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When we think about child behaviour, we usually default to thinking about ‘bad’ behaviour – pushing other kids or refusing to share at playtime. But what are the origins of the way children behave, both good and bad?
Behaviour describes how someone responds to a situation or experience. It is affected by a child’s own unique temperament, which influences their emotions and the way they react to things that happen in their lives. Behaviour can also be affected by what’s happening socially and
environmentally, including parenting practices, being exposed to new situations, life events, and relationships with friends and siblings.
Most children learn to regulate their behaviour as they grow, through the relationships they develop with significant others and a self-understanding that develops over time.
Children who receive consistent and nurturing responses from adult caregivers are more likely to learn adaptive behavioural responses themselves. Parents and caregivers can help the child to balance their emotions, feel valued and gain a sense of belonging. Caregivers can also model
coping skills for children, which in turn helps them to develop their own skills.
Babies and toddlers are learning lots of new skills and abilities in their first three years, which all influence the way they behave. As they grow older, they will start to copy what other children around them are doing; for example, taking turns when playing. In the
toddler years, they continue to develop their autonomy, balanced with the need to be close to their caregiver.
Young children have some self-awareness by 2 years, and start to understand how to manage the frustration of being told ‘no’ as they learn to cope with disappointment, frustration and anger.
In the preschool years, children are developing their understanding of social rules, and developing greater empathy. Alongside this is a systematic increase in pro-social behaviour and a decrease in aggressive behaviour. Preschool children develop a preference for specific
peers, which increases the possibility of social exclusion for children who may have less developed pro-social skills.
During middle childhood, children are working on feeling good about themselves, gaining social acceptance and integrating their unique preferences, strengths and styles with the expectations of adults and peers.
They continue to refine their self-awareness, and develop the emotional regulation skills that let them choose not to respond with aggression in the face of frustration or anger.
Common everyday behavioural difficulties in children include whining and pestering, tantrums, biting, and swearing.
If you are concerned about a child’s behaviour it is important to discuss your concerns with parents. If the behaviour you see at school or in your setting is not replicated at home, there could be other factors influencing the way the child is behaving.
You will find more information to share with families about children’s common behavioural problems on the Raising Children Network.
Whining and pestering are common in early childhood and can be challenging, but are not usually cause for serious concern.
Tantrums are a natural part of growing up and are not usually a reason for serious concern. Typically, they diminish of their own accord as children reach 3 years and older.
Biting behaviour and its meaning change with age, ranging from testing new teeth and exploring reactions, to behaviour that corresponds with the peak in tantrums and physically aggressive behaviour.
Swearing alone is not a sign of behavioural disturbance. Very often, a young child who swears is doing so because it sounds funny or they know they’ll get a reaction.
Children’s behaviour can sometimes be worrying or even distressing for parents and caregivers, but it’s useful to know what’s normal to help predict and prepare. However, if concerns persist, it is important to encourage parents to talk to a professional for more guidance.
The Raising Children Network has developed toolkits of articles and videos to help parents to learn more about
In the first few years, children’s development is rapid and they are constantly learning new skills. These new skills, knowledge and abilities affect their behaviour.
In the toddler years:
Toddlers experience a wide range of emotions, but don’t yet have the words and skills to express how they’re feeling. Early childhood educators can help children to develop the words for these emotions, and to express how they’re feeling verbally rather than acting out physically.
In the preschool years:
There are some ways that adults commonly respond to children that can act to undermine their behavioural development. It is best to avoid:
It can be useful to know what might be coming up in terms of behaviour as children grow and develop, but every child will develop at their own pace. If you or the child’s parents are concerned about a child’s behaviour, it’s important to talk to a health
professional for more information.
The Raising Children Network has developed a toolkit of articles and videos to help to learn more about toddler behaviour.
Take a look.
In the early school years there are common areas of behaviour that most children will be working on:
All of these new challenges effect the way that children behave as they push boundaries and work out social norms. As their teacher, there are steps you can take to help them develop these new skills, and encourage the behaviour that is suited to your school environment:
Behavioural development is a work in progress for children in their early years. Fresh challenges arise often as friendship groups change, and new temptations appear. With patience and the consistent application of boundaries and consequences you can help children develop the behaviour skills
that they will need for life.
The Raising Children Network has developed a toolkit of articles and videos to help to learn more about children’s behaviour in the school years.
Take a look.
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The Centre for Community Child Health is a department of The Royal Children’s Hospital and a research group of Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.