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How to Encourage Desired Behaviors Inside and Outside of the Classroom

Danielle Gallop, Education Consultant

Inspiring a toddler or 3/4/5-year-old to behave can be a challenge. There are ways to encourage desired behaviors – the tricks are building trust and being prepared.

Building Trust

Be genuine and talk to children as if they are capable.  They are smarter than you think…  Model good behavior.  When you speak down to children – or speak to them as if they do not understand – they will dismiss a lot of what you say.  Often saying “please get me a napkin” results in the child trying to get you a napkin.  If you say, “Can you reach those napkins?”  may allow them the opportunity to try, however, you may run the risk of the child saying no.  Avoid giving the child the opportunity for self-doubt.  Speak to them in a way that instills confidence with the assumption of “you got this” and “you can do it”.  The more you speak to the child as if they understand – the more they will understand.  Ask questions, ask for help, and say please and thank you!

Listen carefully. Kids feel better when they know you are listening – it tells them they are important.  In life, as with children, it is helpful to repeat another person’s concerns.  If a child is not sharing you might say “I understand you want that toy too!  Ask Jacob if you can play with it when he is finished”.  This provides opportunity for each child to use the toy and promotes patience.  Often, Jacob will finish up and share because it is HIS choice.  Children LOVE CHOICES

Admit your mistakes. Be sure you let your child know when you’ve made an error – so they know it’s ok to make mistakes and they will trust you more.   

Being Prepared

Set Rules and Expectations, Establish Routines.  Children, and let’s face it – all of us, do better when we know what to expect and what is expected of us.  Keep it simple.  Be Kind to others.  If a child is kind – they do not hit, they share, we use nice words, we listen and keep our hands to ourselves, etc.  Be Kind to your classroom/home.  This means play with toys gently and put things back.  Be Kind to yourself.  This means, we walk inside – as not to fall, etc.  Let children know what comes next.  Be consistent and respectful of times of the day when children are hungry or tired. 

Praise Desired Behavior, provide re-direction as a way to prevent derailment and ignore undesired behavior (unless it is unsafe). Rather than spend your whole day arguing, or sitting a child in time-out…  find something good to talk about early in the day – set the tone and give him/her a gentle redirection when necessary – picking your battles.  Set clear rules and expectations for the children and PRAISE him/her for showing they know the rules, etc.  Often a gentle “should you be climbing on that chair” is enough of a redirection.  Stay close to the child so he/she doesn’t require you to disrupt the class when providing ‘guardrail’ instruction.  Use positive direction rather than negative: ‘We keep our feet on the floor’, ‘You know that throwing is for outside play – let’s roll the ball instead.’

GIVE CHOICES:  When a child refuses to do — or stop doing — something, the real issue is usually control.  It’s easier than you think to give children this sense of control.  Give them choices.  “Would you like to clean up the blue ones or the red ones first?”  “Would you like to turn the light off, or should I?”  “How many crackers would you like 3 or 4?”  All the choices will provide “power” in their world.  Remember you must provide choices you can live with!

Set Yourself Up for Success. Use your head.  You can prevent undesired behaviors of the past.  If you know that Johnny throws sand when playing unattended in the sensory bin.  Make sure he is well supervised and never gets bored in the sensory bin.  If you have to walk away – have him join you to ‘help’ you, close the activity, or if it will only be for a second – put that child in charge of the activity.  Typically, a child turning 3 and older usually takes this responsibility seriously and will choose to behave.  Provide guardrails for your classroom/home… way in which you can avoid potential mishaps.  We so it for children to keep them safe when they are small.  Spend a moment observing the child and plan accordingly.

Promote Self-Help and Problem Solving:  Encourage children to figure out a solution to their problem.  “What do YOU think we should do?”  “What do you think you could do to get Jacob to share that toy with you?” Even 3-year-olds can learn to solve problems themselves. The trick is to listen to their ideas with an open mind. Don’t shoot down anything, “that’s a good idea – and is it fair to Jacob too?  Maybe there is another option….hmmmm… make an effort to let the child know you are thinking too.”  The child will help come up with another solution.   

Stay calm. If you cannot avoid undesired behavior, stay calm.  Count to 5 or 10.  Take a deep breath.  Move to the child.  Use a quiet, steady tone and words that are gentle and instructive.  Ask the question “Are you following the rules?” “What should you be doing?”  Suggest better behavior “Why don’t we get ready to go outside”, “Let’s all tidy up so we can get ready for lunch”.  Try not to discuss the child’s behavior in front of the other children.  Nobody responds well when they are on the defensive.  Try to inspire “I love to see you share” and “I am so happy when all of the toys are away, and the classroom is ready for us to do art.”

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