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Promoting positive behaviour and support for wellbeing is a shared endeavour. This includes ensuring challenging and engaging activities for young children and promoting their increased involvement in positive and welcoming learning environment. This should maintain an inclusive approach for all children and their families.

When is behaviour 'a problem'?

All small children find ways to express their wishes and test their parents' and other significant adults' authority. Less verbal children are likely to resort to tantrums if frustrated - screaming, drumming feet, and hurling things around. More verbal children may whine and fuss and refuse to co-operate.

Children with additional needs have greater frustrations to bear, although they may not have an obvious disability. If they have learning difficulties they can find it harder to concentrate or to understand what is expected of them and harder to tell people what is upsetting them. If children cannot see or hear or have physical disabilities, they often struggle to communicate their needs. All these difficulties can lead to greater feelings of anxiety, frustration and rage, which they may then express through their behaviour.

When this happens, many parents can feel helpless and often exhausted. This may lead to the child's behaviour becoming more challenging. When the child comes to a setting, these behaviours may show up even more with the stress of the group environment. Settings may find that their usual rules and techniques do not work. It can also be very difficult to explain to other children why there are different behaviour rules for them.

Often parents feel that their child's behaviour is their fault. Sometimes they think it is something in the setting that is causing a problem. Sometimes practitioners feel that poor parenting and lack of understanding about the child's needs within normal development needs addressing. It can be difficult to identify the causes of inappropriate behaviour and to know how to respond for the best.

Normal development or additional needs?

Personal, social and emotional development is an aspect of learning that demonstrates the child's ability to cope with people and settings outside the family, including the development of independence skills, self-esteem and the ability to relate to others.

These are grouped in four areas in the outcomes for children:

  • Getting emotional needs met
  • Behaviour
  • Relationship to others
  • Feelings

The SEND Code of Practice is clear that where a child's progress is cause for concern, or where a child appears to be behind expected levels in these four areas, as in other areas of development, practitioners should consider all the information about the child's learning and development to inform decisions about whether or not a child has SEN. (Code of Practice 5.28)

Difficult or withdrawn behaviour does not necessarily mean that a child has SEN. However, where there are concerns, there should be an assessment to determine whether there are any causal factors such as an underlying learning or communication difficulty. If it is thought housing, family or other domestic circumstances may be contributing to the presenting behaviour, a multi-agency approach, supported by approaches such as the Early Help Assessment, should be adopted.

Examples of persistent behaviour in young children that might be problematic are:

  • Screaming and tantrums
  • Kicking and hitting adults and children
  • Breaking things
  • Biting people and objects
  • Swearing
  • Smearing faeces, urinating in odd places

Young children may have an occasional tantrum, which is normal for their age. It is only a problem if the tantrums get worse and they become unsafe to themselves and others. Some young children with additional needs might display some or all of these behaviours - it becomes problematic if it is persistent and severe.

Such behaviour can develop in children from as young as 18 months.

What are the causes of problematic behaviour?

Children can be affected by any of the following:

  • Frustration, particularly if the child cannot physically do something and/or cannot communicate their needs
  • Anxieties, fears and phobias. This can be an issue if the child cannot bear any change in routine or appears to be frightened of something.
  • Lack of understanding. The child does not know what is expected or may take a long time to work out what is meant so may not respond.
  • Unable to express emotions in words, so shows unhappiness or anger in their behaviour.
  • Hyperactivity. A child may have excess energy and needs to be constantly on the move in the day and then cannot sleep at night.
  • Discomfort. A child may not be able to bear certain noises or textures or might be hungry, thirsty or in pain and unable to communicate this.
  • Misplaced attention. A child may have learned that a particular behaviour gets a welcome reaction - any kind of attention can be rewarding for a child, even if that attention is negative and is meant to stop them doing something.

Some behaviour difficulties are more likely in children with particular conditions or disabilities. For example, children with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) find it very hard to stay still or to concentrate for very long and they are often impulsive, reacting before thinking through the consequences.

Some behaviours have their roots in genetic conditions which may lead to a child having an increased tendency to be obsessive or anxious, to over-eat, sleep badly or self-harm. If the child has a diagnosis of a genetic syndrome it is worth finding out more about the condition to see if they are at extra risk of developing particular behaviour patterns.

Although children with some conditions and disabilities are at increased risk of developing behaviours that are problematic, it is important to recognise that it is not a foregone conclusion - it is just an increased risk. They will not necessarily develop that behaviour and even if they do, they can be helped to reduce its frequency and minimise its effects.