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“It’s Hard To Tell A Real Tantrum From An Attention-Seeking One, But Knowing Your Children Helps”

Nicola Wardropper, Early Years Adviser at NDNA, talks about promoting positive behaviour in an Early Years setting

  • “It’s Hard To Tell A Real Tantrum From An Attention-Seeking One, But Knowing Your Children Helps”

Q: What is negative or challenging behaviour in young children?
A: Children aren’t born with an understanding of what is ‘good’ or acceptable behaviour; they have to learn it in the same way they learn how to ride a bike.

Challenging behaviour can display itself in a number of ways, including temper tantrums, biting, using inappropriate language and hitting others.

A common theme can be immature or underdeveloped communication skills, which can result in frustration. If a child is frustrated, troubled, tired or in pain they’re more likely to display upsetting behaviour, whatever their age.

What is the role of the early years practitioner?
Children need sensitive guidance and care from a trusted adult to help them deal with their emotions, and to feel safe and secure in their environment. It’s important for adults to build close relationships with children, to know what helps to comfort and distract them.

Children need to learn self-regulation, how to control their own feelings and behave appropriately. They need the support of adults to help them understand right and wrong, and to learn empathy: that other children get upset and have feelings just like them.

Practitioners work closely with them to develop these skills, but also need to know how to discuss these techniques with parents.

Can the nursery environment help?
Yes, a calm physical environment that’s well organised, where children can explore and be engaged in learning is important in promoting good behaviour. Good organisation, planning and accessibility of sufficient resources can help, as can keeping noise to an acceptable limit.

Make sure children have plenty of time outside to work off some energy.

Which groups are vulnerable to frustration and violence?
Children with SEND often display difficult behaviour out of frustration or pain.

Also, children from disadvantaged backgrounds can lack social skills as, for many, it’s their first time in a social environment or with other children. This can result in behavioural issues such as difficulty in sharing and turn-taking.

What causes temper tantrums?
Expert Margot Sunderland talks about two types of tantrum, distress and ‘Little Nero’ tantrums. Most tantrums are displayed in children from 18 months to about four years old.

Distress tantrums are caused by a child struggling with strong feelings such as disappointment or frustration and becoming extremely upset, whereas ‘Little Nero’ tantrums are displayed when a child is seeking attention and has learned that tantruming helps them get their own way.

A child suffering a genuine tantrum needs comforting. Move towards the child calmly and be sensitive and caring to help them cope with their feelings. Most take comfort from being held, which helps relax their bodies.

Practitioners and parents are advised to move away from a child if they are sure their tantrum isn’t genuine and not to give them attention.

They will learn that this isn’t an effective way to get what they want. It’s difficult to tell a genuine tantrum from an attention-seeking one, but knowing your children, observing and recording their behaviour will help.

Is there a way of preventing biting?
Biting is a common and difficult issue to deal with. Sometimes there’s no cause, and it’s not usually intentional or malicious.

Young children explore using their mouths and can’t always prevent themselves from biting an object, including another child. It can be an experiment to see what reaction they get or, when they’re a bit older, a sign that they are frustrated or craving attention.

Try to avoid situations where children prone to biting can be frustrated or unable to express themselves. Make sure they have adequate supervision and resources to be engaged in positive activities. Give them attention and emotional support.

Following a biting incident, comfort the victim first, but be calm and firm with the biter. Use simple language that toddlers can understand: “Biting hurts.” Sometimes biters need comforting as well. Try to help them express themselves.

How do you work with parents to support their children?
Some parents struggle to deal with their child’s challenging behaviour. They may not know how to approach this effectively, or may think smacking is appropriate because it’s what they learned themselves as children.

Children might be copying aggressive behaviour they see at home. Explain to parents the need to teach them about rules and boundaries. Children need to be taught good behaviour, so setting an example is important.


Nicola Wardropper is an Early Years Adviser at NDNA.

Aimed at staff working in early years to support children and parents, NDNA’s online ‘promoting positive behaviour’ course looks at typical behaviours in young children, schemas and how children learn, including brain development. Information is given through videos and activities, and there is a quiz to test your knowledge. It includes handouts on subjects offering helpful strategies and techniques, which can be shared with parents. To find out more, visit ndna.org.uk/training.


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