Skip to main content

Preventing Abuse: Appropriate Expectations & Responses to Behavior

Virtual Lab School

Supplemental Training Appropriate Expectations & Responses to Behavior

Understanding how children develop and learn is a protective factor against child abuse and neglect. When adults have a solid understanding of child development and appropriate expectations for children’s behavior, they are less likely to respond in inappropriate ways. In this training, you will learn about child development milestones, typical behaviors, realistic expectations for children and youth and appropriate guidance strategies that support nurturing relationships and a caring community.

Requirement from the DoD Office of Military Family Readiness Policy

The following training is required for all Child and Youth Program (CYP) personnel and family child care providers and should be completed by May 31, 2023. This training can be completed individually or in group training contexts by viewing the online content or printing a copy of this material. Read more in the official memorandum from the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policyofficial memorandum from the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy.

DODI 6060.02:

Child abuse prevention, identification, and reporting

Suggested Audience(s):

All CYP personnel

Clock Hours:



Staff will identify, use, and reflect on typical development and behavior of children and youth and how to respond to children’s behavior in supportive and appropriate ways. 


  • NAEYC Standard 1B.4: Staff never use physical punishment and do not engage in psychological abuse or coercion 
  • NAEYC Standard 1D.4: Teachers anticipate problematic behavior and take steps to prevent it
  • COA: Out-of-School Time Services (OST) 6: Positive Approaches to Guiding Behavior: Personnel use positive techniques to guide and manage behavior
  • MSA: To support social and emotional development and provide positive guidance
  • CDA: To support social and emotional development and provide positive guidance


As a child and youth professional, you have the responsibility to provide a safe, healthy, and nurturing environment for children and to support their learning and development. You play a critical role in keeping children safe from harm by recognizing and preventing child abuse and neglect in your program. This responsibility to keep children safe includes ensuring that your interactions and responses to children’s behavior do not have the potential to inflict harm or model aggression. When adults are experiencing stress, lacking support and connection with others, or have unrealistic expectations for children’s development and behavior they are more likely to respond in inappropriate or unsupportive ways. Consider a time when your reaction or response to the behavior of your own child or a child in your program wasn’t as supportive as it should have been. What behavior was the child exhibiting? What were you feeling or experiencing when you responded to the child? How did your reaction impact the child? How did you feel after your response? What would have helped you to handle the situation better?

Caring for children and youth is important but emotionally demanding work. Child care programs provide opportunities for joy, connection, and growth, but they also involve long hours, responding to negative emotions, managing relationships and conflict, and constant redirection of behaviors. You can balance the demands of working in child care and ensure that children are safe and learning by having strong foundational knowledge of child development milestones, appropriate expectations for children’s behavior, and by implementing positive guidance strategies. 

This training will examine ways that you can prevent harmful interactions from occurring in your program by highlighting developmentally appropriate expectations for children, typical behaviors across the ages, and positive and supportive ways to respond to behavior that feels challenging to adults. 

Protective Factors Framework

As a staff member caring for or interacting in a program with children and youth, you have many strengths you can draw upon to prevent child abuse and neglect. These are known as protective factors. Protective factors are characteristics or strengths of individuals, families, and communities that act to mitigate the risk of child abuse and neglect and help enable children to thrive. The following protective factors have been identified to help strengthen families and prevent child abuse and neglect: adult resilience, knowledge of child development and parenting, social connections, concrete supports, and social emotional competence of children. 

The same protective factors that help families cope with challenges apply to all of us as adults. Let’s explore each of the protective factors and how they might apply to your work. This material has been adapted from the Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

