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Guidance: An Introduction

Guiding children’s behavior is an important part of the work that happens in your programs. Positive child guidance helps promote the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children across the age span. This lesson will define positive guidance, describe why it is important in your program, and discuss the role of culture and experiences on adults’ understandings of guidance. 

  • Define positive guidance.
  • Describe why positive guidance is important for your program.
  • Identify frameworks for positive guidance.


Take a minute, close your eyes, and think of an influential adult from your childhood. How did this person help guide you to make good choices? How did he or she express encouragement when you made a mistake? How did this make you feel overall? Contrast this with an adult who focused primarily on your misbehavior and mistakes. What did he or she say or do to express disapproval? How did this influence your behavior and feelings toward yourself, that particular adult, and adults in general?

The adults you work with have encountered a range of life experiences that have shaped and continue to define the individuals they are today. These experiences influence how they interact with and provide guidance to other adults and children. As a trainer or coach, it is your responsibility to make sure all staff members understand how to positively influence the behavior of children through appropriate and positive guidance. Watch this video for an introduction to guidance.

Guidance: Training & Curriculum Specialist’s Role

Learn about your role in guiding behavior

Why Do Children Engage in Challenging Behavior?

There are many reasons why children might engage in behavior that adults find challenging. Sometimes the challenging behavior is part of typical development. In all cases, a child’s behavior communicates a message. It is up to adults to learn the child’s “code” and interpret the message. Here are some messages a child’s behavior might send:

  • I need your attention, but I don’t know how to ask for it.
  • I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.
  • I need help.
  • I’m bored.
  • I’m lonely.
  • I don’t feel well.
  • I’m scared.
  • I’m tired.
  • I don’t want to do that, or I don’t like that.
  • I’m overwhelmed.

What is Guidance?

Guidance is the way staff members help children know what it means to be members of your community. It is how they help children learn the expectations for behavior in a variety of settings. It means helping children learn from their mistakes and make positive choices.

You must also teach staff members what guidance is not. Guidance is not punishment. It is not about control or making children fear adults. Guidance involves knowing children and creating the best physical and social environment in which they can learn; it is proactive rather than reactive.

A Life Skills Perspective: Understanding Proactive Approaches to Guidance

Positive guidance can help build important social, emotional, and life skills. The children in your program are the next generation of our country and it is important that children understand how to function civilly in a modern, diverse, and complex democratic society. Dan Gartrell, author of Education for a Civil Society, suggests the following five essential skills, which he calls democratic life skills:

  • Finding acceptance as a member of a group and as a worthy individual
  • Expressing strong emotions in non-hurting ways
  • Solving problems creatively—either independently or in cooperation with others
  • Accepting unique human qualities in others
  • Thinking intelligently and ethically

Applying the democratic life skills can help to ensure the long- and short-term decisions we make are moving us in the right direction. However, this can be challenging to remember when in the midst of a stressful situation involving a child or another adult. It is important to remember who owns the problem and what we can and cannot control. We have no control over the ways others choose to treat us. We do, however, have control over how we react to the actions of others.

A proactive response to challenging behavior relies on guidance to teach the child the skills he or she may be missing. According to Hearron & Hildebrand (2013), guidance can be defined as:

  • Words and actions that positively influence the behaviors of others
  • Establishing appropriate expectations and supporting others so that they do the right thing
  • Providing ample opportunities for practice and success
  • Remaining helpful and encouraging when mistakes occur
  • Understanding your own values while respecting the values of others

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The teacher practices positive teacher-child relations.

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

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

The teacher models how to resolve conflicts peaceably and encourages children to negotiate for themselves. The teacher works at managing and monitoring his or her own feelings and growth as a developing professional.

  1. The teacher builds partnerships with families.

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

  1. The teacher uses teamwork with adults.

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

Impact of Culture and Experience on Guidance

There are multiple factors that can influence how adults respond to a child’s behavior, including how the adults were raised, their personal values and beliefs, and their understanding of child development. Through careful examination of these factors, you can improve interactions between staff members and children. This will positively influence the social and emotional development of the children you serve. Consider a few examples of adult expectations of children that are culturally determined:

  • The age at which a child feeds or dresses herself or himself
  • The age at which a child uses the toilet independently
  • Whether and when a child sleeps independently
  • The amount and nature of eye contact between children and adults
  • Expectations for how adults and children talk to one another (e.g., acceptability of questioning adults, talking over one another, etc.)
  • The amount of time infants spend being held or swaddled
  • The age at which romantic relationships are acceptable for school-age children
  • The nature of interactions between males and females
  • The ways adults and children show affection (hugging, etc.)

