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Guidance Across Age Groups

All staff members will encounter behavior that challenges them from one time to another. Your role is to prepare staff members to understand the typical behaviors they might encounter and to help them know how to respond positively. This lesson will introduce you to behaviors that are typical of children at different stages. It will also help you observe and provide feedback on staff members’ approaches to guidance for children of different ages.


  • Describe behaviors that are typical for children at different ages.
  • Observe and provide feedback on staff members’ understanding of development and approaches to guidance.



Children’s behavior and adults’ response is a common theme in popular culture: angry or witless school principals, drill sergeant-like teachers, clueless parents, and “problem children” are the stuff of many popular shows and movies. Many give extreme portrayals: adults appear either powerless or power-hungry. Children are portrayed as conniving aggressors or bystanders. In all cases, there is a mismatch between the circumstances and an adult’s response. In some of these cases, as in real life, at the root of this mismatch is unrealistic expectations for children’s behavior. Your job is to help staff members develop their knowledge of child development and to use guidance strategies that match a child’s development.

New staff members may have limited knowledge about what behaviors and levels of guidance are acceptable at different developmental stages. Adults who possess good judgment, are well prepared, have the ability to relate to all children, empathize with them, and care for them can be expected to foster the development of these same abilities in children, according to Fields, Meritt, Fields, and Perry’s Constructive Guidance and Discipline (2014). It is important to recognize that guidance is not something that adults do to children. Instead, guidance is a partnership that adults partake with children. When adults have appropriate expectations for children, children are less likely to feel frustrated and act out. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) refers to this as developmentally appropriate practice. According to the NAEYC’s 2009 position statement, a practice is considered developmentally appropriate if practitioners make intentional decisions toward creating goals that are both challenging and achievable for children. NAEYC suggests that early child care workers have an understanding of:

  1. Child development and learning, including age-related characteristics
  2. Each child as an individual
  3. The values, expectations, behavioral, and language conventions that shape children’s lives at home and in their communities

It is important to remember that children are developmentally different from adults. Children’s limited reasoning ability combined with their limited experience can bring them to conclusions inconsistent with adult logic, according to Fields, Meritt, Fields and Perry. Oftentimes, children may not realize they have done anything wrong. Or the behaviors considered inappropriate by adults, may actually be typical behavior for a young child. For example, a toddler might briefly run away from an adult on the playground, or a school-ager might roll his eyes to impress his friends when a staff member gives a direction. For these reasons, it is helpful to always assume best intent with children.

According to Fields, Meritt, Fields, and Perry, children cannot think about what they haven’t experienced. This means they cannot predict what might happen if they do something dangerous. They also struggle with the question, “How would you feel if he did that to you?” We cannot force a child to think in more complex ways than what is developmentally possible, but we can aim for just a little bit more maturity than the child currently exhibits to encourage further development.

A guidance approach to misbehavior 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 misbehavior. 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.

What Behaviors are Typical for Each Age Group?

Just as with all areas of development, there are certain behaviors that are typical as children progress through developmental stages. These behaviors often challenge adults, but they are to be expected. Consider the examples in the table below and begin thinking about how you can prepare staff members to respond appropriately to these behaviors:

Age Group

Behaviors that are developmentally appropriate (or expected) but may challenge adults

Pre-mobile infants

  • Crying

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”
  • High levels of activity; rarely sit still
  • Insisting on doing things independently (“I can do it by myself”)
  • Whining or crying


  • Fears and vivid imaginations (fear of the dark, fear of monsters, etc.)
  • Excluding others from play
  • 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


For very young infants who are not yet mobile, the most important thing staff can do is to provide consistent care and nurturing. They must provide a predictable environment that meets the infant’s needs for comfort, safety, food, and rest. Remember that crying is a form of communication. Staff members must respond to the baby’s cues that she or he is hungry, tired, bored, or in need of a diaper change. Remind staff members to always think about each child’s behavior in context of the relationships they have with the child:

  • Is the infant new to the program or the room? If so, the infant may be experiencing separation anxiety from loved ones. Infants need a consistent, nurturing adult to help them feel secure.
  • Does the infant cry a lot, or is crying unusual? All babies cry, but some cry more than others. Look for signs that the baby is uncomfortable. Help staff members know how to soothe the baby by holding her, rocking her, walking her, singing songs, and providing soothers like a pacifier. They may also try burping the baby.
  • Is the infant tired or teething? Talk to family members to gain insight into a baby’s moods and behavior.