  • Adult Resilience: We all need the ability to cope with the stresses of everyday life. The emotions you feel may make you feel less capable of doing your job. Stress reduces your capacity to think creatively, be patient, problem solve, and try new skills - all strategies that are necessary in child care. Each one of us has strengths we can draw upon: faith, flexibility, humor, communication skills, problem-solving skills, mutually supportive caring relationships, or the ability to identify and access outside resources ( We can take the time to make sure we nurture and expand these strengths in ourselves and others.
  • Knowledge of Child Development: It seems obvious but understanding typical child development will help you do your job. Unrealistic expectations for children's behavior are major risk factors for child abuse and neglect. Make sure you know what to expect from the children in your care. In a stressful situation, this knowledge helps you remain calm, recognize child development in action, and understand what skills you can use to help the child develop next. It's also important that you continue to build your professional skills across your career. Seek out professional development and try new ideas that will keep your work fresh, exciting, and rewarding.
  • Social Connections: Research suggests that strong social connections promote health, wellness, and longevity. By creating or strengthening social relationships in your own life, you will be better able to do your job well.
  • Concrete Supports: We all need tools to help us do our jobs. It is OK — and important — to ask for help when it is needed. Talk to your trainer, administrator, or colleagues about ways you can get new ideas for your classroom, individual children, or families. Also, remember that you are not immune to stress outside of work, too. You might be experiencing any number of stressors in your family life. Seek out and use community resources, whether it’s assistance with filing taxes, finding quality health care, or job assistance for a spouse or partner.
  • Social and Emotional Competence of Children: This is the foundation of the work we do every day in child development programs. You will learn much more about this topic in the Social & Emotional Development and Positive Guidance courses. For now, understand your role as one of promoting healthy relationships, communication skills, and self-expression.

All of these protective factors are equally important, but for the purpose of this training, we will focus on enhancing your knowledge of child development and refining your practices to ensure that your responses to children’s behavior are appropriate.

Developmental Milestones Across the Ages

Understanding developmental milestones is important for preventing child abuse and neglect because adults can become better informed on how to appropriately respond to children’s needs. Having an awareness of developmentally appropriate expectations for a child’s growth and development supports families and caregivers with guidance and discipline strategies such as communicating with respect, setting consistent expectations and rules, and creating safe opportunities that allow children to thrive in their environment.

In addition, understanding child development as a protective factor helps us recognize when a child needs extra help. If we do not understand child development, we might become frustrated instead of recognizing an opportunity to scaffold or strengthen a child’s experiences. When we get frustrated, we do not use our best thinking. We are less able to problem-solve, use new practices, think creatively, and be patient. We may be less able to support the children who need our help the most.

Let’s take a look at how children typically develop from birth to 12 years. The information on this table is compiled from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( and the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ). 

Social / Emotional

  • Calms down when spoken to or picked up
  • Looks at your face
  • Smiles at people when they talk or smile
  • Cries when hungry wet, tired, or wants to be held

Language / Communication

  • Makes sounds other than crying
  • Reacts to loud sounds

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Follows objects with eyes and recognizes people at a distance as they move
  • Looks at objects for several seconds
  • Waves arms at dangling objects dangled in front of them

Movement / Physical

  • Holds head up when on tummy
  • Kicks both arms and legs while on back
  • Briefly relaxes hands from fists for short periods
  • Grasps adult finger

Social / Emotional

  • Smiles on own to get attention
  • Begins making early noise sounds of laughter when prompted to laugh
  • Looks at you, moves or makes sound to get or keep your attention
  • Smiles or coos at self in the mirror

Language / Communication

  • Makes cooing sounds (“ooo”,“aahh)
  • Makes sounds back when spoken to
  • Moves head in the direction of your voice
  • Makes sounds when looking at objects

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Opens mouth at the sight of breast or bottle
  • Looks at hands with interest
  • Looks at objects placed in hand or in front of them

Movement / Physical

  • Holds head steady without support
  • Maintains hold of a toy placed in their hands
  • Swings arm at objects
  • Brings hands to mouth
  • Pushes up from ground onto elbows when lying on tummy

Social / Emotional

  • Knows familiar people
  • Enjoys looking at self in a mirror
  • Laughs
  • Plays by grabbing foot when laying on back

Language / Communication

  • Responds to sounds by making sounds
  • Begins to drool and create small bubbles with tongue and lips while making noises (i.e., "blowing raspberries")
  • Makes squealing noises
  • Begins to make consonant sounds (jabbering with “m” and “b”)

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Brings things to mouth to explore them
  • Reaches to grab objects
  • Closes lips to show disinterest in more food
  • Plays by banging objects on the tables or ground

Movement / Physical

  • Rolls from tummy to back and may roll from back to tummy
  • Pushes arms straight when on tummy
  • Uses hands to support when sitting
  • Supports weight equally on legs when standing with support

