Developmentally appropriate child guidance: Helping children gain
Dealing with disruptive behavior in the classroom is one of
the most difficult issues an early childhood educator faces.
In trying to redirect or extinguish disruptive behavior, teachers
need to use developmentally appropriate practices as laid out
by the National Association for the Education of Young Children
According to these practices, the purpose of child guidance,
or discipline, is not to control young children but to help them
learn to be cooperative. The most effective techniques help children
learn how to accept responsibility for their actions and empower
them to exercise self-control.
Discipline should not be punishing. Instead, it should provide
children with learning experiences that nurture an understanding
of social consciousness. Those learning experiences include participating
in generating class rules, receiving positive reinforcement for
pro-social behavior, experiencing the natural and logical consequences
of their behavior, and observing adults in pro-social, person-to-person
interactions. Ultimately, any child guidance technique must nurture
each child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development.
Involve children in creating classroom rules
An important initial step in ensuring a developmentally appropriate
pro-social environment is to create a set of classroom rules
in cooperation with all the children in your room on the first
day of the school year. A cooperative approach is the key.
With 3-year-olds, you may need to propose two or three simple
rules, explain the reasons behind them, and invite their cooperation.
By the time they turn 4, most children will be able to propose
rules and discuss them. Ideally, classroom rules are not teacher-dictated.
They must evolve from ideas discussed with and agreed upon by
By encouraging children to participate in setting rules, you
are laying the foundation for a community of learners who follow
rules, not because they will be punished by the teacher if they
don’t, but because they feel a part of that which they
help to create. Using a democratic group process helps children
to develop moral reasoning.
Creating rules helps clarify behavior expectations. If children
are to know what behavior is expected, the guidelines must be
stated as positive actions. Help children with wording that says
what they are expected to do, not what they can’t do.
For example, instead of a rule that says “No running,” the
rule would read “Running is an outside activity. I walk
inside.” Other examples:
“I touch people gently.”
“I talk in a quiet tone of voice.”
“When I finish with an activity, I put it back where I found it.”
“I place trash in the wastebasket.”
Once the rules have been established, create opportunities to
practice them. During the first few weeks of the year, reinforce
the class rules through role playing, singing songs, and reading
children’s books about the rules.
In addition, you must model the rules and socially competent
behavior in general. Children best learn rules by seeing them
practiced by the adults in their lives. Modeling pro-social behavior
demonstrates how human beings should interact with one another.
It reinforces behaviors that are respectful of others.
Use positive reinforcement
Make a commitment to verbally reinforcing the socially competent
behavior you expect in young children. Use positive feedback
to reinforce pro-social, productive behavior, and to minimize
To reinforce pro-social behavior, simply look for it. When it
happens, use a three-part “I” message, as explained
below, to reinforce it. When disruptive behavior occurs, use
positive feedback to draw attention to classroom behavior that
you would like to see. Avoid focusing on the disruptive behavior.
Reinforcing pro-social behavior should not be confused with praise.
Praise can damage a child’s self-esteem by making a child
feel pressured into attaining arbitrary standards. Praise implies
an objective value judgment. For example: “Josh, your painting
is beautiful.” If praise does not continue, Josh may perceive
that his value, as a person, is diminishing. A young child may
start to assume that a person’s value is directly tied
to an ability to produce a specific product.
A better alternative is recognition and encouragement. Encouragement
is specific and focuses on the process the child used to produce
the artwork or how the child is feeling at the moment. For example: “I
like the effort you put into your picture” or “I
see that you’re happy with the red lines and green circles.” In
these examples, neither the child nor the product is labeled
good or bad. The focus is on the process or behavior. When stated
as positive affirmations, words of encouragement can help nurture
An encouragement system can also use tokens as positive feedback.
For example, children could be offered tokens when displaying
behavior you want to reinforce. The tokens are not used as rewards,
and they are not redeemed for some tangible prize. Additionally,
the tokens would never be taken away once given to a child.
This system encourages a child to repeat desired behavior and
will tend to stimulate intrinsic motivation. When a child sees
or hears a classmate being reinforced for a particular behavior,
the attention given to the targeted behavior increases the odds
that the disruptive child will be motivated to try the same behavior.
Examples of developmentally appropriate tokens are construction
paper leaves that can be placed on a personalized paper tree,
and paper ice cream scoops that can be stacked on a paper ice
cream cone. Every child would have a tree trunk or ice cream
cone on a designated bulletin board. Early in the year the children
would cut out leaves or ice cream scoops and place them in a
large container near the board. When a teacher observes a desired
behavior, she states the behavior, how she feels about it, and
invites the child to get a token. “Tyron, when I see you
picking up those blocks, I feel so excited, I invite you to put
a leaf on your tree!” Phrasing a message in this manner
tends to encourage intrinsic motivation.
