by interpreting their own emotions, thoughts, and environment. Teaching self-control allows children to guide their own paths to success by giving them tools and approaches to help them regulate their own behaviors.

The Self-Regulation Approach: How will you use it?

You can help children learn how to use the self-regulation technique by using the following questions to encourage children to think about their desired outcome.

  • What is my goal?
  • What needs to be done to achieve my goal?
  • Why is my goal worth achieving?
  • How should I achieve my goal? Or what steps should I take?
  • What skills or resources do I need? Are there any tools that would help me?
  • Do I have these skills or resources? If not, how will I acquire them?

Remember, a goal can be something like having a turn at a particular area, finishing a new book, or tying your shoes. Of course, they can also be more in depth, like learning a new skill, improving one’s health, or making a team. This approach will help you encourage children to make choices that will help them reach whatever their desired outcome or goal may be. You can use the questions above as a guide. For younger children, you may have to help them see the goals they share in everyday interactions, for example, “You said you really wanted to build a paper airplane that could fly across the playground. That sounds like a great goal for this week! What do you think could help you design a great plane?” Not all questions need to be answered for every goal. The diagram below will also help you to guide children before, during, and after the process.

Before the Response
  • Self-Determined Goals & Standards

    Students determine goals to be achieved and standards for behavior

During the Response
  • Self-Monitoring

    Students observe & monitor own performance.

  • Self-Instructions

    Students give selves instructions (either aloud or quietly) to help guide actions.

After the Response
  • Self-Evaluation

    Students judge the quality of their performance

  • Self-Imposed Contingencies

    Students impose their own consequences for success or failure

Consider these examples:


Before the response

Alicia currently wears Velcro tennis shoes. However, she is interested in getting some more “authentic” athletic shoes to play basketball in. Alicia’s mom states she must know how to tie her shoelaces before they purchase a pair. Alicia wants to learn to tie laces on tennis shoes so she can get the basketball shoes she wants.

During the response

You help model how to tie laces and provide some materials for Alicia to practice.

Alicia continues to practice with the materials you provide and observes the outcomes of her tries. She may say tips you provide, for example, “make two bunny ears” or “one loop and wrap around” out-loud to help guide her actions. She may also practice tying other people’s shoes to see how different laces work.

After the response

Alicia judges the tightness of the knots she constructs, and how quickly she can tie and untie the laces. She informs her mom of her new skill.

Together they purchase “real” athletic shoes with laces and Alicia experiences playing basketball in them.


Before the response

Ron saw a local competitive jump rope team at a recent community festival. He was impressed by the different moves and has decided he wants to try out for the younger team of 9-12 year olds.

During the response

After discussing with Ron what materials and experiences may help him reach his goal, you help gather what is needed, perhaps identifying relevant books or websites and different sized jump ropes. You may also help coordinate a field trip or a special visitor that can provide an opportunity for Ron to learn skills from an experienced member of the jump rope team. You could also work with Ron to recruit other children who can help twirl the ropes so Ron can practice different tricks.

Ron may track his progress by writing down the number and kind of successful tricks he completes each day. He may talk out-loud to help him maintain rhythm, or to count the beat of music if he uses this for practice.

After the response

After practicing individual moves for several weeks, Ron puts together a routine and practices this until he can do it multiple times with no errors. He judges his own success when he is able to do his routine in front of the other children in the program, with minimal mistakes (one mis-jump).

Ron is now ready to try out for the team. Although he makes the first round of competition, he does not make the second. Although he is disappointed, the experienced jump rope members comment on his high level of skill and commitment. They give him some detailed feedback on how to improve. You sit down with Ron to help him plan for next steps so he can continue to pursue this goal.

Strategies to Avoid When Dealing with Challenging Behaviors

You and all the staff members in your program have a professional responsibility to keep children safe from harm. This includes emotional, psychological, and mental harm. There are certain types of behaviors (often used in the name of “punishment”) that have the potential to inflict harm and model aggression. When staff members use aggressive techniques with children, they and their families learn that aggressive responses to behavior are OK. That is not the message to send children and families. The following practices are harmful:

  • 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. Staff 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 (e.g., 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 them from being able to move or speak (e.g., covering a child’s mouth or hands with tape).

In addition, the Council on Accreditation’s Standards for Child and Youth Development Programs prohibits negative approaches to behavior management, including, but not limited to:

  • corporal punishment
  • aversive stimuli
  • withholding nutrition or hydration
  • inflicting physical or psychological pain
  • demeaning, shaming, or degrading language or activities
  • unnecessarily punitive restrictions
  • forced physical exercise to eliminate behaviors
  • punitive work assignments
  • punishment by peers
  • group punishment or discipline for individual behavior

Your program has a Guidance and Touch policy. In the Identification and Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect course, you will learn more about this policy.


Guidance: Boundaries

Watch this video to learn how boundaries can be used to support positive behavior.

Guidance: Promoting Positive Behavior

Watch this video to learn how guidance can help promote positive behavior.


As a school-age staff member, it is important for you to always model the behaviors you expect to see in children:

  • Arrive on time, present yourself in a professional manner, and always be on task.
  • Show the same level of respect for all children.
  • Demonstrate accountability by following through with your language and limits, being consistent, and admitting mistakes or errors. Show children that it is okay to make mistakes, and that you can always learn from them.
  • Model “making things right” when you do make mistakes or errors. Encourage children to do the same when they intentionally or accidentally hurt another person, their work, or property. Don’t force kids to say “I’m sorry.” Kids will just learn that those words will get them off the hook for responsibility. Instead guide them to accept responsibility and take action in “making things right.”
  • Maintain a positive attitude. Provide positive feedback and encouragement to children.
  • Model social skills by making eye contact, using manners, and showing empathy.


As a school-age staff member, your hope is that children will work together to create a positive learning environment. One way you can help achieve this goal is by providing appropriate encouragement when children make efforts to follow the behavior expectations and to be a part of the learning community. Complete the Providing Encouragement activity and also watch the YouTube video in the activity that discusses how positive encouragement can lead to a growth mindset. Share your completed work with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Setting behavior boundaries and expectations are the first steps toward using positive and proactive guidance in the learning environment. Complete the Apply: Setting Boundaries activity and share your finished work with your administrator, trainer, or coach.


Developmentally appropriate practice:
An approach to teaching grounded in research on how young children develop and learn and what is known about effective early education practices. These practices should be flexible to allow for differences between children in skills, interests, and characteristics


Finish this statement: Proactive guidance is…
True or False? School-age children do not respond well to positive reinforcement.
Eleven-year-old Nora has started using swear words and talking back occasionally. As a school-age staff member, how do you respond?
References & Resources

Council on Accreditation. (2019). Standards for child and youth development (CYD) programs.

Denti, L. (2012). Proactive classroom management. Crowin Publishing.

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

Hearron, P. F., & Hildebrand, V. (2013). Guiding young children. Pearson Higher Ed.

Gartrell, D. (2012). Guidance matters: From rules to guidelines. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Texas Child Care Quarterly. (2007). Back to basics: Child guidance: School-agers. Texas Child Care, Summer 31(1).

Zimmerman, B. J. (1994). Dimensions of academic self-regulation: A conceptual framework for education. In D. H. Schunk & B. J. Zimmerman (Eds.), Self-regulation of learning and performance: Issues and educational implications (pp. 3-21). Erlbaum.

Zimmerman, B. J., Bonner, S., & Kovatch, R. (1996). Developing self-regulated academic learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 329-339.