Social / Emotional

  • Is shy, clingy, or fearful of strangers
  • Shows several facial expressions like happy, sad, angry, surprised
  • Looks when you call their name
  • Reacts when you leave (looks, reaches for you, or cries)
  • Smiles or laughs when you play peek-a-boo

Language / Communication

  • Makes different sounds like “mamama” and babbles
  • Lifts arms to be picked up
  • Responds to own name

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Looks for objects when places out of sight
  • Bangs two objects together
  • Picks up toys one in each hand

Movement / Physical

  • Moves into the sitting position without support
  • Transfers items from one hand to the other
  • Uses fingers as a “rake” to pull food and objects towards self
  • Sits without support
  • Lowers body with control while using support

Social / Emotional

  • Plays games such as “pat-a-cake” and “peek-a-boo”
  • Lifts foot for shoe or sock when you dress them
  • Rolls ball back for you to return to them when playing
  • Shows preference for certain people and things

Language / Communication

  • Uses simple gestures like waving “bye-bye” or shaking head “no”
  • Says “mama” and “dada”
  • Responds to “no” (pauses briefly or stops)

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Puts objects inside a container
  • Looks for objects they see you hide
  • Uses index (pointer) finger to poke and try to get objects out

Movement / Physical

  • Pulls up to stand
  • Walks or “cruises” along furniture for support
  • Drinks from a cup without a lid with adult support
  • Uses thumb and finger “pincer grasp” to pick up small items

Social / Emotional

  • Copies other children while playing
  • Shows you an object they like
  • Claps when excited
  • Hugs items like dolls and stuffed toys
  • Shows you affection (hugs, cuddles, kisses)

Language / Communication

  • Tries to say one or two words, besides than “mama” or “dada”, like “da” for dog and “ba” for ball
  • Looks for a familiar object when named
  • Follow simple directions when given with gesture, (gives toy when hand is out and told, “Give me the toy.”)
  • Points to ask for something

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Starts to use things correctly (like cups, phones, books)
  • Stack at least small two objects
  • Scribbles back and forth on paper
  • Dumps objects out by turning containers upside down

Movement / Physical

  • Takes a few steps independently
  • Feeds themself finger foods
  • Squats to pick up an object from the floor and then stands up without support

Social / Emotional

  • Explores alone but with parent close by
  • Points to show something of interest
  • Puts hands out for you to wash them
  • Looks at a few pages in a book with you
  • Helps you dress them by pushing arm through sleeve or lifting a foot

Language / Communication

  • Tries to say three or more words besides “mama” and “dada”
  • Follows simple instructions without any gestures (gives toy when told, “Give it to me.”)
  • Shakes head no

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Shows interest in copying simple chores like sweeping or wiping the table
  • Plays with toys in a simple way (playing in their intended way, pushing a toy car)
  • Scribbles on own

Movement / Physical

  • Walks independently
  • Drinks from a cup
  • Tries to use a spoon
  • Climbs on and off furniture independently
  • Tries to kick a ball after observing an adult

Social / Emotional

  • Notices when others are hurt or upset
  • Looks at your face to see how you react in new situations
  • Shows defiant behavior (doing what told not to do)
  • Imitates others, especially adults and other children
  • Shows more and more independence

Language / Communication

  • Points to things or pictures when they are named
  • Says sentences with at least two words together like, “More milk”
  • Points to at least two body parts when asked
  • Uses more gestures like blowing a kiss and nodding yes
  • Repeats words overheard in conversation

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Holds something in one hand while using the other hand
  • Attempts to use switches knobs and buttons on a toy
  • Plays with more than one toy at the same time
  • Begins putting items where they belong, like toys on the shelf
  • Stacks 4 objects

Movement / Physical

  • Kicks a ball
  • Runs
  • Walks up and down the stairs while holding on for support
  • Eats with a spoon

Social / Emotional

  • Plays next to other children and sometimes with them
  • Shows you what they can do by saying, “Look at me!”
  • Follows simple routines independently when told

Language / Communication

  • Says about 50 words
  • Says two or more words, including one action word like, “Daddy run”
  • Names things in a book when you point and ask what it is
  • Says words like “I”, “me”, “we”

