Educational Psychology

Managing children's behaviour in early years

Early Years settings working in partnership with parents and carers is central to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Educational Psychologists are involved in supporting the development of children at home and at school. As practice psychologists working with young children, we use psychological theory to underpin advice and support to parents and educational staff.

By Dr Frances Parker on 19 Dec 2017


Early Years settings working in partnership with parents and carers is central to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Working collaboratively with parents and helping them to support their children will result in:

  • Improved educational outcomes for children
  • Improved communication between educational staff and parents
  • Improved relationships between parents and children.

Educational Psychologists are involved in supporting the development of children at home and at school. As practice psychologists working with young children, we use psychological theory to underpin advice and support to parents and educational staff. Managing behaviour in young children can be viewed as encompassing 3 main psychological theories:

  1. Child development
  2. Behaviourism
  3. Social learning theory

Young children learn behaviours and using a behavioural 'ABC' (antecedent-behaviour-consequence) can help to inform strategies that can be used to reduce inappropriate behaviours and reward appropriate ones. Social learning theory maintains that children learn through observation, imitation and by modelling the people around them.

Children typically reach developmental milestones that reflects their ability such as walking and talking. When children experience a delay with their learning skills, this can impact on their ability to learn, understand and communicate and sometimes they are judged to have behavioural difficulties.

Relationships are important and children will respond more readily when they are in a relationship of mutual care and respect. Children are more likely to behave the way we would like them to when they are in an environment that reduces opportunities for challenging behaviour and where the adults provide experiences and expectations that are appropriate for their developmental age. This will minimise triggers for challenging behaviours like tantrums, aggression and defiance.


Young children are not always able to tell us how they feel and they often communicate their feelings through their behaviour. However, many adults and parents sometimes struggle to understand their child’s behaviour and this can result in temper tantrums, arguments and stress at home.

Nobody is a perfect parent and there are often no right or wrong answers.

Whatever your child has done, they are not the first and they won’t be the last!

Being a parent is hard work. However, life can be made a little easier for you and your child if you can understand why children behave the way they do and try to follow some steps to help manage your child’s behaviour.

Adult/child Relationship

The more loved and understood your child feel by you, the easier it will be to manage their behaviour. Spend time with your child on a regular basis that does not centre on their behaviour. Use play, games, storytelling to create special times to develop your relationship together.


Be sure that you know your child is capable of doing what you are asking.

Sometimes parents/carers view their child’s misbehaviour as something they are doing, ‘on purpose’. While sometimes this may be true, it also may be that the behaviour is quite normal for their developmental age.

Ground Rules

Set agreed rules and keep them simple.

Don’t keep changing the rules, depending on the circumstances.


Repetition is a part of learning.

Decide how many times you will repeat a direction before acting on it. It should be no more than 2 or 3 times for a young child. You might start by giving them a warning of what will happen if they do not do as they are told and then follow through with the consequence. Remember if you repeat a direction multiple times, your child will learn not to respond until you have repeated the command many times!

Be Consistent

Children feel safe when it is clear what is expected of them.

All adults involved with the child need to have the same rules.

Stick to the rules you have made and try not to give in just for the sake of ‘peace and quiet’.

Positive Reinforcement

This is most helpful to help a child behave in the way you have asked them to.

Praise your child to boost their self-confidence and sense of achievement.

Remember try not to use material rewards (such as a new toy) for good behaviour. When your child has behaved as you have asked them to, try to do something together that they really enjoy e.g. a game, play together or a trip to the park. Intermittent rewards are also reinforcing, i.e. catch your child when they are doing something well!

Providing Consequences

Using consequences helps you to teach your child how to behave appropriately.

It develops your child’s sense of responsibility for their actions and helps them learn how to do things differently in the future. Be careful not to give out harsh consequences when you are angry that you will not follow through on!

Create a logical consequence for your child’s behaviour. For example, if they don’t put away their toys, then they will not be able to play with them for a limited time.

Reduce Confrontation

Prevention is better than cure, so try to avoid situation that make your child tired and frustrated.

Give and take! – This isn’t a sign of weakness. Giving your child a choice of two options and some control over what will happen, within the boundaries offered by the adult, will help your child develop a sense of responsibility for their own behaviour.

Use distractions and humour to help avoid difficult situations.

Remove your child from the situation, to avoid further upset.

Stay calm and in control.

Set a Good Example

Children learn a lot by copying others, especially their parents/carers.

If you throw a tantrum when you are angry, your child will learn that this is the way to behave.

Respect your child and never be afraid to say sorry if you are in the wrong.


Remember praise, a cuddle and your attention are good rewards for your child.

Simple clear reward systems may work well for targeting specific behaviours.

Begin with small behaviour targets, so that your child can experience success, gradually becoming more demanding.


Every child is different and even in the same family you may need to try different approaches.

Your child’s difficult behaviour does not mean that there is something wrong with you or your child.

Talk to other parents, you will find that many parents will have similar experiences!

If you continue to have concerns about how to manage your child’s behaviour then speak to the staff at your child’s nursery/school. They will be able to support with advice and strategies and it is always best if your child knows that the adults at home and at nursery/school are doing the same thing!


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press Mc Leod, S.A. (2018). Skinner – operant conditioning. Whitebread, D. Developmental Psychology and Early Childhood Education. (2011). SAGE Publications.

Useful websites

Barnardos - Parenting and family support Kids Behaviour Family Lives Early Education

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Dr Frances Parker is a senior educational psychologist and designated safeguarding officer with 15 years' experience in educational psychology practice.

Please get in touch or visit this page for more information.

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