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Grow & Thrive - Behaviour

  • Vol 5 No. 2, May 2016

    Children's behaviour

    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.

    Normal childhood behavioural development

    Babies and toddlers (up to 3 years old)

    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.

    Preschoolers (4–5 years old)

    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.

    School-aged children (6–12 years old)

    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.

    Challenging childhood behaviour

    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 

    Whining and pestering are common in early childhood and can be challenging, but are not usually cause for serious concern. Read more.


    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. Read more.


    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. Read more.


    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. Read more.

    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.

    Learn more

    The Raising Children Network has developed toolkits of articles and videos to help parents to learn more about toddler and school-age behaviour

    Behavioural development: early childhood educators

    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:

    • Children develop their language skills, adding new words that can help them to describe how they’re feeling and thinking.
    • Parallel play activities continue through toddlerhood and into the preschool years, but children also begin to imitate their peers more and develop turn-taking skills during play.
    • Children’s desire for independence increases, but this is balanced with a desire to stay close to their parent or caregiver.
    • By about the age of 2 years, children develop some self-awareness and begin to learn right from wrong. Before that, they’re generally not conscious of doing the ‘wrong’ thing.

    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:

    • Children start to develop conscious memories, which help them to build their self-concept.
    • As children grow older, their understanding of social rules and customs develops, and they develop greater empathy for others.
    • Preschoolers increase their pro-social behaviours – things like sharing toys with other children – and decrease or cease physically aggressive behaviours, which usually peak in the toddler years.

    There are some ways that adults commonly respond to children that can act to undermine their behavioural development. It is best to avoid:

    • Responding in a dismissive fashion: using this approach works to ignore or trivialise negative emotions.
    • Expressing your disapproval: by being disapproving of strong emotions, adults act to reprimand and punish.
    • Being laissez-faire: a casual and off-hand response to children’s emotions acknowledges them, but fails to guide the child or offer any learning opportunity for next time.

    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.

    Learn more

    The Raising Children Network has developed a toolkit of articles and videos to help to learn more about toddler behaviour. Take a look.

    Behavioural development: early primary school

    In the early school years there are common areas of behaviour that most children will be working on:

    • Feeling good about themselves. In the early school years, children see how they measure up against other children in the class, which is ever-changing as children try new things and develop new skills. Developing and maintaining a strong self-concept is an important task for children.
    • Gaining social acceptance. Each child will figure out their own preferences, strengths and style, balanced with what adults and their peers expect.
    • Working out and managing different values. When the home environment has previously been the most influential guide to behaviour, the different values and expectations that school presents can be tricky.
    • Exploring autonomy – and its limits. Early-school-age children work to overcome fear of unfamiliar situations as they develop independence, while also reacting to peer, teacher and other adult expectations and requirements.

    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:

    • Model the behaviour you’d like to see.
    • Use ‘I’ first language to help activate children’s sense of empathy. Children are developing their empathy skills in the preschool and early school years. When you say things like ‘I feel like this when you do that’ you can help to tap into these developing abilities.
    • Active listening can help children to manage their emotions. Take the time to acknowledge how children feel and repeat back to them what you have heard to help them feel respected and acknowledged.
    • Give children responsibility and consequences. There needs to be agreed and accepted consequences, which are applied universally, for children who don’t meet the responsibility you have given them.

    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.

    Learn more

    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.

    Click on the the images below for Grow & Thrive information for families on children's behaviour.

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    About Grow & Thrive

    Grow & Thrive supports early childhood educators, primary school teachers and parents in their important roles in children’s earliest years. Articles prepared by Eliza Metcalfe, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.

    Editorial panel

    Ross Dullard                                                    
    Rhonda Livingstone                                          

    Production editors

    Vikki Leone 
    Eliza Metcalfe

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Murdoch Childrens Research Institute

The Centre for Community Child Health is a department of The Royal Children’s Hospital and a research group of Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.