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  • Writer's pictureDr Martine Prunty

Behaviour Management of Young Children

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

Some theories say that one of the most common reasons a child misbehaves is because they are not getting a need met. Some of these reasons may be:

· Undue attention (particularly if a new sibling has recently arrived)

· Misguided power, for example when control is taken away (ie when you don’t let them do whatever they want!) they may attempt to regain this control by disobeying the rules

· Revenge – this occurs if a child feels they have been treated unfairly

· Assumed inadequacy (giving up) – this is the child that supposedly needs help with everything

Some other causes of misbehavior may be:

· Health problems

· Poor nutrition

· Sleep disturbances

· Developmental delays

· Stress or emotional difficulties, including attachment issues

· Change of environment

· Inappropriate expectations for the child’s age/developmental level

· Difficulties occurring within the family

The term used for training or changing children’s behaviour is called behaviour modification. It essentially means that we can influence behaviour to replace undesirable behaviours with more appropriate ones using positive reinforcement or negative consequences.

The most important keys to successful behaviour management are consistency and repetition. Learning appropriate behaviour takes time.

· Stick to whatever rules you make all the time. If a child learns that every so often you give in, that’s enough of a reinforcer for them to increase problem behaviour, because this might be the time you give in!

· Know that the rules will need to be repeated again and again for them to work

· Use rewards to reinforce good behaviour

· Make sure you do not accidentally reward problem behaviours: a common connection toddlers make is that tantrums lead to attention

· Make sure you are not correcting behaviour more often than you are giving positive reinforcement such as cuddles and compliments. A good rule is 4 positive comments for every negative comment that you make.

· No means no. All the time.

What doesn’t work:

· Yelling/scolding – we all do it. It usually means it is us that have lost control because it doesn’t seem to have long lasting effects.

· Threatening/bribing – this is usually a sign that we are getting desperate!

· Spanking – this just means that we are trying to relieve our own stress, rather than teach our children anything helpful or effective

· Name calling

· Criticising

· Sending your child to bed

What does work:

· Ignoring: If your child is having a temper tantrum, calmly leave the room and ignore him/her. (You can ignore interrupting, nagging, silly questions, siblings bickering, whining, stuttering, I hate you statements. Never ignore if your child is hurting someone else or themselves or breaking something on purpose.)

· Change the situation or environment to make it difficult for them to do things that you don’t want them to do. For example, removing things you don’t want them to play with; removing triggers which may ignite a tantrum when it comes time to put it away (eg ipads), removing items that siblings fight over

· Say what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do: eg instead of saying, “don’t run”, say “remember we are going to walk outside to the car”

· Distract! Distract! Distract!

· Removing privileges: this is particularly relevant for older siblings, such as removing the privilege of watching a TV show for teasing a younger sibling

· Positive feedback: do lots of this for behaviours that you want to encourage, for example cleaning up toys or eating vegetables

· Using “if-then” statements such as, ”If you clean up your room, then we can go to the park”

Keep Developmental Considerations in Mind

Babies and toddlers (0-2 years old) have limited communication skills and lower level reasoning. They benefit most from simpler forms of behaviour management, such as being redirected to something else and being reinforced for things they do that you want them to do more of. Using time-out with this group will not be effective as they simply don’t understand the concepts involved.

Preschoolers (ages 3-5) can understand rules and expectations (provided they are explained and repeated often) and therefore they are better able to reason between appropriate and inappropriate behaviours. Time out can be used successfully for this group (1 minute per age) and they benefit from using rewards and consequences that are appropriate for the “crime” committed. Consequences need to occur as close to the event as possible. For example, no ice cream after dinner when they have done wrong mid-afternoon is not an appropriate consequence.


Routines provide parents with a sense of control, without them there is disorganization in the household. Routines also create a sense of security and order for children. It is less likely that children will throw a tantrum if they are primed for events and know what to expect. Spontaneity is not usually welcome with young children as they are much less flexible, cognitively.

Using Behaviour Charts

This gives your child a visual reminder of every time he/she does something right. After a certain number of stars/stickers for a particular behaviour, the child gets a reward. This expectation is always outlined before beginning the reward chart, and the reward should be strategically thought out so that it is motivating for the child. Because behaviour charts reward specific behaviours, children find it easier to learn expectations, unlike a general reward for “being good” as this too vague for a child to properly understand what it is you want them to do more of. If you find your behaviour chart isn’t working it is most often because it was not set up properly or the reward isn’t appropriate or motivating. The reward should only ever be associated with the chart, not something that they might get to do/have at some other point in the week anyway. It is imperative that you set up the chart so that you are 99% sure your child will get rewarded quickly in the first instance. An early win is motivating to continue.

Having a united front

One extremely important factor in your success is being united with your partner. Both parents have to be on the same page when it comes to how you manage your childrens’ behaviour and while it is natural to end up on different pages at times, subtle differences can turn into bigger ones which can become problematic. Children find it difficult to respond to rules and limits when there is a different rule for each parent. It is confusing for the child and it can lead to conflict between the parents when things then get stressful.

Remember that the word discipline means to teach or to train, not necessarily to punish. What you are doing, as parents, is teaching your children the rules of behaviour so that they can use them and benefit from them. Children learn best when they grow up in a loving household with fair and predictable rules, boundaries and expectations. Children do as you do. You are the role model, so use your behaviour to guide your children.

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