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Supporting children’s behaviour in early childhood services

Learn effective strategies for nurturing children’s behaviour in early childhood services. Understand the importance of positive guidance and how it contributes to a child’s learning and development.

Corporal punishment and unreasonable discipline are not permitted in any early childhood services under both the National Quality Framework (NQF) and the Children's Services Act (CS Act).

Providers, nominated supervisors, staff members and family day care educators must ensure that:

  • no child is subjected to any form of corporal punishment or discipline that is unreasonable in the circumstances. Heavy financial and other penalties apply for breaches.
  • every reasonable precaution is taken to protect children being educated and cared for by the service from harm and any hazard likely to cause injury.

All providers must also:

  • take reasonable steps to ensure that education and care is provided to children in a way that gives each child positive guidance and encouragement toward acceptable behaviour
  • have a policy and procedures about interactions with children that includes procedures to ensure education and care is provided in a way that:
    • gives each child positive guidance and encouragement toward acceptable behaviour and encourage children to express themselves and their opinions
    • allows the children to undertake experiences that develop self-reliance and self-esteem
    • maintains at all times the dignity and rights of each child
    • has regard to the family and cultural values, age, and physical and intellectual development and abilities of each child being educated and cared for by the service
    • children being educated and cared for by the service have opportunities to interact and develop respectful and positive relationships with each other and with staff members and volunteers
    • considers the size and the composition of the groups in which children are being educated and cared for.

Behaviour guidance

The term ‘behaviour guidance’ is used rather than ‘discipline’ as it reflects current thinking in early childhood. The term:

  • focusses on children’s strengths
  • demonstrates respect
  • is based on knowledge of child development and learning
  • is grounded in positive mutually respectful relationships between adults and children.

Behaviour guidance:

  • uses an understanding of each child’s family, background and culture
  • focuses on supporting children to gain an understanding of their own and others’ feelings and begin to learn skills to begin to manage their own behaviour
  • encourages children to reflect on their actions, and the impact those actions have on themselves and others.

This contrasts with the more traditional ’behaviour management’ or ‘discipline’ approaches. They generally imply an adult ‘managing’ children’s behaviour or using punishment, or inappropriate discipline to control them. 

Corporal punishment and unreasonable discipline are not permitted in early childhood services because:

  • the child may be physically harmed
  • it nearly always has detrimental or negative effects on the child’s self-esteem and feelings of security and belonging.

When educators adopt a positive and active approach to behaviour guidance, they:

  • reduce challenging behaviours
  • encourage children to achieve success
  • develop positive self-esteem and
  • increase competence in children. 

Challenging behaviour

Some behaviours regarded as challenging are simply age appropriate behaviour.

For example, a two year old not being able to sit still, or an eight year old unable to contain their excitement and wait for their turn. Learning to communicate needs and wants in appropriate ways is one of the many challenges young children face. 

Children’s behaviour may be an attempt to satisfy a valid need or express a want, or be an indication of their needs or interests not being met. Environmental conditions may also influence children’s behaviour and generally with good environmental support, children thrive. 

Adults who model positive attitudes, behaviour and appropriate use of language help children to learn socially acceptable ways of behaving and interacting with others. Children need support from the adults in their lives to interpret and express their needs in ways that are appropriate to the situation and environment. 

Strategies to guide children’s behaviour and prevent behavioural issues

A positive environment for learning and development will help reduce challenging behaviours.

When a child displays challenging behaviour, it is important to:

  • identify the possible reasons for the behaviour
  • know how frequently the behaviour occurs
  • notice in which settings it occurs and how extreme it is
  • observe carefully then sensitively document and record the behaviour.

Depending on the age of the child, the service can inform themselves by:

  • assessing the child’s developmental needs, interests, experiences and progress against the learning outcomes
  • using evaluations of the child's wellbeing, development and learning.

Once these observations and assessments are completed, an informed decision can be made about whether individual behaviour guidance strategies are required, or whether the behaviour can be addressed through the daily behaviour guidance practices of the service.

In some situations the service may need to increase the educator to child ratios to meet the needs of children with challenging behaviours. 

Unacceptable practices - discipline and punishment

The following are some examples of corporal punishment and unreasonable discipline that are considered serious breaches of the National Law and CS Act and Regulations; it is not exhaustive: 

  • hitting, slapping, or pinching
  • force feeding
  • isolating
  • yelling
  • humiliating or belittling a child
  • physically dragging a child
  • depriving a child of food or drink, including saying to a child ‘if you don’t eat your vegetables you can’t have dessert'.

