Managing aggressive behaviour

Published on Tuesday, 09 February 2021
Last updated on Monday, 08 February 2021

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Responding to a child who displays aggressive behaviour is no easy task. Reducing challenging behaviour takes time, energy and teamwork between the child, educators and the family. There is no quick fix, but the rewards of supporting children to overcome their impulses are long lasting and can ease the transition to primary school.

Research into aggressive behaviours in early education services has found the most frequent actions were pushing, pulling, fighting over objects, children taking an item from someone else, and kicking or throwing things, with around 77 per cent of the aggressive behaviour occurring during free time activities. 

Aggressive behaviour can be a symptom of an underlying issue and by seeking to understand the causes of the behaviour, educators can learn what is driving the reaction and how to respond. Children may lash out due to frustration or because they haven’t yet learnt how to control their impulses or resolve conflicts. 

Other causes may include stressful life events through to behavioural issues like ADHD, autism or a learning difficulty that challenges the child’s ability to manage and express their feelings effectively and appropriately  

Also important is the child’s environment and the relationships that inhabit it. Relationships built on warmth and mutual respect can teach children pro-social behaviour. As prevention is better than cure, creating an environment that supports children to feel valued and safe will mean negative behaviours are less likely to arise.

For children to learn to behave well in child care, they need to know what ‘behaving well’ looks like. Communicating this clearly allows children to learn why certain behaviours are welcome and why others aren’t. 

A Behaviour Guidance Policy between children and educators can help promote clarity and consistent approaches so everyone is prepared and knows how to respond when required.

To assess and manage aggressive behaviour in young children there are four key steps to follow:

  1. Identify behaviours causing concern
    If a child is displaying difficult behaviour it’s time to stop and record your observations. Note details such as when the behaviour happened, who else was involved and what happened before and after the incident. By carefully monitoring and addressing these situations, educators can begin to identify why they may be happening. This can help target strategies to manage the child’s behaviour more effectively.

  1. Understand reasons behind the behaviour
    These types of behaviours happen for a reason. Educators need to look at what might lie beneath. The reasons why behaviours occur are many and varied. Social changes, frustration, attention seeking, poor role modelling, and learning difficulties are just a few. The way to identify these reasons will involve careful observation and documentation, and discussion with the family and colleagues.

  1. Teach appropriate behaviours
    After identifying the behaviours causing concern, it is then important to identify the positive behaviours that need to be developed in the child. Taking an instructional approach to behaviour gives children the chance to learn and practice how to behave in a learning environment. Educators can support children by identifying a small number of behavioural expectations and defining specific examples or rules of what those expectations look like across common settings or routines – such as during circle time and in the bathroom or playground – and by directly teaching children how to put those expectations into practice.

  1. Use behaviour management techniques
    Behaviour management strategies need to be moulded to the individual child and are often a case of trial and adaptation. The important thing is to try one or two strategies for an extended period of time to allow the child to respond, and to be consistent both yourself and between other staff and carers.

When faced with challenging behaviour, here are some key strategies that can be helpful:

Create a predictable environment

The classroom environment plays a central role in encouraging positive behaviour. Create a predictable, orderly learning environment to maximize structure and predictability. 

Minimise and plan transitions

Transitions can be a particular concern related to young children’s behaviour and frequently impact how orderly the classroom environment is. Teachers can support positive behaviour throughout transitions by planning for them ahead of time, alerting children before transitions occur, and providing a clear signal at the beginning of each transition.

Model the behaviour you expect

Be a positive role model. A controlled tone of voice and a calm attitude should be adopted by the educator in all situations. Children learn from observing adults working together and collaborating and modelling positive behaviours. This encourages children to move towards considerate actions that support an understanding of inter-dependence.

Recognise good behaviour and achievements

Providing children with specific, positive feedback helps them learn what appropriate behaviour looks like. Verbally commending appropriate behaviour as it occurs is an essential tool for room management. Educators can create opportunities for more formal recognition of positive behaviour such as sending home a certificate when they “catch” children demonstrating positive social behaviour.

Give specific and timely feedback on negative behaviour. 

Explain to children what they are doing wrong and offer them options to change and lay out the consequences of such behaviour. 

Use positive language

Empathetic or reflective language is a subtle way of providing positive messages to a child. It conveys to the child that you are seeing them, trying to understand them and acknowledging any feelings they may be experiencing. For example, using words such as ‘Perhaps’, ‘Maybe’ and ‘Sometimes’ in interactions enables children to agree or disagree if they want to, rather than the adult deciding how the child may be feeling and why they are behaving negatively.

Provide emotional outlets 

Children get stressed and frustrated so plenty of opportunities to express this in a safe and appropriate way will decrease the chance of these emotions bubbling over. Put on some music, paint, draw, dance and sing. Stomp around like angry monsters or go for a run outside. Soothing music or a quiet space can help reduce tense feelings, also play is important to teach emotional regulation, problem-solving and social skills.

Talk about feelings

Encourage emotional articulacy in your class by discussing feelings. Use ‘social stories’ to help children understand expected behaviours, work through interpersonal issues, practice conflict resolution skills and help them understand new perspectives. Say how you would feel too. This will give children confidence and a structure to talk about how they feel.

Be firm when needed, help organise feelings 

Children need the security that comes with knowing there are limits and that when they need help with their behaviour they will get it. Children need adults to set reasonable boundaries and help them to organise their feelings and responses. Educators can support children to focus on the outcomes of being considerate to others while searching for a fair and equitable resolution, that supports learning.

Involve families

Communicate with parents and keep them in the loop when their child has misbehaved. Educators play an important role in helping families support and guide their child’s behaviour in positive and effective ways. 

References and further reading: Strategies for managing challenging behaviours in kids 

Onsite early childhood training: Aggressive Behaviour in Young Children – Steps to Positive Management 

Twinkl: Positive behaviour management strategies in early years

ACECQA: Supporting children to regulate their own behaviour

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