The key to guidance is trying to understand the infant and what he or she is communicating through behavior. There is rarely a reason to tell a non-mobile infant “No.” As staff members focus on meeting each infant’s needs, they 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. Staff members help mobile infants learn the foundation of self-control by helping them learn to explore safely and begin soothing themselves. To keep the baby or others safe, there may be times when staff members must help the baby stop a certain behavior. Perhaps the baby is pulling someone’s hair or trying to wiggle out of the stroller safety harness. According to Zero to Three (2009), staff members should focus on redirecting the baby’s attention: Set limits clearly and firmly, but do not get angry. For example, when a mobile infant pulls another child’s hair, a staff members might say, “That hurts Bryson’s head. Let’s pull on this squishy ball.” They might distract the child who is trying to escape the stroller by pointing out an interesting animal, offering him something to hold, or singing a song together. Mobile infants respond well to guidance techniques that:

  • Help them know what to do rather than what not to do. Staff members use positive language like, “Come to the climber” instead of “Stop climbing the book shelf.”
  • 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. Staff members must 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.

Children from Toddlerhood through School-Age

There are several guidance principles that work consistently once children reach toddlerhood and progress into the school-age years. Although staff members must learn the nuances, such as developmentally appropriate language and interactions, of working with children in each age group, the basic principles of guidance remain constant for toddlers and school-age children.

All of the principles listed below work best in the context of strong relationships with each child. These techniques are adapted from the Massachusetts School-Age Coalition and expand on early childhood work by Patricia Hearron and Verna Hildebrand (2013). Be sure to teach and enforce the following techniques in your program (you will learn more about these techniques in the next two lessons):

Appropriate expectations for children’s behavior: Rules, expectations, and guidelines help create a positive social climate in your program. All of the staff and managers in your program might work together to develop the expectations. Staff members might also involve children in developing rules and expectations. Limit the rules or expectations to a few key ideas that apply broadly. It is easiest to remember a few rules like, “Respect each other” or “Be a responsible citizen.”

Managing space, time, and energy: Adults arrange and rearrange the physical space and the schedule to meet children’s needs. An example is moving furniture to eliminate a large open space that children used for running. Another example is providing many activity choices, so wait time is minimized or used productively. Teach staff to first consider their environments (physical space and time) when a child displays challenging behavior. Help staff members see the way the organization of space or time influences the decisions children make.

Experiences that engage the whole child: Curricula, or programming, is the foundation of everything you do in your program. If children are bored, over-stimulated, or disinterested, they will engage in challenging behavior. Busy learners don’t have time for challenging behavior! Teach staff members how to use your curriculum or programming and observe regularly to ensure they are using materials effectively.

Maximizing our relationships: Guidance is based on relationships. Strategies develop as you and staff members observe, listen to, and get to know the children. Strong relationships are based on finding and recognizing the positive attributes of every child. Make sure staff members spend “neutral” time with children, just listening, playing, and enjoying time together.

Expressing feelings: Adults who help children express their feelings nurture empathy. A staff member might say, “I can tell you’re sad about what just happened between you and Terese. Would you like me to help you talk to Terese about it?” Adults must also be genuine and express their own feelings. A staff member might say, “I’m feeling a little bit frustrated that I can’t get this computer program to work. I’m going to go find someone who can help us.” You might say to a staff member, “I’m really disappointed that we didn’t get the new playground equipment. We’ll try again next time.”

Notice and recognize positive behaviors: An important aspect of positive guidance is encouragement. Staff members should notice and describe accomplishments and positive behaviors. A staff member might say, “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.” Teach staff how to stop and notice the positive behaviors that happen each day. Provide positive feedback to staff members when you observe them encouraging children.

Provide short, clear directions: Staff members use a natural tone of voice and make eye contact. They check in to make sure children understood. Teach staff members to tell children what to do instead of what not to do.

Provide choices: Whenever possible, staff members offer children a choice. This promotes independence and self-regulation. It also minimizes challenging behavior. Any time staff members have to say “no,” you might suggest they offer two acceptable choices to children. For example, they might say, “You cannot run in here. But you can go to Zumba in the gym, or you can join Ms. Stephanie outside.”

Redirect children to appropriate behaviors: When a challenging behavior occurs, adults must know how to redirect children’s behaviors to get them 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 scissors in the sewing area” or “Walk in the hall.”

Facilitate social problem-solving: Staff members help children know what to do when they have a problem. They help children learn to recognize their problem, come up with solutions, make a decision, and try it out. Teach staff members about the resources available to help them with this work. This strategy will be expanded upon in Lesson 3.

Prevent Inappropriate Responses to 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, children and their families learn that aggressive responses to behavior are OK. That is not the message we want to send children and families. You must make sure staff members know that the following practices have no place in child development and school-age programs:

  • Corporal punishment : Staff 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: Staff 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: Staff 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: Staff 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, such as a closet, restroom, or cardboard box.
  • Binding or restricting a child’s movements: Staff may not punish a child by preventing him or her from being able to move or speak (i.e., covering a child’s mouth or hands with tape).