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Plays make believe with dolls, animals, and people
  • Shows skills in simple problem-solving skills like standing on a small stool to reach something
  • Follows two step directions like, “Pick up your shoes and put them in the closet”
  • Knows at least one color
  • Tells you what they drew after drawing or scribbling a picture

Movement / Physical

  • Uses hands to twist and unscrew objects
  • Takes off loose clothing alone
  • Jumps off the ground with both feet
  • Can turn book pages one at a time

Social / Emotional

  • Calms down within 10 minutes after you leave
  • Notices other children and joins them in play
  • May get upset with major changes in routine
  • Shows affection for friends without prompting

Language / Communication

  • Carries on conversation using at least two or more back-and-forth exchanges
  • Asks Who, What, When, Where, or Why questions
  • Says what action is happening in a picture book when asked like “eating” or “running”
  • Says first name when asked
  • Talks well enough for others to understand most of the time

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Copies a circle with a pencil or crayon
  • Avoids touching hot objects after a warning
  • Can work toys with buttons, levers, and moving parts
  • Builds towers of more than 6 blocks

Movement / Physical

  • Strings items onto a string such as large beads or macaroni
  • Dresses self in loose clothing
  • Uses a fork
  • Pedals a tricycle

Social / Emotional

  • Pretends to be something else during play (teacher, dog, superhero)
  • Would rather play with other children then by themself
  • Comforts others who are hurt or sad
  • Avoids danger, like not jumping from tall heights on the playground
  • Likes to be a “helper”
  • Changes behavior based on where they are

Language / Communication

  • Says sentences that are 4 or more words
  • Says some words from a familiar song or story or nursery rhyme
  • Talks about at least one thing that happened during their day like, “I played ball.”
  • Answers simple questions like, “What is a crayon for?”
  • Says first and last name when asked

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Identifies several colors
  • Tells you what comes next in a known story
  • Draws a person with three or more body parts
  • Can recall parts of the day

Movement / Physical

  • Catches a large ball most of the time
  • Self serves food and able to pour liquid with supervision
  • Unbuttons items
  • Holds writing utensil between fingers not with a fist

Social / Emotional

  • Follows rules when playing games with others
  • Takes turns when playing games with other children
  • Likes to sing, dance, and act
  • Does simple chores at home

Language / Communication

  • Tells a story with at least two events that they’ve either heard about, or made up
  • Answers simple questions about a book or story read or told to them
  • Carries on conversation using at least three or more back-and-forth exchanges
  • Uses or recognizes simple rhymes (bat, cat, ball, tall)

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Counts to 10
  • Names some numbers between 1 and 5 when you point to them
  • Uses words about time like yesterday, tomorrow, morning, or night
  • Pays attention for 5-10 minutes during activities
  • Can write some letters of their name
  • Names some letters when you point to them

Movement / Physical

  • Buttons some buttons
  • Hops on one foot may be able to skip
  • Can print some letters or numbers

Social / Emotional

  • Shows more independence from parents and family
  • Starts to think about the future
  • Understands more about his or her place in the world
  • Pays more attention to friendships and teamwork
  • Wants to be liked and accepted by friends
  • Friendships tend to be with children of the same sex; may talk about members of the opposite sex as "gross" or "weird"

Language / Communication

  • Uses simple, complete sentences that average five to seven words
  • Can follow a series of three directions in a row

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Can focus attention on a task for at least 15 minutes

Movement / Physical

  • Strong motor skills, but balance and endurance can vary
  • Sense of body image begins to develop

Social / Emotional

  • Starts to form stronger, more complex friendships and peer relationships
  • Experiences more peer pressure
  • Peer acceptance is very important; may take part in certain behaviors to be part of "the group"
  • Becomes less negative about the opposite sex
  • May experiment with lying, cheating, or stealing

Language / Communication

  • Can follow a series of five directions in a row
  • Might be nervous about asking for help

Cognitive / Learning / Thinking

  • Can focus attention on a task for about an hour
  • Faces more academic challenges at school
  • Becomes more independent from the family
  • Begins to see the point of view of others more clearly

Movement / Physical

  • Becomes more aware of his or her body as puberty approaches; body image and eating problems sometimes start
  • Develops secondary sex characteristics like breasts and body hair

As you read the milestones, did you notice any behaviors that might frustrate or challenge adults? This table can help you remember that behaviors like biting, mouthing everything, tantrums, not following directions, talking back to adults, occasionally lying, and making demands can all be normal parts of development. As adults, we have to be prepared to respond positively and constructively. Remember, these milestones tell us what children typically do at certain ages. They are not hard and fast rules. Individual children will vary a great deal in when and how they reach different milestones.

