Positive Relationships: Behaviour - As you please

Cath Hunter
Monday, October 16, 2017

The child who always wants to please is evidently kind and caring, but this behaviour could be masking low self-esteem and other problems that need to be addressed, explains Cath Hunter


Joel, aged four, is always happy to help tidy up at nursery, is also keen to share and will happily hand over a toy that he is playing with if another child wants it. Everyone talks about how kind and helpful he is and comments on what a good boy he is.

He is very focused on the adults in the setting and often tries to second guess what they need before they have asked for it, frequently trying to please them and offering to help. He regularly struggles to express, or even know, what he wants, and if asked to choose a book or toy will just look at the other children or respond with a shrug.

Nursery nurse Tina became concerned about Joel when she saw him giving away all his party bag sweets to the other children. She began to observe him more closely and became aware that he never told the staff if another child took something from him.

Tina also observed that his mother was frequently in a rush at drop-off and pick-up times, and often too preoccupied with his twin sisters to engage with Joel when he tried to talk to her about his day or show her something.

Children of Joel’s age are becoming increasingly aware of other people and their needs, but are often still quite egocentric and may find it hard to share and consider other people’s thoughts and feelings. It can be difficult to assess when a child’s behaviour is kind and caring and when it becomes more emotionally unhealthy. In this instance, Joel is being overly compliant and behaving as though his needs are unimportant; therefore, this is a concern.

When children have learnt to become ‘people pleasers’ and are putting other people’s needs before their own, it is essential to explore some of the possible reasons for this behaviour in order to identify how to best help the child to change their behaviour.


There may be a variety of reasons for this type of behaviour, ranging from a child who has witnessed domestic violence and/or manipulative and controlling behaviour from adults, to a child who has too much responsibility for their younger siblings.

Such behaviour may also become more pronounced when the child has experience of their parent/carer being physically or emotionally unavailable. As a result, they may have become overly independent and had to manage situations and their feelings by themselves.

If a child experiences these situations at home, it may result in them feeling that it is their responsibility to try to keep the peace and make other people happy. For these children, they may have learnt at an early age that this is what they need to do to stay physically and emotionally safe and that they need to earn love and approval from other people by pleasing them and negating their own needs.



It would be useful for the nursery staff to be more observant of Joel’s behaviour, watching to see when he appears compliant and willing to please and perhaps keeping a record of his behaviour over a fortnight to see if there is any particular pattern to it.

For example, does his ‘people-pleasing’ behaviour occur more or less often after the weekend?

It would also be helpful to monitor more closely his interactions with the other children and his mother in order to enable the staff to build up a more detailed picture of his behaviour with them.

Strategies in the nursery

The nursery staff have a huge role to play in helping Joel to understand that his needs are important and supporting him to change his behaviour. When they notice that he is always helping the other children, they can acknowledge his kindness but also explain that it is their job to look after the children and remind him that he comes to nursery to play and have fun.

Likewise, when he lets the other children have things or offers to let them go first, staff can acknowledge his thoughtfulness while also reminding him that it is important that he has a turn too, by saying something like, ‘That’s really kind of you to let Millie have the book you were looking at, Joel, but you had it first and it’s important that you have your turn too.’ This gives him the message that his needs are important and gives him permission to change his behaviour.

During the nursery day, Joel should be provided with regular opportunities to make decisions, have a choice and to state his preferences. For example, staff could ask, ‘Would you like an apple or a banana? It can be hard to choose, but it’s important that you have whichever you prefer.’ This validates his response, and builds his confidence and self-esteem, along with enabling him to have a voice.

Joel needs to be given the opportunity to develop more equal relationships with the other children. This can be encouraged by creating play situations with another child and with an adult offering support and gentle reminders. For example, when playing with the playdough, the staff member should ensure that both children have the same amount of dough, the same cutters and so on.

The staff can also create situations where all the children are encouraged to state their likes and dislikes and be able to say ‘no’ in some situations, therefore providing permission for Joel to state his preferences.

Sensory activities – for example, exploring taste and smell – are enjoyable ways to involve all children and encourage them to express their tastes. For children like Joel, who may not have had this experience often before, it can feel empowering for them to be able to say ‘no’ or that they don’t like something, and for that to be accepted.

Strategies in the home

It is important that nursery staff also approach Joel’s mother in a gentle and sensitive way so that they can tentatively explore what he is like at home – for example, does he help out a lot with his twin sisters and does he get praised for this? It may be possible to suggest that Joel has some individual time with his mother after his sisters go to bed in order to enable him to feel that he can still have some special time with her. It would also be useful for the staff to share some of the strategies that they are using in the nursery – for example, encouraging him to make decisions – and ask her to implement this approach at home wherever possible.


Children like Joel can easily be overlooked in settings as they usually don’t have any of the more common behavioural issues and come across as kind and caring, which they are.

It is essential too that all staff are aware of any gender bias with this kind of people-pleasing behaviour. For example, a girl who behaves like this may appear to be less of a concern and their behaviour accepted as ‘normal’ for girls.

Nursery staff need to be alert to such patterns of behaviour and, when it persists, to seek professional help.

In terms of the child’s emotional well-being, it is essential that this behaviour is addressed and the child is helped to make positive changes. Otherwise this behaviour may continue and increase as they get older, resulting in lack of confidence, low self-esteem, poor self-image and very little resilience.

They may become increasingly unsure of their own wants and needs and become emotionally fragile and vulnerable. However, with help and support, especially at this early age, Joel – and children like him – can make some positive changes, become more resilient and relax and enjoy their time at nursery.

Cath Hunter is a therapeutic consultant, trainer, play therapist and author of a three-part series of books, Understanding and Managing Children’s Behaviour through Group Work: A child-centred programme, covering ages three to five, five to seven and seven to 11 (http://therapeuticfamilyinterventions.co.uk).

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NW SHOW 2018

Child behaviour will be the theme of a number of seminars at the NW Show in London on 2-3 February 2018.

On Friday, Dr Caspar Addyman from Goldsmiths, University of London will be explaining how humour can contribute to early learning, while early years consultant Anne O’Connor will be looking at what neuroscience is revealing about the infant brain and how this can deepen our understanding of child behaviour.

On Saturday, early years consultant and inclusion specialist Kay Mathieson will be looking at typical and atypical patterns of behaviour.

Other seminar themes include early maths and language, block play and the Reggio Emilia approach, while our masterclasses will be exploring boys’ learning and supporting the Unique Child, with a focus on science and technology.

The full programme is available at: www.nurseryworldshow.com

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