Use natural and logical consequences, not punishment
Natural and logical consequences can effectively motivate self-control
without inflicting the cognitive, social, and emotional damage
caused by punishment. When appropriate, allow natural and logical
consequences to redirect inappropriate or disruptive behavior.
This will encourage self-direction and intrinsic motivation.
Assume, for example, that Melissa leaves her painting on the
floor instead of putting it on the drying rack, and a minute
later another child accidentally steps on the artwork and ruins
it. Melissa ends up with a torn painting as a natural consequence.
Use logical consequences when natural consequences are not practical.
If a child is throwing blocks, for example, a logical consequence
would be to lose the privilege of playing in the block area for
a set time. Children need the opportunity to connect their behavior
and its consequences. Using logical consequences allows children
to learn from their experience.
By contrast, punishment relies on arbitrary consequences. It
imposes a penalty for wrongdoing. For example, “Steven,
because you hit Johnny, you don’t get to sit in my lap
for story time.” Loss of lap time here is an arbitrary
consequence, unrelated to the hitting behavior.
Being punished for unacceptable behavior conditions young children
to limit behavior out of fear and leads to lowered self-esteem.
Experiencing logical consequences, on the other hand, allows
children to see how to achieve desired goals and avoid undesired
Inappropriate, disruptive behavior is typically motivated by
the need to gain attention. Wanting attention is not a bad thing.
The issue is how to gain it. Children need to learn that they
can choose to satisfy needs in socially acceptable ways. Logical
consequences help young children become self-correcting and self-directed.
Model clear, supportive communication
Supporting a child’s cognitive, emotional, and social development
requires well-honed communication skills. When talking to young
children about behavior, differentiate between the child and
the behavior. It’s the behavior that’s “good” or “bad,” not
“I” messages. Speaking in three-part “I” messages is
an effective tool for keeping your focus on the child’s behavior. This
is a three-part, non-blaming statement that helps a young child hear which
behaviors are not acceptable without damaging the child’s social, emotional,
or cognitive development. “I” messages can be used to address inappropriate
or disruptive behavior as well as to reinforce socially competent and positive
Use this template for constructing “I” messages that
encourage pro-social behavior: “When I see you _____ (identify
acceptable behavior), it makes me feel _____ (identify your feelings
about the behavior) that I want to _____ (identify what you want
to do). For example: “Wow, Tara, when I see you turning
the pages carefully as you read your book, I feel so happy I
want to give you a high five.”
To extinguish disruptive behavior, adapt the template as follows: “Tara,
when I see you hit Mary, I get so sad that I am going to keep
you with me until I think you understand about touching people
understanding. Empathy is the ability to identify with
someone else’s feelings. As early childhood educators,
we are responsible for nurturing the development of emotional
intelligence in young children. We need to reinforce behavior
that is sensitive to the emotional needs of others.
An example of when to use this skill is when children are tattling.
Children tattle as a passive-aggressive way to solicit adult
attention. Assume, for example, that Takesha complains, “Johnny
hit me.” A developmentally appropriate response would be “You
didn’t like that, did you?”
This type of response does three things: 1) The focus remains
on the child’s feelings, rather than on the actions of
another child. 2) It models words that help a child express what
she is feeling. 3) It encourages the child to talk about how
she feels, which helps her develop enhanced awareness of her
feelings and pro-social ways to express them.
listening. Children need to feel they are being listened
to. To communicate that you are paying attention to a child,
maintain eye contact, smile attentively, and use appropriate,
gentle touch to convey that you have unconditional positive regard
for the child. Use the same communication skills with children
that you want others to use with you.
Common listening errors that adults make when interacting with
young children are analyzing the child’s words rather than
focusing on the child’s feelings, rushing the child through
the expression of feelings, and interrupting the child’s
expressing of feelings. A teacher displaying impatience, for
example, can stifle language development and discourage a child
from sharing feelings. But a teacher who listens attentively
helps children develop emotional intelligence.
A critical factor for successfully implementing developmentally
appropriate child guidance is consistency. You need to enforce
rules consistently, even when it may be easier to look the
Children need to know what is expected of them. They have difficulty
adjusting to unexpected change. When they display disruptive
behavior, keep in mind that it may have been conditioned into
them since toddlerhood. It’s unrealistic to assume that
it will be extinguished in just one day. Behavior reinforced
prior to the child’s being exposed to your classroom will
take time to reshape. Don’t expect an overnight change.
You can change disruptive behavior by using a consistent, systematic
process, such as the 12 levels of intervention explained in pages
Developing self-control is a process. Throughout the process
early childhood educators must demonstrate considerable patience
and be consistent in reinforcing productive, socially competent
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About the author
Will Mosier, Ed.D., is an associate professor in teacher education
at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He is a licensed
independent marriage and family therapist in Dayton.