What to Expect: Typical Behaviors Across Ages

As with all areas of development, there are certain behaviors that are typical as children progress through developmental stages. In all cases, a child’s behavior communicates a message. It is up to adults, especially their trusted caregivers, to learn the child’s “code” and interpret their message. When you understand what children are communicating through their behavior, then you can make appropriate modifications to the environment, routines, and curriculum to prevent challenging behaviors from occurring and respond appropriately.

Regardless of the child’s age, you should expect children to engage in some “difficult” behavior, and you can think of this as developmental progress or children learning new skills. For example, during the transition from infancy to toddlerhood, most children are no longer satisfied with only playing with the toys and objects within their immediate reach. Instead, toddlers are busy beings who explore their environments and show their independence by “testing” limits and often resisting help. This can be particularly challenging for some caregivers. Understand that this type of behavior, while it may feel challenging, is necessary for children to learn to problem-solve and develop secure attachments. Review other examples of developmentally appropriate behaviors in the chart below and think about the skills or understanding children gain from each.

Pre-mobile infants

  • Crying to communicate needs
  • Cluster feedings or occasional increase in the need to eat

Mobile infants 

  • Taking toys from others
  • Mouthing toys
  • Climbing or crawling on others
  • Knocking things down (block structures, etc.)
  • Stranger anxiety or refusing to go to unfamiliar adults


  • Biting
  • Saying “No”
  • Getting into everything
  • High levels of activity; rarely sit still
  • Insisting on doing things independently (“I can do it by myself”)
  • Whining or crying
  • Claiming “Mine!” even when an item does not belong to them


  • Fears and vivid imaginations (fear of the dark, fear of monsters, etc.)
  • Telling others what to do
  • “Tattling” or telling on others

Young school-age

  • Overly concerned with fairness
  • Uses 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

  • Avoiding adults and preferring peers
  • Talking back
  • Experimenting with swear words and “adult” behaviors
  • Wanting to appear “cool” to peers

If you have spent time in programs serving young children and youth, you have likely seen some or all of these behaviors. They are reflections of typical child development. We all go through stages as we grow, and certain behaviors can be expected at certain stages. This does not mean that all behaviors are easy for adults to deal with. It does mean that we can be prepared to recognize behaviors as reflections of growth and respond in appropriate and sensitive ways.

As you listen to the experts in the following video, reflect on your expectations for the children in your care and how your expectations influence how you define challenging behavior.

Watch the video on "Challenging Behaviors: An Introduction" at

Video Transcript:

Charis Price, PH.D. - Professor, The Ohio State University

I would define challenging behavior as any repeated pattern of problem behavior, persistant behavior, that's been going on for quite a long time. I've been in classrooms where children have been in a classroom for a period of a year. And it's the end of the school year and they're still engaging in kicking and tantruming behavior, using curse words. And so, I think that would be a clear definition of challenging behavior. So any behavior that has persisted for a long time, there's a repeated pattern of behavior, and it's not responsive to any kind of universal prevention strategies. Developmentally appropriate behaviors would be behaviors that you would typically see children engaging in. So, tattling... Even biting, depending on the age of child, could be considered developmental. And those behaviors are usually responsive to universal prevention strategies. Just teaching the child behavioral expectations. What do we do in the classroom? What do we do at home? And they're easily-- you're easy to manage those.

