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Promoting Guidance Through Interactions

Interactions are a simple yet effective way of building a positive approach to guidance in your program. This lesson will stress the importance of positive interactions and will describe effective responses to challenging behavior. It will also provide information on working with families around supporting their child’s behavior.

  • Distinguish between positive directions and negative directions.
  • Describe the role of positive feedback in guiding behavior.
  • Distinguish between effective and ineffective responses to challenging behavior.
  • Describe your role in behavior support planning.
  • Observe and provide feedback on staff members’ responses to positive and challenging behaviors.



Imagine you have joined a new fitness class at the gym for the first time. Consider these two different instructors:

  • Instructor 1 stands at the front of the room and yells general statements like “Don’t drag those feet!” or “Too slow!” She says vaguely insulting things like, “It looks like you guys have been spending too much time behind a desk” or “Now’s the time you pay for all that time you took off from the gym.” When someone stops to get a drink of water, she makes a comment about people wasting time.
  • Instructor 2 moves around the room and gently says “Lift your knees like this” and models the move next to you. She shouts out encouragement like “10 more seconds to go. You’ve got this!” or “You all have been working hard tonight!” When someone stops to get a drink, she says, “Everyone please take care of your needs whenever you need to. We’re going to switch intervals in 30 seconds, so we’ll all take a quick water break then, too.”

What impact would each instructor have on you and your motivation to participate?

Interactions matter. Words set the tone for the experiences we have throughout the day. This also is true in child development and school-age programs. The language staff members use and the interactions they have with children, families, one another, and you make a big difference in the quality of your program. 

This lesson will focus on key interaction types and help you identify strategies to support staff members in fostering positive interactions.

Interactions Between Children

You have an opportunity to help children build strong friendships. You can learn more about this in the Social and Emotional Development course. Interactions that most adults associate with child guidance, though, are conflicts. Disagreements and conflicts are common between children from toddlerhood through adolescence. How adults intervene during these times of stress can directly impact the way the situation unfolds. Adults may try to help by playing too active of a role. Instead of allowing children to resolve the disagreement on their own, adults may push children to reach an agreement too quickly, perhaps because of time constraints. Though it may take more time, teaching children to resolve conflicts on their own is an important part of positive guidance. There are two strategies for facilitating conflict resolution that we will describe below: the “five-finger formula” and group meetings.

Dan Gartrell, in Education for a Civil Society, recommends teaching children the five-finger formula for social problem solving. This method involves assigning a definition or purpose to each finger. Once children are taught this technique, they can use their own bodies to calm themselves down during times of disagreement. The five steps are:

  1. Cool down (thumb)
  2. Identify the problem (pointer)
  3. Brainstorm solutions (tall guy)
  4. Go for it (ringer)
  5. Follow-up (pinky)

Alternatively, you could work with staff to use this similar problem-solving process from the National Center on Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI). Watch this example from NCPMI, of children using a problem-solving approach in the moment:

Often, problems involve more than one child. In these instances, group meetings can be an effective strategy. For preschoolers, this may look like circle time with an adult primarily facilitating the meeting. For older children, the adult should take a more passive role and let the children facilitate the meeting. In some school-age programs, a “peace table” is used as a designated space to help provide a setting and structure for problem-solving.

Interactions Between Adults

The way adults interact with one another plays an important role in how the children in your program interact with peers and adults. Many of children’s behaviors are the direct result of behaviors they have seen in adults. As an adult, you have great power to positively or negatively influence children. When adults model caring behaviors coupled with reminders about people’s feelings, children learn to think about the impact of their words.

Adults can model acceptance of others by demonstrating kindness towards others. Build a climate in your program where staff take an interest in one another: ask questions, join hobbies together, talk about current events in your community. These relationships will help your teams remain resilient through conflict or disagreements.

It is common to experience disagreements and misunderstandings when working with others. You can work with adults to take a preventive approach: help staff members get to know one another and talk about potential disagreements before they become conflicts. For example, spend time with staff discussing common work style surveys such as this one:

When there are conflicts between adults in the classroom, use this as an opportunity to teach. The effects of indirect conflict, such as negative verbal tones or facial expressions, can be damaging to the work environment and the children within the program. Everyday disagreements should be handled positively in the presence of children so they can see the full cycle of how problems are properly resolved. Teach adults to use “I statements” such as, “I felt ignored when you did a different activity than we’d planned” or “I didn’t know what to do when the schedule changed. Could we make a plan for next time?”

The message to children should be: Disagreements are bound to happen and can be resolved through communication. By taking this approach, you are relaying the message, “I want to work this out because I care about you, and we both care about the children.” Adults who know themselves and are comfortable with the expression of emotions are less likely to bottle up their feelings or express them inappropriately. Children who witness adults remaining in control as they openly display and accept their feelings are more likely to model the same behaviors themselves. You can model or role play these behaviors with staff members during daily interactions, staff meetings, and program events.

