When you look at magazines and adverts it seems that our society is obsessed with swift solutions, offering promises like Five-point plan to create a new you in under a week. Life does not work like this, for adults or for children. Good ideas and strategies take some time to work, although not always extraordinary lengths of time, and dealing positively with childrens behaviour requires energy, commitment and a lot of patience.
Children learn ways of behaving at home, both positive and negative, and you will see the results of their experience in your nursery or pre-school. They also have a great capacity to learn new ways of handling everyday life, but helping them to change takes longer than a couple of days, and certainly more than just telling them they ought to share properly or pay attention. It takes time for children to:
- Realise that you mean what you say and you follow up your requests, especially if they have only experienced inconsistent adults.
- Understand how your nursery or pre-school works, as it may be different from playing at home and perhaps other early years settings they know.
- Recognise and try out new ways of coping with their feelings, and experience the pleasure of attention because you are delighted with what they have done, rather than exasperated.
- Learn the complex social skills that really underpin the behaviour we sum up as sharing or playing nicely together.
An essential part of positive, longer-term thinking is to avoid a limited focus on problems. For instance:
Perhaps you and your colleagues find it easier to list all the things you want children to stop doing. But it is only fair to take the next step and, for every behaviour you want children to stop, sort out their realistic alternatives. For every dont, you need to identify the do for children.
Its fine to want children to become co-operative or kind with their peers, but how do you expect them to handle situations when other children are grabby or unkind to them? You want children to stop demanding attention with disruptive behaviour, so how will you guide them towards more acceptable strategies?
A nursery or pre-school team needs to talk about the ways in which you are all going to help the children in a more constructive direction. How will you recognise positive behaviour that is perhaps ignored in favour of problems?
Encourage rather than praise
The most effective way to change childrens behaviour is to make your own behaviour more positive. People can usually double or treble the positive words and actions they use and do. It takes time to change your own habits and it is also crucial not to expect immediate, magical changes in the children.
Attempts to increase positive behaviour at home or in the nursery can backfire if adults only use rewards, such as spoken praise for achievement, tangible treats or the incentive of if you do this, then... Nurseries and schools that have depended mainly on stickers, special privileges or prizes to encourage good behaviour have sometimes found that overall behaviour has not improved. The problem seems to be that from simply being given rewards, children do not develop a sense of internal satisfaction from, say, helping to tidy up. Rather than feeling, I do this because I enjoy helping and its good fun to work together, the children think, I do this for the sticker. So if the reward is withdrawn, children tend to stop helping. Furthermore, children who rarely, if ever, manage to get any tangible recognition can become very disheartened.
As a response to this dilemma, the approach developed from the ideas of Alfred Adler uses encouragement, rather than reward or praise. The differences are that:
- Praise focuses on the end result and successful achievement, whereas encouragement is freely given for effort and improvement.
- Praise or rewards stress a fixed quality about a child (Good boy), but encouragement focuses on what a child has done today or within this activity (Well done).
- Encouragement highlights positive feelings, as adults express appreciation and children share their pleasure in what they have managed.
- Encouragement taps into childrens feelings of satisfaction and their strengths. The risk of praise and reward is that they can be unforgiving of mistakes or times when children do not want to be good.
You have a range of choices to promote an encouraging approach in your nursery or pre-school or a family home:
- Offer spoken encouragement through sincere compliments, saying thank you or some other appreciation of a childs efforts. Non-verbal encouragement is communicated via smiles, nods and friendly touch.
- Encouragement works best when it is expressed as close to the behaviour as possible, as part of natural communication with children rather than saved up in comments at the end of a day or session, perhaps in group time.
- Develop the habit of catching children being good. Try to acknowledge the considerate behaviour of a child who usually finds it easier to be self-centred. But resist conveying any negative undertone such as why cant you always be like this?
- Make sure you dont overlook the better- behaved children. Thank them too. But watch out for the irritating adult habit of not letting a good child have an off day. Children are discouraged by comments like, Now, thats not like you, is it?
Another possibility is to notice the co-operative behaviour of a child close to one who is not co-operating. This approach may alert the second child to what she could be doing or help her to get back on task. Again, watch out for the backfire of embarrassing the child who is behaving well; dont single out him or her as a teachers pet.
Tangible rewards (praise, treats, incentives and privileges) have their place; they just need to be used with discretion. Ideally, a treat is something that everyone enjoys. Rewards of any kind are not working if you find you have to use them almost as a threat.
Behaviour that you want to stop or re-direct can be changed by ensuring that children experience the consequences of their actions. But a great deal depends on how adults behave, as two actions which appear similar can have opposite results either helping children to behave differently or exerting a negative and punishing impact.
If possible, warn the child that a given consequence will follow if he continues to behave in an unacceptable way. For instance, using time out in a positive way will enable children to view it as a fair cop.
Try to remain calm and not shout or threaten. Squabbling children could be split up for a time rather than criticised about their inability to play happily together.
The consequences of a childs behaviour should be consistently applied, even when the adult is tired.
Deal with the behaviour at the time and then allow the child a fresh start without harking back.
Give the children plenty of attention and appreciation when they are behaving well.
Some adults feel uncomfortable using a positive approach with children, largely because they have experienced little encouragement within their own childhood. In a team you may need to talk through strong beliefs that, for example, children should just do what you tell them or all this encouragement will spoil children and make them big-headed.
Focusing more on the positive than the negative does not mean the children will run wild. In fact, the approach fits in well with setting clear boundaries for everyones behaviour and a firm but fair orientation from adults. The benefits for everyone are that:
- Children feel appreciated for what they have done well, rather than nagged for misbehaviour.
- Self-esteem is boosted, not undermined.
- Children learn to exercise choices and self-discipline.
- Children start to treat each other in encouraging and courteous ways.
- The time spent together is much more enjoyable both for adults and children. l