Rosemarie Allen, PH.D. - Professor, Metropolitan State University of Denver

You know, when we think about challenging behaviors, we have to be aware of child development. Because so many behaviors that children exhibit are really appropriate for their developmental stage. There are times that I say "Behavior is a construct that is defined by the person who is most annoyed by it." And, to some extent, it is. But when we're aware of development, we can come to understand and expect certain behaviors from children based on their developmental stage. We know that two-year-olds are going to say "no", "stop", "don't", and "mine" all the time. That three-year-olds are going to try you. They're testing their limits and they're actually begging for them. That four-year-olds will argue with you all the time. Because they kind of think they know everything. So we can expect children to be children. But challenging behaviors are those persistant, ongoing behaviors that really interrupt and interfere with children's overall development.

Challenging Behaviors: An Introduction

Listen to two experts describe challenging and developmentally appropriate behavior.

Unrealistic versus Realistic Expectations

Positive expectations can set the tone for guidance in your classroom and program. These expectations must be age-appropriate for the children in your care. In order to best support the children and youth in your care, consider a few positively and clearly stated expectations that can guide all interactions in the classroom or program space. It is important for you to understand and model these expectations throughout the day. Take a moment to review the unrealistic and realistic expectations in the table provided. As you reflect on these examples and your own expectations for the children in your care, consider whether there are areas where you need to rethink your beliefs about children’s behavior.

Unrealistic Expectations Realistic Expectations
Marchia, an infant, cries all the time. She is spoiled rotten and thinks she needs to be held all the time. When Marchia cries, she’s communicating that she needs something from her caregiver.
Decklen, a young preschooler, never listens! All the kids are supposed to go inside, wash their hands, sit on the carpet, and pick a book. What does he do? He stops and plays with dolls. Decklen does best with simple directions. With consistent support, he’ll eventually learn more complex routines.
These kids need to sit cross-legged for the entire group time. Group time is 45 minutes in kindergarten, so they’ve got to start practicing sitting that long now. Group times are short and sweet. It’s a time for us to build community, but we really think of play, one-on-one, and small groups as the best learning opportunities.
Caldwell is bossy. He needs to be put in his place. Caldwell is learning to express his opinions and ideas. This shows he is confident and comfortable in this environment.
Julia and Cassidy talk and giggle nonstop. Those two need to be separated. Julia and Cassidy’s friendship is really important to them.
Joseph lied to me about washing his hands. He is completely dishonest. It is common for school-age children to lie when they know they did something wrong. This shows they care about what you think of them.

As you think about the classroom environment, curricular activities, classroom schedule, and children’s behavior, it is helpful to align your expectations about what is appropriate with your knowledge of child development. When your expectations are in line with what children are capable of and when you are able to connect a child’s behavior to a developmental need, your response is more likely to be understanding and supportive. Review the following suggestions to ensure your expectations of children are appropriate:

  • Continue to learn all you can about child development throughout your career. The Virtual Lab School has courses that will help you learn more about cognitive, physical, and social development. You will also learn about how children develop communication skills and a healthy sense of self.
  • Gather information about child development to share with families. The handouts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Reference and Resource section are a good place to start, but your trainer, coach, family child care administrator, or local resource and referral agency might have other resources you can share.
  • As a staff member, spend time observing children in your program or in your wider community. This will help you begin to understand what is typical for each child in your care. You can also visit programs that serve children who are older or younger. This will help you take a broader view of development. If you expect the same thing from 4-year-olds that you see happening in the school-age program, you are setting yourself up for frustration.
  • Remember what you have learned here when you get frustrated. It can be frustrating when a toddler says “No” or bites, or when a preschooler refuses to hang up his coat, but this is a part of growing up. Many of the behaviors that challenge adults are very typical parts of normal child development. 
  • Ask for help when you need it. We all need new ideas and support. When you are feeling frustrated or unsure about what to do for a child, ask your trainer, coach, family child care administrator, or a fellow colleague for ideas. This is a great way to build your own social connections and professional knowledge.

Appropriate Responses to Children’s Behavior

It is important for all staff members, providers, and administrators to have knowledge about what behaviors and levels of guidance are acceptable at different developmental stages. Guidance is a partnership that adults partake in with children. When adults have appropriate expectations for children, children are less likely to feel frustrated and act out. 

