Understanding & Guiding Behavior

“Bad Choices” – What does behavior mean?

I belong to several facebook groups for preschool and child care. I’ve read things about behavior and “following my directions” or “stopping bad choices”. And if the children don’t comply, they are sent to the “quiet” area or the director’s office until they are willing to do so. It makes me sad that so many child care workers really don’t understand the dynamics of behavior or the reason behind it.

What does a child’s behavior mean?

Children do not misbehave to “get their own way” or to push your buttons. Children are trying to communicate with you through their behavior. They are trying to say, “I need your attention”, “I’m hurting inside and don’t know how to tell you”, or simply, “I’m tired”.

When I first started in early childhood, way back in 1973, it was fun. We did puppets – We sang songs – We danced. But now it’s crisis intervention. So many of our children have suffered some sort of trauma in their short lives. These experiences leave them unable to self-regulate and some classroom environments only exacerbate the problem.

As early childhood professionals, it is our job to understand the “why” of a child’s behavior before we set rules they can’t follow.

Quiet areas and calm down zones are just another way to say “time out”. When a child’s behavior becomes challenging, get in there with them. Acknowledge that they are frustrated or angry. Help them to put words to it and then help them find ways to cope.

Giving choices empowers a child to have control of his or her own environment. But make sure the choices you offer are manageable. “You do as I have directed, or you go to the quiet zone” is not a choice. That is an ultimatum. It means, go to time out until you are ready to comply. Are your directions too much or not developmentally appropriate? If you want a child to do something, offer real choices of ways to get it done.

How can we help?

We have a little guy that has PTSD. When he reaches a certain point and can no longer regulate his behavior, he throws things. During one of his episodes, after the teacher helped him get control, he now had to clean up his mess. He kept finding other things to do. When I walked in and saw the room it occurred to me, this mess is overwhelming. He doesn’t even know where to start! So I started sweeping everything up into manageable piles. He was then given the choice – clean it up by yourself or I can help you. He chose help, but after a few minutes decided he’d do it himself. And he did!

Not only was he helped to manage his behavior, he was given tools to use in the future and his self-esteem was boosted because the teacher did not see him as “making bad choices” but rather she saw his behavior as a call for help. He couldn’t deal with his frustration on his own and didn’t know how to ask.

So why are we here?

Our jobs have changed over the years. The children have changed. It’s no longer the fun little “nursery school” environment. Now we are involved in crisis intervention. Teachers need to be grounded in what is developmentally appropriate for their particular classroom of children. They need to know how to recognize what a behavior means and have a tool box to help children cope.

It’s a tough job. It’s a grossly underpaid and underappreciated job. But we aren’t here for those things. We are here because those children matter. If I can make a positive difference in just one child that helps to make her life a little easier, then I have done my job.


Remember the words of Jim Henson – “[kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”

(from It’s Not Easy Being Green: And other things to consider)

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