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3 Ways to Manage a Young Child’s Behavior: Baby Behavior Series

manage young child behavior

How do you handle a young child's behavior?

Children, for the most part, are born naturally curious and ready to engage socially with other little humans. How do preschoolers deal with behavior? Well, their skills are developing! The adults around them are there to guide them along, living a life of good examples, providing love and support, and giving structure, guidelines, and consequences so they grow up to nice little humans to replace us. At least, that's the hope, so addressing a young child's behavior when you have the chance is the fun! 

Kids learn through observation and experience. They are going to try this and that to see if it gets them what they want. They will have many experiences of oopsies before they learn how this crazy world works. 

Even when parents or teachers have experience or training working with children with challenging behavior, it can be overwhelming, even the “typical” squabbles, let alone the more challenging behavior that comes with kids with disabilities.

Here is one simple scenario and three lenses through which to handle a typical young child's behavior (appropriate for ALL behavior, though!).

I was at my aerobics class this week. It’s an outdoor class, and all the young moms bring their kids to run around and play together. Actually, THAT’S probably the biggest reason I go. I love seeing the kids, and my own are grow-ed up and out of the house!

So this was the scene I observed: a boy about 6, a girl about 4, arguing over some item. The girl pulls at the item with one hand and scratches the boy’s arm with all her might with the other. The boy lets go, cries. Mom of the girl, removes her from the group and puts her in time-out. Later on, I saw the two kids sitting together, playing happily. That’s the gist of it.

I thought it would be fun to break it down and talk about how to handle a young child's behavior using three methods at once: dealing with the function of behavior, restorative justice, and trauma-informed care.

behavior aerobics
managing child behavior stool

Function of Behavior

time out

It’s important when addressing a behavior to understand the WHY. Behavior is communication. Kids don’t engage in behavior, for the most part, “just because.” In this case, the girl wanted the item. Now, had mom gone over and broken up the scuffle and then given the toy to the girl, well, that would not have been smart. She would have effectively reinforced the aggressive behavior. What she did was remove the child from the situation (also addressing an attention function) and did not allow her to gain the item she wanted. In fact, I think the item they were fighting over went away from both of them for a while. Well done, mom.

Restorative Justice

While I didn’t see it, I imagine there was some amount of restoration. In this case, what I envision is that at the end of the time out period, mom would get down to the child’s level, remind her of the expectations, and take her over to the boy to apologize, get a high-five, pat on the back, whatever, then run off to play again. All done. Maybe the toy had been broken in the battle. They could work together to fix it or find something different together to play with. Maybe the toy is still in the mix, and they work together to come up with a solution to playing; maybe it goes to one friend for 10 minutes then to the next friend. Something to “repair.”

restorative justice

Find some behavior management ideas here

Trauma-Informed Care

trauma-informed care

This may be a little more difficult to address in this exact situation because I was only an outside observer. What I did observe was the aftermath, that about 20 minutes later, the two kids were huddled together, chatting and playing, building back the relationship in a safe environment. When thinking trauma-informed, I think mostly of building strong, safe, and reliable relationships with the people in that person’s environment. Yes, it’s important to know what the trauma was and what the triggers may be in order to prevent them whenever possible; but even when that is not possible, making sure that the environment and the people in it exhibit love, support, and safety and that there is predictability and security, will go a LONG ways.

So there you have it. Coming from a behavior analytic background (especially in the years before we knew much about the other two methods), I remind myself that the function of the behavior, while important, is not the only lens I need to consider. These three responses (function, restorative, and trauma-informed) work together to create stability in a child's life. I LOVE these two quotes:

Love what you teach, but love WHO you teach more.


And if those children are unresponsive, maybe you can't teach them yet, but you can love them. And if you love them today, maybe you can teach them tomorrow.

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