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Developing behaviourial skills in early years

I was reflecting recently on young children’s behaviour as a skill to be learnt and developed over time and was saddened by some overheard comments about “problem children”, “naughty boys” and “ineffective parenting.”


What is it that stirs such emotive language in us?  Parents and practitioners need to teach their children to regulate their behaviour in different social contexts through kind and respectful interactions. Can lessons be learned around how we view the learning of behaviour by trying to remove some of the judgement associated with this emerging skill?


Competence in regulating behaviour can become the label attached to the child in a way that other skills are not.  For example, when we see well-regulated behavioural skills some adults might describe that child as a ‘good boy.’  But if they had mature physical skills such as running and hopping would we say they were ‘a good boy’, or describe the skill that they were good at, such as ‘a fast runner’?


I tried out substituting a whole sequence of phrases using the skill of counting in place of the word ‘behaviour’. Would we use these terms to describe counting, or does it sound ridiculous? I borrowed the examples from some National Strategies materials - see what you think!

  • All children should know how to ‘count’

  • Mothers, fathers and carers should make sure that children know how to ‘count’

  • If children have been told to ‘count’ then they should do so

  • If you explain to children why they should ‘count’ they should be able to do it

  • If other children in this age group can ‘count’ then this child should be able to.


It’s a bit disturbing, isn’t it?   Because we know that children learn the skills of counting through experience, through modelling from their peers and adults, through demonstration, through being praised for their efforts, through purpose and an innate desire to put order on their world.


Behaviour is a complex skill to learn and it takes a lifetime for most of us to master. It’s crucial that we support young children to develop age appropriate skills to facilitate a harmonious learning environment where all feel valued and safe. But it is a skill which takes practice and time to improve with a skilled learning partner by your side.


I am not an expert in behaviour management and am certainly not nearly as learned a scholar as I would like. I’m just an experienced practitioner who tries to hear the voice of the child in my practice.  In November we spent a day working with two very experienced Educational Psychologists – Phil Stock and Dr Nina Robinson – on how to identify and support children in EYFS who need some extra help.  We’re planning to run this course again soon, please keep an eye on our announcements page if you would like to join us.


Helen Cheung, BPSI Adviser

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