Every child has behaviors that are difficult to manage sometimes. Usually, these behaviors are a completely normal part of a child’s development and the natural process of them learning right from wrong. Most behavioral issues can be managed and improved by implementing strategies like consistency, setting clear rules, using positive reinforcement and using selective ignoring. 

Although misbehavior is normal in children, occasionally, it can represent a more serious underlying disorder like ADHD, anxiety, stress, developmental delay or autism. If you notice problematic behavior that seems particularly severe, doesn’t respond to management strategies, or impacts the child’s ability to function in everyday life; it is important that you seek professional support. If you would like to know more about child development, behavior and mental health, take a look at this online children mental health course

Here are some strategies for dealing with behavioral problems in children:

Set Clear Rules & Expectations

You can’t expect a child to behave in a desired manner if you haven’t told them what good behavior entails. Setting clear rules and expectations is essential. Good family (or classroom) rules should be positive, specific and easy to understand.

These rules can be implemented to teach all sorts of behaviors, including physical safety, manners, routines, hygiene, respect and screen use. The rules you use will depend on the age and personality of the child, and on your lifestyle and needs. According to ‘Raising Children’, rules should:

  • Specifically state the behavior that you want – for example, ‘when someone hands us something, we use our manners by saying ‘thank you’
  • Be easy for children to understand – for example, ‘use a quiet voice inside the supermarket’
  • Tell children what to do rather than what not to do – for example, ‘Keep the living room tidy by putting your toys away’ rather than ‘don’t be messy’. Rules that tell your children what not to do can leave them wondering what they are supposed to do instead. 

Reward Desired Behavior

Behavior management is as much about encouraging desired behavior as it is about discouraging undesired behavior. According to Jardy’s article ‘Using Positive Reinforcement with Young Children’, positive reinforcement is essential for supporting young children’s use of appropriate behavior and skills. Positive reinforcement can take the form of praise and/or rewards.

If you are giving your child praise, it should involve eye contact, getting physically close, making praise immediate, and praising the specific behavior and not the child. For example, rather than simply saying ‘good girl’ when a child puts away their toys, be specific and say ‘thank you for putting your toys away and helping me to keep this place tidy’. 

In terms of rewards, sticker charts are a great incentive for good behavior, especially for children aged 3-8. Sticker charts can be for general ‘good behavior’, or they can be very specific. Basically, every time a child models a desired behavior, add a sticker to the chart. Then, once the child has earned a certain amount of stickers, treat them to a reward. Charts usually work best when they are kept to short time frames, with a little break in between. Charts that go for longer than one week usually lose their momentum.

Selective Ignoring for ‘Low Priority’ Behaviors

Ignoring ‘bad’ behaviors can seem counter intuitive, but sometimes children act out because they want attention. Ignoring low-priority behaviors – like whinging, throwing tantrums, yelling, being hyper or swearing – does not mean that you accept them. Withdrawing attention from a child communicates to them that this behavior is not going to get a reaction from you and encourages the child to calm down and stop engaging in the behavior. 

According to Rick Jarman in his article ‘Finetuning Behavior Management in Young Children’, ignoring should involve breaking eye contact, walking away or going into another room. As soon as the misbehavior stops, pay attention to the child again and praise them for stopping the specific behavior. Ignoring should not be used for ‘high priority’ behaviors, like hitting, hurting, defiance, dangerous behaviors or deliberately breaking things.

These behaviors will require logical disciplinary consequences like timeout or withdrawal of privileges. Whatever consequences you give, try to remain as calm and logical as possible when you interact with the child, and give them love and praise as soon as the behavior stops.