Other examples of unacceptable practice include:

  • negative labelling
  • criticising
  • discouraging
  • blaming or shaming
  • making fun of or laughing at
  • using sarcastic or cruel humour
  • excessive use of negative language, such as saying 'no', 'stop that!', 'don't….', or 'you never...'.

Time out

‘Time out’ is defined as removing a child for a period of time to an alternative place and in isolation.

Time out is inappropriate and could be considered as unreasonable discipline.

Isolating the child:

  • has the potential to cause fear or humiliation, but it also is likely to increase negative behaviour at other times
  • focuses on the exclusion of the child from the group with no support or opportunity for reflection or consideration of other ways of behaving and it does not help children develop positive behaviour or feelings of self-worth.

All services are required to operate in a way which ensures that:

  • children are safe
  • that their developmental needs are being met
  • that they are adequately supervised at all times.

Where there is an immediate danger of the child being hurt or hurting others, or as part of a behaviour management plan, it may be necessary to take a child to an alternative environment, to support the child to calm down or regain self-control. In these situations:

  • the educator must always stay with the child offering reassurance and support so the child can settle down and regain self-control
  • the situation can be used as a learning opportunity for the educator to help the child develop self-calming behaviours, gain composure and control. It is not as punishment
  • this strategy allows the child to calm down, and educators may then provide support and assist the child to identify what happened and what they may have done differently. In the heat of highly emotive moments it can be challenging for children to think or talk about what went wrong.

Options for managing challenging behaviours include:

  • redirecting children to other activities
  • providing a quiet, safe space in which to regain their composure.

Role of the service

It is important for services to discuss challenging behaviour with the child’s parent or guardian as families can provide educators with valuable information and insights.

Families vary considerably in child rearing practices and the ways each family manages challenging behaviour. The kinds of behaviour they accept may differ from those of the education and care service. This can cause confusion for the child and may not be helpful in assisting the child to change their behaviour. 

When there are differences of opinion between parents and the service in relation to responding to challenging behaviour, it is crucial for the parents and services to work together to come to an agreement that is in the best interests of the child. 

Children’s behaviour should always be understood in the context of:

  • an understanding of the child in the context of the family, culture, community 
  • knowledge of the child’s developmental stage 
  • an understanding of the family dynamics and
  • knowledge about anything unusual that may be occurring within the family or influencing the child’s behaviour.

Consulting and referring with other professionals

When a child does not respond to daily behaviour guidance strategies, it is essential that educators consult with parents about developing specific behaviour guidance strategies. There may be times when additional professional assistance and external support are needed to help a child.

In this situation:

  • parental consent is required where referral for intervention is requested by educators, and it is important that professionals from other support services work in collaboration with educators and parents
  • the professional should be made aware of the service’s behaviour management policy so that the strategies that are developed are consistent with the policy
  • all educators working with the child, even if only for a short period each day, must be aware that there is a specific behaviour guidance program to be followed for that child so they can have a consistent approach to guiding children who are displaying challenging behaviour.

Children with diagnosed behavioural difficulties may require individual management plans and these must be developed in consultation with the family, professionals or support agencies.

State and Commonwealth Funded Referral Services

Other assistance is available through the following programs.

Pre School Field Officer (PSFO) Program

The Preschool Field Officer Program run by the Victorian Department of Education is an early intervention outreach service that is universally available within State-funded preschools for any child with developmental concerns.

Inclusion and Professional Support Program (IPSP)

The Commonwealth Department of Education provides the Inclusion and Professional Support Program (IPSP) to promote and maintain high quality, inclusive education and care, for all children, including those with ongoing high support needs.

Education and care services approved for Child Care Benefit (CCB) or those funded under the Budget Based Funded Program are eligible to access the Inclusion Support Subsidy (ISS).

This subsidy may be used to contribute towards the costs associated with engaging an additional educator to increase the educator-to-child ratio when a child or children with ongoing high support needs are in care.

Notification of serious incidents, complaints, abuse

If serious incidents occur at the service, providers must notify the department. They must also notify the department if they receive complaints from parents or members of the public that allege there may be a risk to the safety, health and wellbeing of the children.

If any challenging behaviours give rise to any suspicions of sexual or physical abuse of children, every early childhood worker has an obligation to notify.

For more information on what notification is required refer to Child protection in early childhood.

Learn more about incidents and complaints.