Interactions Between Children and Adults

The ways adults in your program interact with children can determine whether the climate is one of compliance or guidance. Programs that focus on positive guidance encourage children to solve problems independently. Children are taught that new challenges are to be embraced rather than feared. Adults should help facilitate, not determine the decisions children make. They should guide children toward more complex thinking and encourage children to consider the problem from multiple perspectives before determining a course of action. 

If they listen carefully, staff members will learn a great amount about children and the ways they think and feel (Hearron & Hildebrande, 2013). It is the responsibility of adults who regularly interact with children to work toward genuinely understanding them better. Adults should take the time to understand each child’s behavior. They should also make a point of understanding themselves and how they respond to behaviors. For example, are there behaviors that seem to always frustrate a certain staff member (e.g., one staff member gets upset when children don’t clean up after themselves; another gets upset about spitting)? Staff members who are aware of the behaviors and characteristics which evoke negative internal responses within themselves are better prepared to respond to a child’s particular needs. It may be necessary at times to help staff members recognize when they need help or a break. Time away from a stressful situation can provide staff members with the necessary time to reflect and recharge. Knowing personal limits will also preserve relationships, which will set the stage for future instances of positive guidance. 

Interactions Between Staff and Families

Positive guidance that extends beyond the walls of your program and into the homes of the families you serve helps to strengthen relationships between staff and families. Ongoing communication with families can keep parents and guardians informed of behaviors that occur during the day. Having family support can help reinforce skills that are taught in your program. Methods of communication can be tailored to meet the needs of each family. Some families may prefer daily communication, while others may prefer weekly or biweekly communication. Communication methods can include written notes, emails, phone calls, newsletters, and individual conferences. Each family has its own culture and unique approaches to behavior and guidance. You must help staff members understand and respect these approaches even if they are different from your own. You can also help managers appreciate and understand family differences. That does not mean, however, that you must endorse inappropriate responses to behavior; you have an important role to model positive approaches for families.

Guiding Behavior Through Interactions: Specific Strategies

As you learned in the last lesson, relationships are the foundation of guidance. Relationships are formed through the many simple interactions that happen each day. This section will explain two key strategies that promote positive behavior in children: providing positive directions and providing positive feedback.

Distinguishing Between Positive and Negative Directions

When a child engages in potentially unsafe or inappropriate behavior, the first instinct of many adults is to tell the child to stop. After all, the adult may not care what the child decides to do next—the child just needs to stop what he is doing right now. It’s simply easier to ask the child to stop that one behavior than to think of the many other options the child has! Using directions like “No,” “Stop,” or “Don’t,” however, are not effective in the long term, and may not be effective in the short term—think about how you might respond if someone told you to stop doing something you liked. Providing positive directions that help the child know what to do is much more effective at preventing challenging behavior.

What you hear:What you might encourage a staff member to say instead:
Don’t run in here.Walk in the hallways please.
Stop teasing Brynn.Be respectful.
No biting!You can bite a teether.
Quit whining.Please use a calm voice.
Don’t get upset.Take a deep breath.

Helping Staff Provide Feedback on Behavior

As you might have noticed in the opening vignette about a fitness instructor, one of the instructors was more skilled at providing feedback than the other. It is helpful for adults and children to receive specific information about their behavior or performance. When someone does well, it is helpful to offer information about what exactly went well. When someone performs poorly, it is helpful to suggest specific areas for improvement. This is true for children’s behavior, as well. You can help staff members provide specific feedback to children. Cases of positive feedback should outnumber negative or corrective feedback. Educational researchers recommend a ratio of five positives to every one negative comment or correction (Walker, Ramsey, & Gresham, 2004). In other fields, experts recommend that the most effective business leaders use a ratio of six positives to every one negative comment (Zenger & Folkman, 2013).

Examples of non-specific feedback:What you might encourage staff members to say instead:
Good job.You worked hard on building that structure.
That’s not right.Can you try it a different way? Let’s look at this other homework problem you got right.
I like your drawing.You used red, blue, green, and purple. It’s so colorful!
You’re so smart.You stuck with that problem and figured it out.
I like the way you’re listening.Joni has her eyes on me and her hands in her lap.

Notice in the examples above, there is also an emphasis on describing what the child is doing and on their efforts, rather than ability (e.g., being smart). Messages like these help children persist in challenging tasks or situations and help children derive internal satisfaction from their work or good deeds, rather than continually seeking outside approval.

Responding to Behavior That Challenges

Despite a program’s use of prevention strategies, there will still be some children who engage in challenging behavior. You must be prepared to help staff members respond appropriately when this happens. This section will present these strategies: redirection and behavior-support planning.


