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The 'N' word - 'Naughty' may be a concept for nursery staff to beware, yet children will always behave in ways that fit the definition. Juliet Brown explains what may be behind disruptive behaviour and how you can deal with it

Recently a small storm blew up in the mainstream media about nurseries banning the use of the word 'naughty'. Much naughtiness, like evil, is in the eye of the beholder. Adults have very different ideas about what constitutes naughty behaviour and it may be quite difficult at times for nursery staff to agree on what should be tolerated. For example, there are often differences about when and how to intervene if children fight or quarrel.

It's easy to suppose that behaviour that annoys is intended to be annoying, but lots of irritating things such as spilt milk, wet pants, broken toys and lost shoes happen simply because of children's immaturity. Many other annoying things happen because children have more energy than most adults and they are bound to find ways to amuse themselves if there is nothing interesting to do.

Children's motives can be difficult to assess. When a three-year-old spills all his juice for a second time, is he trying to make trouble, or simply over-tired? Naturally, you will want to give children the benefit of the doubt and assume goodwill whenever possible. When adults automatically assume that annoying behaviour is meant to annoy, children may feel misunderstood and retaliate by being genuinely, deliberately annoying.

Although troublesome behaviour is not necessarily the same as naughty behaviour, you have to face the fact that naughty behaviour does exist. Children at times do want to defy you, disobey you, shock you, hurt you, worry you, infuriate you and make you lose your temper. Why is this so?

Probably the most obvious reason for naughtiness is the resentment that children feel when they are thwarted or disappointed. Unfortunately, life is full of disappointments for us all, and since young children's expectations are often exaggerated and their feelings are very strong, they can suffer acutely when disappointments occur. They cannot make allowances for wet days, broken toys, illnesses or other causes of misfortune. Since adults are seen to rule the universe, then adults must be to blame.

Some forms of naughtiness and defiance are designed by the child to test you out. Do you mean what you say? Are you really as fierce as the witch in last night's dream? Are your rules the same as mummy's? Can staff be made to disagree with each other like mum and dad? Children are less tempted to test out adults who are consistent and do not use threats, which often invite children to find out if they're really meant.
Threats may also prove to be more frightening than you intend them to be, especially if you threaten to leave a child or send him away. Although threats may temporarily shock children into good behaviour, controlling them through fear can have lasting adverse effects on their development.

Children need adults to be strong and firm. Paradoxically, they also resent it. It is painful for them to realise that you are the boss and that they depend on you for all their needs. All children are angry about this at times, and especially so if they are treated in bossy ways by adults who don't consider their feelings.

Adults who expect instant obedience set the stage for obstinate, contrary behaviour which can continue throughout childhood. You are wise to avoid head-on collisions in the early years. Distraction is usually better than confrontation, which may make children behave defiantly and then feel humiliated by defeat.

Attention seeking
Naughtiness is often attributed to attention-seeking. Of course, all young children seek and need lots of attention, which is one of the reasons that childcare is so exhausting. If a child's natural need for attention in a very busy nursery cannot be met, he may prefer to get angry attention than no attention at all. Experienced childcarers will confirm that there is usually more trouble in nurseries on days that are understaffed.

Jealousy and the sense of unfairness which goes with it are further common reasons for naughty behaviour. It can seem hard on staff in nurseries that encourage close relationships between children and their key workers, that they have to cope with more competition and rivalry between children than in other nurseries where relationships are less intense. However, children will be strengthened by the experience of managing conflict and will gain more from a climate of affectionate relationships with staff than they may appear to lose through rivalry.

Naturally children may have other reasons than jealousy to be cross with you too. Once they have become attached to you they will mind if you are absent or plan to leave. If they cannot express their resentment openly, they may divert it into tiresome behaviour. Fortunately for the nursery staff, children usually save their very worst behaviour for their parents, since frustrations are most painful when they are imposed by those they love most. Occasionally a child is 'good' at home but a challenge in the nursery. This may be because parents rule the home with intimidating strictness, so children take out their frustrations in the safety of the nursery instead.

Case study: Richard
Richard was rather timid when he started nursery on his third birthday, but within six months he had found his feet and celebrated his new confidence by testing every rule in the place. This phase lasted until he knew exactly what the limits were and how they differed from home. When he found the staff were firm but kind, he settled down to become co-operative and enjoy his play.

Case study: Jennifer
Jennifer was a good little girl who was very anxious to please. Staff were fond of her and she never caused trouble. However, when she was rising four they began to notice that she wasn't always as good as she seemed. She was eager to offer other children help with their activities, but somehow the 'help' always seemed to end up spoiling the other child's work.

Nursery nurse Alice noticed this and asked her to stop. But after rest time that day, Jennifer showed her first action of deliberate defiance. She pulled five pictures by other children off the wall. Alice was more surprised than dismayed. She couldn't help feeling that it might be a good thing that Jennifer had expressed her rivalry openly. She made Jennifer help her put the pictures back and talked to her about her jealousy. Jennifer's mother was shocked to be asked whether Jennifer experienced any jealousy of her older brother at home. Perhaps it was safer to express her envious feelings at the nursery.

Positive signs
Naughtiness is the price we pay for having normal, lively children. The anger and resentment that motivate ordinary naughtiness are positive signs that children are facing the frustrations and jealousies of life and are not afraid to let you know about it, until they have learned better ways of managing their conflicts.

When you realise how painful even a happy childhood can be, you are apt to be less outraged by bad behaviour and so can handle it more wisely. Anything you can do to help children verbalise their feelings is helpful. Talking about jealousy, unfairness and anger takes the sting out of these feelings by showing that you recognise that the child is suffering and by acknowledging that he is not alone in feeling as he does.

Sadly, some children are not just ordinarily naughty but are persistently in serious trouble. They may be described as disruptive or suffering from a behaviour disorder. Their bad behaviour is a front behind which they usually are hiding great anxieties. In this case it may be the nursery's task to enlist the parents' co-operation in seeking professional help for their child while he is still young. NW

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