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Supporting young children with challenging behaviours

Create a more harmonious early years setting with tips on managing challenging behaviour from expert guest author Niki Buchan. Find out what lies behind challenging behaviour patterns and how to inspire positive change.
Niki Buchan Challenging Behaviours

Children are capable and competent, but they can become easily overwhelmed while still developing social and emotional skills. This may be expressed by displaying challenging behaviours that tests even the most patient educator. When a child displays difficult behaviour, often the environment may not suit that child at that time and needs to be adapted. Here, Niki Buchan, author of But I Want to Be Good, shares how to help children be their best self.

What are challenging behaviours in early childhood?

Behaviour becomes challenging when it violates others’ rights and interferes with the child or others’ ability to participate in the program. Educators regularly express that children have changed in recent years, that they are seeing many more children needing behaviour guidance. Children being too active and boisterous, running away, not sitting still, not listening, over emotional, aggressive, destructive and violent. These, at times, lead to children being rejected from services or educators leaving the profession.

Looking after educator wellbeing

Educators want to be respected and valued as knowledgeable experts in their field. To be their best, high levels of wellbeing are needed. Safe, respectful working environments, manageable workload and support for educators contribute to a sense of wellbeing. Educators proactively need to manage stress in their lives. This might entail getting enough sleep, eating healthily and creating clear boundaries between their role as educator and their private life.

Challenging behaviours guidance strategies in early childhood

Quality Area 5 under the National Quality Standard  promotes responsive, respectful relationships with children. This supports children’s sense of belonging and security allowing them to feel safe enough to engage in play and in the program. Behaviour management, behaviour charts, punishment or other negative measures, do not work and are harmful to relationships and a child’s sense of belonging.

A strength-based approach includes a positive guidance strategy where educators empathetically consider the ‘why’ behind the behaviour. They guide these children to develop a healthy self-esteem, respect for others and themselves. They help children develop the skills to identify and manage their own emotions and behaviour when becoming stressed or overwhelmed.

Exploring the possible ‘why’ behind challenging behaviour

By exploring the ‘why’ behind behaviours we may prevent them occurring. Being uncomfortable; hungry, thirsty, tired, in pain, lonely or bored may lead to unusual behaviours. Young children are still learning how to communicate their feelings and to resolve conflict as they develop an understanding of fairness, caring, empathy, respect and reciprocal rights and responsibilities. Understanding that the child is still learning, dealing sympathetically and empathetically with each situation, and avoiding situations that may trigger these behaviours will provide a calmer environment for all.

Some behaviour may be developmentally appropriate for the age and stage of the child. Sitting still and listening is a complex skill, if the muscles have not developed, sitting still may be near impossible. Children who need to physically move and keep active, benefit from spending more time outdoors where they can actively use their whole bodies climbing, swinging, balancing, hanging and carrying heavy loads. Support spontaneous small group gatherings where children have the option to come and go as they need.

Young children are still learning to develop self-control. Impulse control is only developed at about 4/5years of age and they may still need support, I know many adults, including myself, who still struggle with this! This impulsivity may lead to children randomly pushing each other, throwing objects, or grabbing toys from each other. Some may kick over a tower, others may impulsively hug another child too tightly, they may also impulsively lash out at another child or adult.

Neurodiverse children may display a range of behaviours that challenge educators. Some children awaiting diagnosis after educators identified behaviour, will also respond well to the suggested strategies irrespective of a diagnosis. Children who are considered emotional, aggressive, trying to escape or who appear disengaged may be displaying a trauma response.

Positively guiding children’s behaviour

Educators support appropriate behaviour by modelling co-operative behaviour. Calmly help to co-regulate when a child is unable to self-regulate, respond politely and respectfully to every child. Be aware that educator mood and energy levels affects children’s behaviours, children need clear messages and consistency from adults. Show acknowledgement and praise children when they are doing the right thing such as being considerate and kind. Support children to manage their behaviour while acknowledging that it is hard, and you are there to help them.

Encouraging positive behaviour tips

  • Reduce transitions during the day.
  • Meaningfully connect with every child in a positive manner daily.
  • Provide more time outdoors and in nature every day to reduce stress.
  • Support and guide small group gatherings of children choosing to participate.
  • Provide motivational opportunities that offer appropriate challenge such as risky play
  • Offer flexible routines, free access indoors and outdoors most of the day allows agency.
  • Reduce sensory overload. Is there constant music/noise? Are the lights too bright? Is there too much visual clutter, bright colours everywhere, moving objects dangling from the ceiling?
  • Use a range of communication strategies, ensure children know the reason behind expectations. Our ‘rules’ don’t always make sense, ensure consistency.

Every child is an individual with their own history, needs and wants. When responding to a child’s behaviour, take the time to reflect on how best to respond while maintaining the child’s rights and dignity.

About the author

Niki Buchan is CEO and owner of Natural Learning Educational Consultancy. She has lived and worked in South Africa, Australia and is now based in Scotland. She works internationally as a conference keynote speaker, nature pedagogue, mentor and author having been invited to work in Australia, UK, USA, Canada, Iceland, Sweden, South Korea, China, Norway, Denmark and South Africa. She has developed a reputation as a strong advocate for children’s right to a high-quality childhood with a deep concern about children’s mental health and trauma.

Niki trusts children as being capable and competent, respects their ability to know what they need for their development including assessing and taking risks. She has a great love for the outdoors and has been working with both adults and young children in very consultative, naturalistic and sensorial environments both indoors and outdoors for more than 40 years. She believes children have a right to regular access to nature and to have their voices heard in matters that affect them.

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