A mismatch between a staff member’s expectations and a child’s behavior (or family’s priorities) can cause tension. You must help staff members understand the variability in behaviors that might be culturally determined. You can also help them reflect on the way their own upbringing influences their view of child guidance. For example, a staff member whose family members used corporal punishment may think physical responses are acceptable or desirable. A staff member who grew up in a strict home may view guidance very differently from a staff member who grew up in a home with few rules. A staff member’s own upbringing may influence the kinds of behaviors they tolerate. Consider these two different responses to the same situation:


Jeremy gets up and leaves a group activity without permission.


Carla's Response

Carla considers this disrespectful and a challenging behavior. She expects him to come back to the group activity and to stay until the activity is complete.

Sylvia's Response

Sylvia thinks Jeremy is expressing his independence and making a choice. She continues on with the group activity without acknowledging that Jeremy left the group.

Carla and Sylvia’s responses are not right or wrong; they are simply different representations of how culture and experiences have shaped their approaches to guiding behavior. Your role is to understand these differences and to help staff members respond in ways that are consistent with your program’s guidance philosophy.

Guidance as a Strengths-Based Approach

A program focusing on guidance will approach behaviors as opportunities to problem-solve and teach. In a strength-based program, staff members focus on self-direction, relationships, and self-actualization (Hearron & Hildebrand, 2013). Children are encouraged to assume responsibility for their behavior, care about and get along with others, and contribute to the group. A positive climate focuses on teamwork, cooperation, acceptance, and patience even when mistakes happen. When a team focuses on the positive traits of others, they are likely to see an increase in the occurrence of those positive behaviors.

What Does this Mean for You?

You provide the training and support for new staff members as they reflect on their own experiences, cultures, and understanding of guidance. You must be prepared to help staff members (a) reflect on their own experiences and assumptions and (b) use strategies that are consistent with your program’s guidance philosophy. To do so, you must be familiar with your program’s guidance statement and the forms of guidance that are acceptable and unacceptable in your program. You must provide training to staff members around these topics, observe in classrooms or programs, and provide support as staff members learn to use positive guidance approaches. Challenging behaviors are some of the most difficult issues staff members will address, so they need your support.

Completing this Course

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

To support the professional development of the direct care staff members or family child care providers you oversee, you can access their corresponding Course Guides:


Take a few moments to think about what guidance means to you. What experiences have shaped how you think about child guidance? Respond to the questions in the Defining Guidance Activity. Share your responses with a colleague or administrator. You can also complete this activity with staff members to start a conversation about guidance.


You can help staff members think about their own experiences and beliefs about child guidance. Read the Thinking about Guidance and Culture. You can use it as part of a meeting with new staff or as staff development. The tool can spark conversation or reflection. Ask staff members to rate how strongly they agree or disagree with each statement. Then use the guide on page 2 to help them process their responses.


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


True or False? Guidance is teaching children the expected behaviors and rules of your program.
Finish this statement: A reactive response to challenging behavior…
Which of the following are examples of behaviors that are determined by a child’s culture?
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2013). Child Development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning:

Denham, S. A., & Brown, C. (2010). Plays Nice With Others: Social-emotional learning and academic success. Early Education and Development, 21, 652-680.

Gartrell, D. (2004). The Power of Guidance. Clifton Park, NY: Delmar Learning.

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. (2012). Guiding Young Children. Columbus, OH: Pearson.

Marion, M. (2011). Guidance of Young Children. (8th ed.), Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Massachussetts School-Age Coalition (n.d.). School-Age Child Guidance Technical Assistance Paper. Dorchester, MA: MSAC. Retrieved from

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (2012). Early Childhood Generalist Standards for Teachers of Ages 3-8 (3rd ed.).

Sandall, S., Hemmeter, M. L., Smith, B. S., & McLean, M. (2005). DEC Recommended Practices: A comprehensive guide. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

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