A guidance approach to behavior encourages staff members to consider each child’s misstep in judgment as an opportunity for learning. It is never appropriate or effective practice to ridicule or cause children emotional suffering because they created conflicts that they have not yet learned how to manage. Adults, as well as children, must assume responsibility for their behavior. It is the responsibility of the staff member to teach the child less hurtful ways to manage conflict. Likewise, it is the responsibility of the child to gain from the experience and learn less-hurtful ways of expressing anger.


The key to guidance for this age group is trying to understand the infant and what they are 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

As is the case with younger infants, positive interactions are the foundation of guidance with mobile infants. You help mobile infants learn the foundation of self-control by helping them learn to explore safely and begin soothing themselves. 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. 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 bookshelf.”
  • 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 is a form of communication. Respond quickly when an infant is hungry, tired, hurt or uncomfortable. Crying can also be a cue that the infant wants to engage or interact with something he or she cannot reach. Observe infant's cues (e.g., the direction of their stare or reach) and try to help them accomplish their goals.

Toddlers, Preschoolers, and School-Agers

For toddlers (typically over one-year-old), preschoolers, and school-age children, the following guidance techniques are appropriate, according to Hearron and Hildebrand (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 “be safe” or “be respectful.”
  • 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 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: The curriculum is the foundation of everything we do. If children are bored, overstimulated, or uninterested, they will engage in challenging behavior. Thoughtfully engaged 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 by listening, playing, and enjoying time together.
  • Expressing feelings: Staff 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. 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. An adult 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 recognize behavior by saying, “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: 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 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 they will do things in (first block area then water table), 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 inside.”
  • 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.
  • Facilitate social problem-solving: Help children know what to do when they have a problem. 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.
  • Tune into the child’s temperament. A child’s temperament can influence their ability to manage feelings and cope with stress. They may need extra time and guidance based on temperament. 

Although learning and understanding the variability in developmentally appropriate language and interactions of working with children in each age group can be overwhelming, the basic principles of guidance remain the same.

Unacceptable Forms of Guidance

All the staff members have a professional responsibility to keep children safe from harm. This includes emotional, psychological, and mental harm. There are certain types of adult behaviors that have the potential to inflict harm and model aggression. When you 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 and youth 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 their 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 them alone (i.e., leaving a child on the playground alone because they 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 (i.e., covering a child’s mouth or hands with tape).

It is important that all staff members working in a program that serves children and youth understand that these practices will never be tolerated. Consider how you might react to a situation that borders use of any of these practices. It is equally important to be prepared for how you might respond if you observe an unacceptable form of guidance.

Inappropriate Responses

Take a moment to think about the scenarios below. What would you say or do if you observed a fellow staff member or family child care provider respond to a child in these ways? What would you do in the moment to best support that child? How would you follow-up with your colleague? How would you follow-up with leadership in your program?

Scenario 1:

Trinity is a 3-year-old child in your program. She has been in your program since she was 18 months old, but morning drop offs are still challenging. She often cries and clings to her parents during drop off and you or another staff member in the room have to help with this transition and calm her down. One morning, you arrive to the program a few minutes after Trinity’s drop off. You overhear a staff member say “Trinity, you need to stop crying, you're acting like a baby. You are fine.”

Scenario 2:

Sean is a 5-year-old in the preschool classroom next door. In the mornings, Sean’s class is combined with your classroom to maintain ratio and support scheduling. When Sean’s teacher, Melinda, arrives to pick up her class, you share that Sean struggled with hitting and taking toys and that he might need extra support joining play with his peers today. Melinda asks the children to line up at the door to transition to their room for breakfast. As the children line up, Melinda grabs Sean by the arm and pulls him to the front of the line with her. You hear Melinda say, “Sean, you need to hold my hand since you can’t seem to be nice to your friends today”.

Scenario 3:

You and a fellow family child care provider have made plans to meet up at the local park to engage in a few fun, active outdoor play experiences. You and Sheila have set up a sensory table and a simple obstacle course. You notice that Dana, one of the preschoolers in Sheila’s program is pushing some of the other children exploring the obstacle course. You overhear Sheila say, “How would you like it if I pushed you down? If you don’t quit, you are going to have to go play at the sensory table with the younger kids.”

Each of these scenarios are reflective of inappropriate responses. You may say or do different things in the moment depending on your role in the program, but it is important to take immediate action for the safety and wellbeing of children.