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

For very young infants, the most common concern staff members experience is an infant’s crying. As discussed in the Communication course, you should teach staff members that crying is communication—not challenging behavior. The most important thing staff members can do is to provide consistent and nurturing care. Staff members must provide a predictable environment that meets the infant’s needs for comfort, safety, food, and rest. Teach staff members to respond to the baby’s cues that she is hungry, tired, bored, or in need of a diaper change. Always help staff members think about each child’s behavior in context of the relationship they have with the child: is she teething, new to the program, or in some kind of distress?

For mobile infants and toddlers, staff members teach the foundations of self-control by helping children learn to explore safely and begin soothing themselves. To keep the child and others safe, there may be times when staff members need to 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), you should help staff members focus on redirecting the baby’s attention: Set limits clearly and firmly, but do not get angry. For example, you might teach a staff member to say, “That hurts Bryson’s head. Let’s pull on this squishy ball.” The staff member 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. Teach staff to 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.
  • Ensure staff members respond to the infant’s needs. Remind them crying is a form of communication. Staff members should respond quickly when an infant is hungry, tired, hurt, or uncomfortable.

For preschoolers and school-age children, redirection means providing acceptable alternatives to problematic behaviors. Consider these examples:

What you might hear:What you might encourage a staff member to say instead:
Stop hitting

Preschool: Use gentle hands like this.

School-age: You can hit a pillow or hit a tennis ball if you need to vent.

Stop splashing water out of the water table.Please keep the water in the table.
Don’t yell.Use an inside voice please.
Quit fighting.How can you solve this problem?
Don’t talk over me.Listen please.

When a staff member notices frequent challenging behavior, help the staff member recognize their own role in that behavior. Frequent behavior is likely a sign that some change needs to be made. Encourage the staff member to consider the following redirection strategies:

  • If children become disengaged during group time, make the group time shorter than planned and switch to a more active, child-directed activity. Observe group times regularly and help staff members become aware of how different elements of group time affect child behavior. For example, do children begin to grow restless after 15 minutes of sitting? Is it hard to get the children’s attention again after a fast-paced dance session?
  • Help bored children find something interesting to do. Help staff members notice when challenging behavior is likely to occur and take preventive steps. If a child is wandering around with nothing to do, point it out to a staff member and help them offer the child suggestions (“The art area is open, Braden. Would you like to paint?”)

Behavior-Support Planning

It is beyond the scope of this lesson and course to teach you everything you need to know about positive behavior support planning. However, there are also excellent resources available to help you do this important work. For early childhood programs, you can explore the resources available through the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI) that can be found in the Apply section. If you will be responsible for facilitating behavior support plans, take some time now to learn about your role by visiting:

Here is a brief summary of what you will learn:

  • Behavior support is a team-based process. You may be responsible for convening a team of family members, teachers, administrators, and specialists. If the child is school-age, they may be involved as well.
  • Behavior support is person-centered. This involves bringing the team together to clarify a vision for the child.
  • Behavior support is focused on understanding the function (or purpose) of the behavior. All behavior communicates a message. The behavior support process helps you understand that message.
  • The team develops a hypothesis, or “best guess”, about why behavior is occurring.
  • The team develops a comprehensive plan that includes prevention strategies, new skills to teach the child, and new ways to respond to behaviors.
  • The team monitors outcomes.

Watch this video to see how a Training & Curriculum Specialist begins the positive behavior support planning process with a team.

Positive Behavior Support Planning

Listen as a T&CS begins the behavior support planning process.

More detailed information that describes your role in developing and implementing behavior support plans with staff can be found in Lesson Five of the Focused Topics course, Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviors

Involving Families

All staff, regardless of age group or position, should have an understanding of how to facilitate meetings with a family when there is a concern about a child’s behavior. There are several things to keep in mind to help yourself and staff members facilitate these meetings (adapted from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning):

  • Begin the discussion by expressing concern for the child.
  • Let the family know that your goal is to help the child.
  • Ask the family members if they have experienced similar situations and if they are concerned.
  • Tell the family members that you want to work with them to help the child develop appropriate behavior and social skills.
  • Tell the family members about what is happening in the classroom or program but only after they understand that you are concerned about the child, not blaming the family.
  • Listen to the family’s perspectives about the program, the child’s learning, and life at home.
  • Offer to work with the family members in the development of a behavior support plan that can be used at home and in the classroom.
  • Emphasize that your focus will be to help the child develop the skills needed to be successful in the classroom or program.
  • Stress that if you can work together, you are more likely to be successful in helping the child learn new skills.

When referring a family to an outside agency or other resource, it is important to have the correct information about the agency’s purpose and services. It is helpful if you have a personal contact at the agency so there is a name the parent can use when they initiate contact. For some families, it may be helpful to offer to go with them if they are unsure about how to approach an agency.

