Guiding Children’s Behavior

Guiding Children’s Behavior

I have taken numerous classes on behavior management and early childhood education, and what I’ve found is that they just don’t seem to align. The early childhood philosophies are more preventative – they show how good teaching can eliminate children’s misbehaviors. The behavior management classes provide a lot of strategies for individual students who struggle with behavior, but often these strategies are not appropriate for young children. I’ve thought a lot about how to guide students’ behavior in such a way that is appropriate and effective for young children.

After much research and practice, I’ve determined that there are two important pieces to behavior management that every teacher should know. There’s the preventative behavior management that a teacher needs in order to maintain safety and order in their classroom. This will eliminate many misbehaviors – but not all of them. In the case of a misbehavior, there is reactive behavior management. In order to be an effective teacher, you need to be prepared for both kinds of behavior management. One way to think of it is similar to the RTI model.


Preventative Behavior Management

Preventative behavior management can be broken into five components: teacher language, classroom set up, classroom rules, planning for transitions, and teaching social skills.

Teacher Language

The most important behavior management tool a teacher has is their language. The teacher should use reflective and responsive statements, which means commenting on efforts and interests versus empty praise and evaluating products. Such language should avoid using I-statements, like “I like that” or “that makes me sad,” because it is not about what the teacher wants – the children should not follow the rules or make a picture because it makes the teacher happy! It’s all about the children, not the teacher.

Offering choices can also play a crucial role in teacher language. When used effectively, choices can be a teacher’s best friend! However, only give a choice when there is a choice to give. So many teachers fall into the routine of phrasing things in a choice format. For example, “Want to go put on your jacket?” or “Go put on your jacket, okay?” By adding the okay or by asking the questions, you open the options up for the child to say no. So, when it is not a choice, make sure that is clear to the child: “You need to wear a jacket. It is cold outside. It is not a choice today.”

This being said, whenever you can offer students a choice – and especially when dealing with students who can be defiant – provide them with two options (you don’t want to give too many choices and overwhelm the student). For example, “You can put your jacket on yourself or I can help help you” (but you ARE wearing your jacket).

Finally, for teacher language, how you say it is is as important as what you say. Get down to their level. Be careful of your tone because when we get frustrated with a student’s behavior, we tend to show that frustration in our voice. It is important to stay calm and use simple, clear, and direct instructions. Fewer words make a stronger impact when redirecting behavior. Say exactly what you want the child to do. Instead of, “Don’t run!” say, “You can walk” or “Go back and walk.” Instead of “Don’t throw the ball at the window,” try “You can throw the ball over there. Want help finding a friend?”

Classroom set-up

When you are setting up your classroom, it is important to ask yourself a few questions. Ask yourself: Can you see all the areas of the classroom? Are there enough high-interest materials for sharing? Can the children put away and find materials on their own? Are there some quiet, cozy areas, as well as some areas that can be louder and more playful? Finally, think about the flow of children. Are there areas where there might be a “traffic jam?” If there is a repeated misbehavior, think about how the classroom set-up might play a role in the problem. Maybe you can move some furniture or materials to better support behavior in the classroom.

Classroom rules 

Every classroom should have rules, promises, or expectations that are created as a class and discussed often. A great resource for creating classroom rules is Responsive Classroom’s The First Six Weeks. As a teacher, you need to explicitly teach, model, and practice all of the classroom expectations and routines, as well as the class rules. When coming up with class rules, they need to be short and memorable, and they should be written in positive language (what the children should be doing as opposed to what shouldn’t they do).

My rules are: take care of yourself; take care of others; take care of the classroom; be a first time listener; and have fun and learn. Whenever I teach a new routine or we practice a classroom expectation, I always connect it back to which class rule we are following. Class rules should be talked about all year long and they should be posted somewhere in the classroom where all children can see. I also have my students sign it before we hang it.

Planning for transitions

Most behavior problems occur during transition times, but there are some simple ways to prevent such misbehaviors. The first step is to prepare children for the upcoming transition. At the beginning of the day, go over your schedule, which should be posted so that children know what to expect for the day. Then, when a transition is approaching, give the children a warning, “5 more minutes.” If possible, post a visual timer so that children can see how much time is left.

Keep transitions as short as possible. If it is not possible, then have something for the children to do, such as singing a song or playing a game. For example, play ‘I Spy’ and have the children look for things in the classroom and ask questions, or play ‘I’m Thinking Of’ and think of an object or a number and have the children try to guess what you’re thinking. These are great strategies because the children can be in their next spots (in line or on the rug) ready to go, but because they have something to do, they will show the expected behavior. Finally, plan for the students who struggle. They may need an extra warning, their own personal timer, or a specific transition job. They may even need to transition early. As you get to know your students, you will know what works best for them.

Teach social skills

Social skills must be taught explicitly. Instead of just saying, “Be kind,” you need to be specific. Say, “Your face/voice looks/sounded annoyed. Is something bothering you?” Instead of telling a student to “Say it nicely,” say, “Instead of saying ‘Move!’ try ‘I was sitting there and got up to use the bathroom. Do you mind sitting somewhere else?’” Children need to know the words to use when they are frustrated and upset. Teach children how to deal with conflict, to identify and express their feelings, and to solve problems. This should be done for the whole class, as well as in the moment when misbehavior occurs. Take each misbehavior as an opportunity to teach a new social skill.

Screen Shot 2018-07-04 at 4.46.57 PM.png

Reactive: Responding to Misbehavior

When we see a misbehavior, there are many ways we can respond, and what we decide depends on the many factors we know about this child. The first question to ask is how many times has this behavior occurred?

