Children need adults to teach, guide, and support them as they grow and learn. Child care providers play an important role in guiding children's behavior in positive, supportive, and age-appropriate ways. The most appropriate ways to guide behavior are different at different ages, depending on their developmental abilities and needs. For example, two-year-olds have limited understanding and need a lot of redirection, but five-year-olds can learn to be good problem solvers. Effective guidance strategies also depend on the individual child's personality. Strategies that work well for one child may not be effective for another child of the same age.
Common Strategies for Guiding Children's Behavior in Child Care Settings
Here are some basic tips child care providers can use to guide children's behavior. Remember that different strategies work best at different ages.
Keep rules simple and easy to understand. Discuss rules with children and write them down. Consider children’s suggestions for rules. Repeat the rules often. A few rules that work well with children include:
- Help each other.
- Take care of our toys.
- Say please and thank you.
- Be kind to each other.
Say what you mean. Use "do" instead of "don't" whenever possible. Choose your words carefully, especially when you are guiding children's behavior. Keep sentences short and simple. Focus on what to do rather than what not to do.
- Try saying, "Slow down and walk" instead of "stop running."
- Try saying, "Come hold my hand" instead of "don’t touch anything."
- Try saying, "Keep your feet on the floor" instead of "don’t climb on the table."
- Try saying, "Use a quiet voice inside" instead of "stop shouting."
Talk with children – not “at” them. Children often don’t pay attention when you are talking (or shouting) “at” them. Guidance is much more effective when you talk to children at their eye level. Look them in the eyes, touch them on the shoulder, and talk with them. Resist the urge to simply lecture. Instead, give children time to respond, and listen genuinely to their points of view.
Set a good example. Children watch you all the time. They see how you talk to other children and adults. They see how you cope with anger or frustration. They watch how you deal with sadness and joy. They listen to how you say “I’m sorry.” The way you handle the ups and downs of life teaches children a lot about how to behave and get along with others.
Encourage children to set good examples for each other. Children also learn a great deal from each other. Encourage appropriate ways to share, play, and be kind to each other.
Give clear, simple choices. Toddlers can choose between a red cup and a green cup. Preschoolers can choose between playing “airport” and “zookeeper.” Give children a choice only when there is a choice. For example, saying “It is nap time, do you want to lie down now?” is not really an option if your rule is that everyone will rest at nap time.
Show respect for children. Talk to children about misbehavior in private, rather than in front of others. Remind them of reasons for rules, and discuss what they can do differently.
Catch children being good. All children want attention. It is better to give them positive attention for good behavior than negative attention for misbehavior. Comment on something positive about each child, each day. Better yet, strive for several times a day. And share the good news. When children have done something positive, mention it to other children and to parents.
Encourage like a good coach instead of a cheerleader. A cheerleader just shouts general praise: “What a great job!” or “What a beautiful picture.” A good coach tells you what you’re doing right, uses praise as a teaching tool, and lets you know why he or she is proud of you. If a child sets the table, you might say, “You did such a good job setting the table! You put the spoons and forks in the right place and remembered the napkins!” When you look at a child’s painting, you might remark, “This painting just glows with color. You used blue, green, red, yellow, and orange. Tell me how you did this!” To learn more about the difference between praise and encouragement, see Encouragement Is More Effective Than Praise in Guiding Children's Behavior.
Use play activities to teach social skills. Become a character in children’s pretend play and show children how to use good manners and be kind. Read children’s books that show how children resolve problems. Play “what if” games.Encourage children to act out ways to work together.
Teach children how to apologize. Learning how to apologize is a skill. Young children have a hard time understanding another child’s feelings, but by the time they are 4 years old they should begin to recognize that apologizing is a good way to make up for hurting someone else. Keep it simple (e.g., "Lucas, I'm sorry I hit you.") With time and practice, children will not have to be prompted, and their apology will be more genuine. Teach preschoolers and school-age children the four basic steps of apologizing:
- Look at the other child
- Say the child’s name
- Say “I’m sorry”
- Say why
Teach children how to correct their misbehavior. If a child throws food onto the floor give him a broom and show him how to clean it up. If a child draws on the wall, give her a wet cloth to clean the wall. Even if the child cannot successfully clean up the entire mess alone, participating in clean-up teaches him that his actions have consequences. Over time, experiencing consequences helps children learn self-control.
For More Information
To learn more about guiding young children's behavior, check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles: