A to Z’s of Early Childhood
The Science of Child Development and Learning
B is for Behavior
Practical Strategies for Promoting Young Children’s Positive Behaviors
Families and practitioners often have questions about how to promote children’s positive behaviors. Did you know there are strategies that are easy to use and effective for helping young children learn positive behaviors and that prevent or address challenging behavior?
Strategies for Promoting Positive Behaviors
Here are six practical strategies to use with older toddlers or preschoolers to promote positive behaviors and prevent or address challenging behavior:
Strategy #1 - Let children know what they should do rather than what they should not do.
Young children need to learn what to do instead of a behavior they are told not to do. That is why it is important to focus on telling and showing children what to do rather than what not to do.
Instead of Saying: “Don’t snatch toys from your friends.”
Try Saying: “Ask your friend for a turn,” while showing how to tap a friend on the arm and ask for a turn.
Instead of Saying: “Stop it,” when a child is banging a spoon loudly on the table.
Try Saying:“Scoop the macaroni with your spoon like this,” while modeling how to use the spoon to scoop.
Strategy #2 - Share behavior expectations in advance.
Young children might not always remember expectations, even for activities or routines they do often. Let children know what they are expected to do before they begin to do something. This helps them understand and remember the expectations.
“We need to clean up toys in a few minutes to get ready for bed.”
“When we get out of the car you will need to hold my hand.”
“If you want to play with the ball, ask your friend for a turn.”
Strategy #3 - Give directions that are short.
Giving directions that are short makes them easier for children to understand. When children understand what to do they are more likely to follow a direction the first time they hear it.
“Put your toys in the toybox.”
“Hold my hand in the parking lot.”
“Say, ‘Can I have a turn?’”
Strategy #4 - Use “First/Then” directions.
When children know they will get to do something they like after they follow a direction, they are more likely to do what you ask them to do. “First/Then” directions tell children what to do (“first”) and what they will be able to do after they follow the direction (“then”).
“First put your toys in the box. Then we will read a story.”
“First ask for a turn. Then you can play with the ball.”
“First put your shirt on. Then you can play.”
“First go potty. Then you can color.”
Strategy #5 - Show children what you want them to do.
This helps them see the behavior so they can do it more successfully. One way to show children what to do is by doing it yourself. Another way is to show them a picture.
Put a toy in the toybox and say, “Put your toys in the box like this.”
Show a picture of two people holding hands and say, “Hold my hand like this in the parking lot.”
Say, “I’m going to ask my friend for a turn. ‘Julie, can I have a turn?’”
Strategy #6 - Tell children about their positive behavior and describe the behavior.
This helps children know what you want them to do and encourages them to do it again in the future. Although this can be general (e.g., good job), it often is better to give specific descriptions so children know which behaviors were appropriate.
“Thank you for putting your toys in the box!”
“I like how you held my hand the whole time in the parking lot.”
“That was really nice to ask Julie for a turn.”
What We Know About Promoting Positive Behavior
The practical strategies listed above are common parts of evidence-based interventions that promote young children’s social-emotional and behavioral development.1
What We Are Doing
The Anita Zucker Center is helping families and practitioners learn to use strategies that promote children’s positive behaviors and prevent or address challenging behavior.
- BEST in CLASS
Learn more about Dr. Maureen Conroy’s research into practices teachers can use to prevent children’s challenging behaviors and support their learning.
- Pyramid Model Consortium
Focused on promoting the social, emotional, and behavioral development of young children, the Pyramid Model Consortium provides research, training, and resources for educators and caregivers.
- Starters for Giving Positive Feedback and Encouragement
The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations provides a list of phrases to use when giving positive feedback and encouragement to young children.
- How to Give Clear Directions
Learn more about ways to provide young children with clear directions both at home and at school.
- Teaching Preschoolers to Cooperate with Requests
The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning provides examples of what chores preschool-age children often can do, as well as helpful ways to teach young children to complete these skills and activities.
- National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning In-Service Suite: Stating Behavior Expectations
This learning suite by Head Start provides information on how to create and implement behavioral expectations in a preschool classroom.
- Division for Early Childhood Position Statement on Challenging Behavior and Young Children
Learn more about recommendations the Division for Early Childhood has on promoting social-emotional competence and addressing challenging behavior in young children.
Books Articles by Center Members and Collaborators
- Conroy, M. A., Sutherland, K. S., Algina, J., Ladwig, C., Werch, B., Martinez, J., . . . Gyure, M. (2019). Outcomes of the BEST in CLASS intervention on teachers’ use of effective practices, self-efficacy, and classroom quality. School Psychology Review, 48(1), 31-45. doi:10.17105/spr-2018- 0003.v48-1
- Hemmeter, M., Fox, L., Snyder, P., & Algina, J. (2014). A classroom-wide model for promoting social emotional development and addressing challenging behavior in preschool children [PDF]. Nashville: National Center for Special Education Research in the Institute of Education Sciences to Vanderbilt University.
- Hemmeter, M. L., Snyder, P. A., Fox, L., & Algina, J. (2016). Evaluating the implementation of the pyramid model for promoting social-emotional competence in early childhood classrooms. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 36(3), 133-146. doi:10.1177/0271121416653386
- Mcleod, B. D., Sutherland, K. S., Martinez, R. G., Conroy, M. A., Snyder, P. A., & Southam-Gerow, M. A. (2016). Identifying common practice elements to improve social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes of young children in early childhood classrooms. Prevention Science, 18(2), 204-213. doi:10.1007/s11121-016-0703-y
- Snyder, P. & Hemmeter, M. (2018). Teachers’ use of effective instructional practices to promote positive outcomes for young children with behavior challenges. DEC Recommended Practices Monograph Series No. 4: Instruction, 105-118.
- Sutherland, K. S., Conroy, M. A., Algina, J., Ladwig, C., Jessee, G., & Gyure, M. (2018). Reducing child problem behaviors and improving teacher- child interactions and relationships: A randomized controlled trial of BEST in CLASS. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 42, 31-43. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2017.08.001
- McLeod, B.D., Sutherland, K.S., Martinez, R., Conroy, M.A., Snyder, P., & Southam-Gerow, M.A. (2017). Identifying common practice elements to improve social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes of young children in early childhood classrooms. Prevention Science, 18, 204-213. doi: 10.1007/s11121-016-0703-y
- Hemmeter, M. L., Snyder, P., Fox, L., & Algina, J. (2016). Evaluating the implementation of the Pyramid Model for promoting social-emotional competence in early childhood classrooms. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 36, 133-146. doi.org/10.1177/0271121416653386
- Sutherland, K.S., Conroy, M.A., Algina, J., Ladwig, C., Jessee, G., & Gyure, M. (2018). Reducing child problem behaviors: A randomized controlled trial of BEST in CLASS. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 42, 31-43. doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2017.08.001
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