  • In the first scenario you could immediately validate Trinity’s emotions and model appropriate responses. For example, you might say, in a warm and soothing tone, “Good morning, Trinity. I see you are sad. I sometimes feel that way too when I say goodbye to my family. What do you think might help you feel better? Would you like to read a book with me or write a note to your mom together?” In addition, you should speak with your program manager to share your concern about the other staff member’s response so that appropriate follow-up support can take place.
  • In the second scenario, you might say, “I know Sean is building his skills to communicate his ideas and wants to others. Let’s reach out to Teri, our Training & Curriculum Specialist, to see how she can help.” Again, it would be important to quickly communicate with your program leadership so that appropriate follow-up can happen.
  • In the third scenario, you might say to Sheila, “It seems like Dana’s behavior is really challenging for you. How about if I supervise this area for a bit to give you a break. I know when I struggle with certain behaviors, talking with our FCC Coordinator has really helped me develop new strategies.” In addition, you should follow up with the FCC Coordinator or Training & Curriculum Specialist about the incident to ensure that Sheila gets the support that she needs.

Remember, if you are ever unsure if an incident is child abuse, report it. Your commitment, first and foremost, is to the children’s wellbeing. The local area Family Advocacy Program or other relevant offices will be able to determine the best next steps to ensure children's safety.

Strategies to Ensure a Caring Community

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, administrator, 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 children unsupervised or 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 positive 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.


Developmental milestone
A skill or behavior that children typically develop around a certain age
A guideline for behavior, like a rule except typically broader and applying to all the settings a child might be in
Responding to undesirable or unsafe behaviors with a positive, explicit direction for the preferred action or behavior
Protective factors
Conditions or attributes in individuals, families, or communities that promote health and well-being

Additional Virtual Lab School Support:

The strategies reviewed in this training, when applied consistently, help to prevent inappropriate responses to children’s behavior and promote positive expectations and guidance techniques. The materials from this training are drawn from the following VLS lessons. You can find additional strategies, tools, and resources to support appropriate expectations and positive guidance strategies in these lessons:

In addition to the training content, the following tools can be used to help staff think more deeply about appropriate expectations, program guidance and touch policies, and how to engage with colleagues and program leaders when inappropriate guidance responses are observed. If you are a Training & Curriculum Specialist, or another leader responsible for professional development or child abuse related training, consider using these resources to lead small or large group discussions or role play scenarios so that staff members or providers are prepared to identify appropriate expectations and respond if they see inappropriate responses.

References & Resources

In addition to this training and the VLS lessons within this training, these outside resources can be helpful in gathering more information on developmentally appropriate behaviors, appropriate staff expectations, and supportive responses to behavior.

Berk, L. E. (2012). Child development (9th ed.). Pearson.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). Developmental milestones.

Center for the Study of Social Policy. (2018). Strengthening families: A protective factors framework.

Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning:

Division for Early Childhood. (2017). Position statement on challenging behavior and young children.

Dunlap, G., Wilson, K., Strain, P., & Lee, J. (2013). Prevent-teach-reinforce for young children. Paul. H. Brookes.

Dunlap, G., Iovannone, R., Kincaid, D., Wilson, K., Christiansen, K., Strain, P., & English, C. (2010). Prevent-teach-reinforce: The school-based model of individualized positive behavior support. Paul. H. Brookes.

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

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

Kids Included Together (KIT):

Sandall, S., Hemmeter, M., Smith, B., & McLean, M. (Eds.) (2005). DEC recommended practices: A comprehensive guide for practical application. Sopris West Publishing.

Santos R. M., & Cheatham, G. (2014). Front porch series: What you see doesn't always show what’s beneath: Understanding culture-based behaviors. Head Start Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center (ECLKC).

Seibel, N. L., Britt, D., Gillespie, L. G., & Parlakian, R. (2006). Preventing child abuse and neglect. Zero to Three: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families.

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective (6th ed.). Pearson.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.). Strategic direction for child maltreatment prevention: Preventing child maltreatment through the promotion of safe, stable, and nurturing relationships between children and caregivers.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. (2020). Child maltreatment.

ZERO TO THREE: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. (n.d.). Child abuse and neglect.