For the first misbehavior, we should have the child redo the behavior with the right language and choices because they might not know how to do the correct behavior. The second time the behavior happens, there should be a logical consequence, as cited by Responsive Classroom. The consequence should be related to the misbehavior, respectful to the child, and realistic. There are a few examples at the end of this post.

The third time this behavior happens, you could send the child to a “time-out” – though many teachers call it something else. The point of the break is not to punish but to have the child take a break and calm down. I call it the control spot because it is where the child goes to get back in control. Other names are Peace Corner, Rest and Return, Take a Break Spot, etc. It is crucial that you show students how to use this space effectively. You can even model going to the control spot yourself.

While teachers may send students there, children should know they can use this spot when they need to get their body back in control. If you send a child to the break spot, say it with both a neutral facial expression and tone of voice. Keep their time there to one to two minutes. If the behavior continues to occur though, you need to start analyzing the behaviors and perhaps create a more formalized behavior plan.

These are pictures that I hang up in my control spot to help support students in this area! Check them out on teacherspayteachers!

Behavior Plans

Behavior plans are a great tool to use when a student struggles with following class expectations. They are designed to be used with one to three students, not the whole class.

After deciding to try a behavior plan, you need to figure out which areas to work on with your student. When we have students with extreme behaviors, we often have a long running list of behaviors we want to fix. However, you should only pick one or two of the most needy behaviors, those that are the most dangerous or occur the most frequently. One way to figure out which behaviors to choose is to compile data on the student and track both the frequency and time of day that certain behaviors happen.

Once you decide which behaviors to focus on, you’ll want to create the behavior chart. The behaviors on the chart should be the behaviors you WANT to see, not the behaviors you don’t want to see. This will help teach the child what they should be doing. You should include visuals on the chart that model the behavior, especially for younger children. Ideally, these visuals would be of children who look like your student. You could either take pictures of the student or look on Google.

You will also need to figure out how often you want to check in with your student and how often the student will get a reward. More extreme behavior requires more frequent check-ins. When in doubt, start with more check-ins, and then as the child becomes successful, take some away. I usually do it by subject area because it is easy to remember.

Finally, you’ll want to determine what rewards to use and what the child will need to accomplish in order to get the reward. It is important that you talk to the child and ask them what they would want as a reward.

Before implementing a behavior plan, you will need to let the parents know that you are trying this. If possible, have a way to share the results with the parents and encourage the parents to talk about the plan with the child. Such strategies work best when all stakeholders are invested.

Screen Shot 2018-07-04 at 7.18.00 PM

If you want to know more, check out my resource on teacherspayteachers!

Guiding Behavior Examples

So, after all this talk about behavior management, here are some examples of misbehaviors and how I would handle them as a teacher.

Student actionsTeacher actions
A student spills milk during snack time.“I’ll help you find a sponge so you can clean it up.”
A child draws on the table instead of their paper.“Markers are for paper. Here is a wipe – clean up the table.”
A student pushes to get a place in line.“I see you push people to get in line. You’ll have to get out of line and wait in the back with me. Tomorrow you can try again on your own.”
A child talks continually to a neighbor during a group activity.“Take a break. Go to the control spot”

Those were pretty simple situations. However, there are more complicated situations that every teacher will experience. Here are some of the case studies and the ideas that I have as the teacher.

Case StudyTeacher thoughts and actions
A kindergarten girl. E has difficulty expressing her dislikes or frustrations in a calm, kind way. She often resorts to yelling or crying. When she cries, she has a hard time calming down. She is very concerned with what others are doing and gets upset if they are not doing what is expected.·Teach emotional regulation when she is calm and have her practice often.


·Teach her to take 5 deep breaths when she is feeling upset.

·Teach her about the size of a problem and help her to handle small problems with small reactions.

A first grade boy. R had been working all year on staying focused during work times and staying quiet on the rug. He has diagnosed ADD. R had really been successful using strategies and tools to sustain attention and to stay quiet during work times. Then, a few months later, R’s behavior regressed and R had trouble with staying quiet and staying focused again. He often bothered his peers during work times and would sometimes throw objects around the room.·First, talk to the parents. Has anything changed?


·Turns out, the family is moving in a month. Often children regress or show escalating behaviors when a big change has happened.

· Write the boy a social story about moving – how he will have new friends in his new school, but he can still see his old friends!

First grade boy new to the school. T struggles with staying quiet and seated on the rug. T often gets up in the middle of lessons and does break dance or jumps. T also struggles to stay on task during work times. He often follows the teacher around the room or throws books, pencils, math tools.· Take data on the main misbehaviors. What is the behavior that is most disruptive and occurs the most? Focus on one or two expected behaviors to start. Create and implement a behavior plan.


Denton, P. (2007). The power of our words: Teacher language that helps children learn. Turners Falls, MA: Center for Responsive Schools.

Dillion, J. T. (2017). Relationships and Guidance. In Who am I in the lives of children? (10th ed., pp. 194-244). Pearson.

Hemmeter, M. L., Ostrosky, M. M., Artman, K. M., & Kinder, K. A. (2008, May). Moving right along… Planning transitions to prevent challenging behavior. Young Children, 1-7.

Katz, L. G. (1972, June). Condition with caution. Young Children, 2(1). 20-23.

Kirkwood, D. (2017) Guiding children’s behavior: Helping children act their best. In G. M. Morrison (Author), Fundamentals of Early Childhood Education (8th ed.). Pearson.

Minahan, J., & Rappaport, N. (2013) The behavior code: A practical guide to understanding and teaching the most challenging students. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Walker, J. E., Shea, T. M., & Bauer, A. M. (2007). Behavior management: A practical approach for educators. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.