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When Dealing With ‘Disruptive’ Behaviour In Early Years, Try Reading Between The Lines…

Before you brand undesirable behaviour ‘naughty’, consider what the child involved might be trying to tell you or learn about the world, says Sue Cowley...

  • When Dealing With ‘Disruptive’ Behaviour In Early Years, Try Reading Between The Lines…

Adults sometimes interpret children’s behaviour as being ‘naughty’ because it doesn’t fit in with our views about how they should behave. But while some behaviour is designed to get an adult reaction, most of the time a small child’s behaviour is simply about an emotion that they cannot express.

When small children feel tired, upset or unhappy, they might ‘act out’ as a result. Similarly, much of what we might term ‘problem’ behaviour is about children experimenting and learning more about their world.

The scenario

Since Tommy started in your setting he has shown an endless fascination for tipping out toys and resources from the boxes in which they are stored. He will move around the nursery, taking each box in turn and tipping everything that is in it onto the floor, or into a large tipper truck that he loves to play with. He then stacks the empty boxes up in a tower, before knocking them over.

When staff ask Tommy to help tidy up, he is happy to do so – but the minute you turn your back, the resources are tipped straight back out again. Some members of your staff have expressed frustration about Tommy’s behaviour. A number of other children have begun to copy Tommy and tip out the toys as well. You’re keen to do something to resolve the situation.

The issue

Young children’s behaviour is often simply an attempt to communicate, because they do not necessarily have the language they need to express what they really mean. When you look for solutions to a behaviour issue, consider what the child’s behaviour is trying to ‘say’ to you and your staff team.

Once you have opened up the lines of communication, and figured out what is really going on, you will be in a position to help the child channel the behaviour in a more appropriate way.

Dealing with the behaviour

To deal with Tommy’s tipping behaviour, try the following strategies:

1. Consider what Tommy is trying to ‘tell’ you when he tips up the boxes
Is he saying something to you about the way that he wants to learn? For instance, perhaps he has an interest in a trajectory schema that you could explore together?

2. Ask Tommy’s key worker to spend some time observing him, then talk together as a staff team about the observations he or she makes
What learning needs does Tommy have, and what next steps could you focus on as a team?

3. Set up situations where Tommy can use his desire to ‘tip out’ things in more productive ways
For example, you could challenge him to count blocks carefully into his truck, to see how many will fit, rather than tipping them all out in a rush.

4. Try offering Tommy some empty boxes and see what he does with them
It could be that he is tipping out the boxes because he is interested in using the empty containers.

Finding solutions

Rather than seeing Tommy’s behaviour as a problem, encourage staff to explore what his behaviour is telling them and how this might lead to ‘next steps’ in learning for him.

• Consider where and when Tommy does the tipping. Although it might feel like the answer to this question is ‘everywhere, and all the time’, it is likely that there is something that triggers this behaviour.

• Encourage staff to talk to Tommy about why it might not be appropriate to tip out the toys. Ask him what the problems might be with him doing this – could someone trip over them, or perhaps the toys and resources might get damaged?

• Talk to Tommy’s parents about whether similar behaviour happens at home. If it does, talk to them about how they deal with Tommy when he demonstrates his tipping out behaviour. Perhaps Tommy behaves like this to get their attention.

• Explore ‘tipping out’ different resources with Tommy. For instance, he could experiment with tipping out water from one size jug into another in the water play area. Or he could tip soil or sand into containers in an outdoor area.

• Encourage Tommy to tip resources from one box into another, rather than directly onto the floor. Talk to him about how this helps you keep your setting safe and tidy, and why this is important.

Sue Cowley is an author and teacher trainer; For more information, visit www.suecowley.co.uk or follow @Sue_Cowley


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