In your outreach to families, you can maintain a parent resource list that includes installation and community agencies. This list should be available in the family corner on the program’s website. You can also provide examples of parent resources about behavior in the program newsletter. The families are an integral part of your program’s community. You and your staff are collaborators with them in their most important task—raising their children. As you build relationships with parents, the children will know that the adults in their lives are working as a team to provide them with loving care. 

When there is reason to think that an individualized behavior support plan is necessary for a child, families should be involved from the very beginning. Families should participate in observations of the child, share their perspectives on concerns across home and the program, participate in developing a hypothesis about the child’s behavior, contribute strategies to the plan, and be involved in implementing and evaluating the plan. NCPMI provides numerous resources to help you involve families in every step of the behavior-support planning process. 


  • Be mindful of how you talk to staff members. Be sure to phrase directions positively and to offer choices whenever possible. Be respectful and help staff members know what to do (instead of what not to do). Adults and children all respond best to positive statements.
  • Encourage staff members’ successes and provide plenty of feedback on their efforts. Interactions can be difficult for staff members to reflect upon; often, interactions feel like unchangeable features of a personality or situation. Many staff members find it easier to reflect upon activities or events. You can model for staff members how to reflect on interactions by providing feedback on the interactions you observe. When you see an adult nurturing a young child, comment on it and recognize that staff member’s important work with children. When a school-age staff member has a deep conversation with a pre-teen, let that staff member know that you appreciate the way they are connecting with children. Describe what you saw or heard and the impact it had on the child or the program. You might say something like:

    “I could see Titus really opening up to you today. You have been really patient with him, and it is paying off. When you asked him about soccer, I could see his eyes light up. When you made the connection between sports and how you handle anger, he just really seemed to get it.”

  • Facilitate behavior-support plans. Provide staff members with the support and resources they need to plan, design, implement, and evaluate a successful behavior support plan. No staff member should be expected to go through this process alone. It can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned staff member. Guide staff members through every step of the planning process, and model a stance of inquiry:

    “What can we do to help this child learn the skills she needs to be successful in our program, at home, and in the community?”


As you watch the following video, reflect on the feedback that you would offer the staff member in this video. What guidance strategies were used by the staff member? What are the staff member’s strengths when it comes to guidance? What guidance strategies could be strengthened? What where the children communicating through their actions?

Positive Interactions with Children

Examine how this interaction is guiding behavior.

Watch this video of staff members interacting with a family member. Reflect on the feedback that you would offer to the staff members in this video? What impact does each kind of interaction have on family engagement in the program and children’s behaviors?

Positive Interactions with Families

Examine this interaction between staff members and a family member.



How do interactions between children, adults, and families occur in your program? In the Reflection- Interactions Between Children, Adults, and Families activity, write down your initial thoughts and ways to improve upon interactions. Share your thoughts with other program leaders and see if you can generate additional strategies for improving practices.


The Backpack Connection Series was created by TACSEI (Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children, which has since merged with NCPMI) to provide a way for staff and family members to work together to help young children develop social emotional skills and to reduce challenging behavior. Use the Backpack Connection Resource attachment to learn more about the series and how you can use it with the children, youth, and families you serve.


Behavior-Support Plan:
An individualized plan that focuses on understanding the meaning (or function) of a child’s behavior; it includes strategies for preventing the behavior, teaching new skills, and responding to challenging behavior
Peace table:
A spot in school-age programs where children can engage in social problem-solving and conflict resolution
A strategy to focus a child’s attention on appropriate behaviors or interactions
Replacement skill or replacement behavior:
A skill or behavior that is taught to be used in place of challenging behavior; for example, if a child hits to get a friend’s attention, a replacement behavior might be to teach the child to tap her friend’s shoulder


True or False? Adults should take an active role in resolving conflicts quickly between children.
Which of the following is an appropriate strategy to use with children?
Four-year-old Ari has been having tantrums every day at rest time. Which of the following is an example of positive feedback that you can give staff members?
References & Resources

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

Cultivate Learning (n.d.). Circle time magazine big kids edition: Episode 2 social emotional learning.

Dombro, A.L., Jablon, J. & Stetson, C. (2020). Powerful interactions: How to connect with children to extend their learning. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Derman-Sparks, L., & J Edwards. J.O., & Goins, C.M. (2020). Anti-Bias education for young children and ourselves.2nd ed. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

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

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.

Hemmeter, M.L., Ostrosky, M., & Fox, L. (2021). Unpacking the pyramid model: A practical guide for preschool teachers. Brookes Publishing.

National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations. (2023). Talking with families about challenging behavior do’s and don’ts.

Gartrell, D. (2006). Guidance Matters. Young Children 61,(2), 88-89.

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

Walker, H., Ramsey, E., & Gresham, F. (2004). Antisocial behavior in schools: Evidence-based practices (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2013). The Ideal Praise to Criticism Ratio. Harvard Business Review. Accessible from