These practices are not in line with the ethical code of conduct established by the NAEYC (see 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


Model a positive approach to behavior in all your interactions with children and staff. Be intentional in the ways you talk to children, families, and staff:

  • State directions in the positive (what to do instead of what not to do). Model this behavior with everyone you see. This makes a big difference in the overall climate of your program. When you see children moving too quickly in the hallway, say, “Walk safely please” instead of “Stop running.” Imagine telling a staff member, “Don’t turn in your lesson plan late again.” This sends the message to the staff member that you think they might turn the plan in late. Send positive messages by saying, “Remember your plans are due tomorrow.” This also opens an opportunity to ask if the staff member needs any support.
  • Recognize staff for their efforts and achievements. Provide positive feedback individually (“You did so much research on rocks for this week’s investigation. It really paid off in the classroom when the kids started brainstorming what they wanted to learn.”). Consider ways to motivate staff members through recognition bulletin boards or newsletters.
  • Follow and talk about the rules or expectations set by your program. If you don’t talk about the expectations, it is unlikely others will. It might feel silly at first to thank the kitchen team for being “responsible” or “safe,” but this provides an important model for staff members.
  • Offer staff choices whenever possible. Whenever you can, provide choices about classroom assignments, scheduling, classroom materials, and planning. Also consider whether there are different ways staff can get feedback: do they want you to send them an email about their weekly plans, or do they want to talk in person?
  • Coach staff around their interactions with children. Observe all the strategies described in the Teach section. Help staff members notice the details of their interactions, and describe the effect their behavior had on children.


You must spend time in classrooms and programs observing how staff members interact with children. Watch the following videos and think about how you would support each staff member.

Observing Staff Members’ Expectations for Behavior

Watch staff members with different approaches to guidance

Guiding Children's Behavior: Infants & Toddlers

Watch staff members with different approaches to guidance

Guiding Children's Behavior: Preschool

Watch staff members with different approaches to guidance

Now watch as training and curriculum specialists discuss expectations for children’s behavior.

Realistic Expectations: Training & Curriculum Specialist’s Role

Listen as T&Cs discuss realistic expectations for behavior

To learn more about guidance strategies, follow the link to an article from the National Association for the Education of Young Children:


Watch the following video about helping staff members guide children’s behaviors and think about how the staff member is interacting with children in regard to behavior. This activity will help you practice observing staff members’ expectations for behavior.

Helping Staff Members Guide Children’s Behavior

Watch the video and complete the Explore activity


Just as with all areas of development, there are certain behaviors that are typical as children progress through developmental stages. Although these behaviors often challenge adults, they are to be expected. The Typical Behaviors handout features a table which provides examples of the types of behaviors staff members may encounter with each age group. Share this information with staff members to help them prepare for their work with children.


Developmentally appropriate practice:
An approach to teaching grounded in the research on how young children develop and learn and in what is known about effective early education practices. These practices should be flexible to allow for differences between children in skills, interests, and characteristics
Mistaken behavior:
An intentional or unintentional action that causes a conflict or makes it harder to resolve a conflict
The National Association for the Education of Young Children


You hear a staff member say, “Don’t put your mouth on the mirror,” to an eight-month-old infant. How do you respond?
True or False? Unrealistic adult expectations can contribute to children’s challenging behavior.
Which of the following are inappropriate responses to challenging behavior?
References & Resources

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

Brown, W. H., Odom, S. L., & McConnell, S. R. (Eds.). (2008). Social Competence of Young Children: Risk, Disability, & Intervention. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Council on Accreditation. (2019). Standards for Child and Youth Development (CYD) Programs. Promoting Positive Behavior and Healthy Peer Relationships. Retrieved from

Dunlap, G., & Powell, D. (2009). Promoting Social Behavior of Young Children in Group Settings: A Summary of Research. Roadmap to Effective Intervention Practices #3. Tampa, Florida: University of South Florida, Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children.

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.

Hearron, P. F., & Hildebrand, V. (2013). Guiding Young Children. Pearson Higher Ed.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2012). Teachers’ Lounge: Determining if behavior is bullying. Teaching Young Children, 5(5), 34.

Sandall, S. R., & Schwartz, I. S. (2002). Helping Children with Challenging Behaviors Succeed in the Classroom. Excerpt from S.R. Sandall & I.S. Schwartz with G.E. Joseph, H.-Y. Chou, E.M. Horn, J. Lieber, S.L. Odom, & R. Wolery, Building Blocks for Teaching Preschoolers with Special Needs (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes, 2002), 49–50.

Sandall, S., Hemmeter, M., Smith, B., & McLean, M. (Eds.) (2005). DEC Recommended Practices: A Comprehensive Guide for Practical Application. Longmont, CO: Sopris West Publishing.

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