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Early Years behaviour

Understanding behaviour through the stages of development

It is really important to accept both the age of the child and the stage of their development when considering any management of behaviour. As adults if we have a clear understanding of both, we are more likely to have reasonable expectations of children. Understanding child development is essential to the process of helping children whose behaviour may not follow what is classified as 'the norm'. It is also important to consider our own behaviour and that of the adults around the child as research on children's character development suggests that the strongest influences on children's character development is modelling by adults, peers, and others. Simply they respond to what they see and hear.

Individual children develop at very different rates but they usually follow patterns closely related to their age, however developmental markers are only given as general guidance there will always be exceptions to the rule.

The following descriptors give some general expectations at different ages:

  • Babies from birth to one year are not developmentally able to understand rules
  • They respond to their feelings of hunger, tiredness etc and alert adults to these feelings
  • They have no concept of 'bad' or 'good' behaviour as they act on instinct and are unaware of the world around them

Most children at 12 months:

  • Do not understand they are a separate person
  • Like to be with people they know well and may be upset with strangers
  • Respond in different ways at different times to similar situation, they may laugh at something one day then cry or be upset by it the next day
  • Can follow a simple instruction
  • Will make sounds, call and shout to gain an adults attention

By 15 months, children are usually:

  • More aware of themselves, but do not yet understand that others are separate beings
  • Into everything, exploring without ideas of what is safe to do or touch
  • Very possessive, particularly of people he/she loves, they do not like to see mum holding another child
  • Easily distracted from behaviours which are unwanted, trying to reason with him/her will not work well. Their mood swings from joy to fury in seconds
  • Easily frustrated and this sometimes results in shouting and throwing things

By 18 months a child is usually:

  • More aware of him/herself as distinct from others
  • Responsive (briefly) to being told 'no', but needs it to be repeated frequently, reinforced by actions, such as moving them away from danger
  • Totally self centered, unconcerned about the effect their actions will have on others
  • Very determined to have their own way, and are easily frustrated at not being able to do things for themselves

Sometimes a child at this age:

  • Responds to frustration by throwing, screaming or shouting
  • Tries to assert him/herself by refusing to comply with adults and showing defiance

A typical 2 year old:

  • Has a clearer self-image, but still does not appreciate others as separate people
  • May be able to play alone for up to 20 minutes, as long as they know a trusted adult is nearby
  • Is very possessive of their own toys - everything is 'mine'. Sharing has not yet become a way of life, and needs to be treated as a developmental stage and not a punishable offence. He/she needs to be shown how to share by frequent and sensitive adult intervention. Its helpful to have more than two items of popular toys available at any one time
  • Does not like to wait for demands to be met, impatience is normal
  • Will have frequent tantrums when frustrated, even if you are not aware of the cause; can usually be distracted, but you need to guard against rewarding them for screaming by giving your attention and to teach them alternative positive ways to gain an adults attention
  • Is now able to show and express feelings, of affection, fear, anger, distress
  • Can now understand when others are upset, hurt, excited or happy and will respond appropriately

A typical 3 year old:

  • Knows him/herself well and is becoming increasingly independent
  • Is often resistant to being told what to do and how to do it, usually thinking they know best!
  • Will go happily with people they know, and is much less worried about strangers, they are becoming more sociable and less shy
  • Has usually developed the ability to wait when necessary but be realistic
  • Is willing to discuss what he/she needs to do, and to negotiate appropriate behaviours and responses
  • Usually has a good command of language and therefore is less likely to have a tantrum or behave rebelliously
  • Has sudden mood swings and sometimes behaves in extreme ways without necessarily knowing the reason why
  • Likes to be seen to be well behaved, and knows what to do when taken into a wide range of social situations
  • Is able to appreciate what is going on around him and fit in with the feelings and moods of adults around him
  • Has a real need for approval. Wants to be loved and appreciated by adults

A typical 4 year old:

  • Can take part in discussions, negotiate and reason
  • Is very friendly and can be helpful to both other children and adults
  • Understands their own feelings and is therefore more likely to respond in a predictable way and to express feelings verbally
  • Is much more self-controlled and can control bodily movements well
  • Is less dependent on the main carer and likes to do things with other adults
  • Is mostly able to behave appropriately in different situations, understanding what to do where and when
  • Likes to play in a small group, not necessarily with friends, but with those showing an interest in the same activity; he/she can move between groups happily and independently
  • Takes turns in group games with other children, but usually needs an adult to keep the structure of the game and ensure consistency
  • Enjoys imaginative play, and can continue for considerable lengths of time with complicated ideas
  • Understands yesterday, today and tomorrow, as well as now, before, later
  • Will argue the case and put their own ideas quite strongly
  • Sometimes blame others for their own misbehaviour and denies their own part in it; this is part of a need for approval and a growing awareness of consequences
  • Will sometimes behave badly as a way to gain a reaction from an adult. Any attention can be seen as better than none
  • May swear and use forbidden language, again as a way to gain attention

During the year between 4 and 5:

  • Although they may seem very confident, sociable and talkative, children are trying to make sense of the world and their part in it
  • Self-assurance develops and activities are more purposeful
  • Children are more inclined to follow a thing through to the end
  • Being able to wait, take turns and to share with others is so much part of behaviour that they no longer need to think about it
  • Children are sometimes stubborn, argumentative and aggressive with adults and other children
  • A child who is unwell or tired still needs the help and security of a trusted adult

A typical 5 year old:

  • Is more independent, more self-contained and more self-controlled
  • Needs the approval of adults to support their self-esteem
  • Knows, and feel ashamed when their behaviour is unacceptable
  • Will sometimes be overactive, aggressive and argumentative
  • Will argue with parents, but not usually with teachers or other adults when denied something
  • Will engage in negotiation and bargaining; this is still useful as a way of ensuring good behaviour
  • Is not so easily distracted from anger or frustration
  • Needs to be given ways to regain control when angry; 'quiet time' supported by an adults usually helps
  • Enjoys games which enable them to be competitive as individuals rather than in teams
  • Still needs adult intervention to adjudicate in arguments
  • Likes to assert themselves by boasting and sometimes threatening others
  • Loves to be the best and can be very purposeful and persistent to achieve this

Reference: Garner, M, Featherstone. S, Hardy, M 2005 Including Children with Behaviour and Attention Difficulties in the Early Years Foundation Stage, Black Publishers Ltd, London