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Back to basics
Child guidance: An overview


Few topics generate more questions among parents and teachers than those related to children’s behavior and appropriate discipline or behavioral guidance. And while adults may disagree about guidance techniques because of family or cultural history, there are basic guidelines supported by research and experience that early care and education professionals can rely on.


What is effective child guidance?
Young children lack self-control and rely on trusted adults to guide them in the process of emotional development and self-regulation. Adults must offer children the tools that teach them how to behave so that they can respect themselves and others in order to live in harmony.

Some people refer to this process of teaching acceptable behavior as discipline. But that term implies outside control, rigidity, and punishment. Guidance, on the other hand, emphasizes the features of exploration, trial-and-error, and discovery that characterize all aspects of development. Effective guidance takes into account the child’s abilities, past experiences, and the environment; it focuses on the positive and helps children take responsibility for their choices.


Guidelines and definitions
Rely on these general guidelines for helping children recognize, develop, and use emotionally and socially acceptable behaviors.

Have realistic expectations. Children change as they grow. We need to know the typical behaviors to expect from children at different stages of development. Certain behaviors are normal at one age but not at others. It’s unrealistic, for example, to expect an 18-month-old to share or a 3-year-old to feel and express true remorse.

Prepare the environment. The physical setting, including room arrangement, lighting, noise level, temperature, materials, and equipment, impact children’s behaviors. And simple changes in the environment can prevent many behavioral problems. To reduce running indoors, for example, rearrange furniture to eliminate long, open spaces. To encourage respect for personal belongings, give children access to well-labeled cubbies, racks, or bins for secure storage. Divide areas for active and quiet play to encourage children to assess their own emotional states and to satisfy their own needs.

Model desired behaviors. Children imitate the behaviors of adults and other children. Model the behavioral traits we’d like to see. For example, speaking in a moderate, caring tone teaches more than endlessly repeating, “Use your inside voice.” Use self-talk, such as “I’m putting my clipboard on its hook so that I don’t have to search for it later,” to model and reinforce rather than preach.

Build trust in routines. Children need a schedule they can count on so that behaviors can become habits. For example, hand washing before eating, and hand washing after toileting are desirable lifelong habits that have their origins in early childhood guidance practice.

Set simple, reasonable limits. A limit is a rule or guideline for behavior. Commonly, early childhood limits are few in number and simply stated as in, “We care for ourselves, our things, and each other.” Respond quickly and deliberately to a situation that endangers someone. But be aware of how many times in a day you feel the need to intervene. Changes in the environment or classroom practice may be in order.

Be consistent. Stick to the limits you’ve set and enforce them promptly. Apply rules fairly and without prejudice. For example, make sure you avoid making assumptions about gender role play, ability, interest, or need. The rules that are important to enforce on Monday morning should be equally important on Friday afternoon.

Give positive reinforcement to appropriate behavior. To reinforce means to strengthen. In addition to simply monitoring and correcting children’s problem behaviors, reinforce and encourage appropriate ones. Remember, reinforcement is unique to each child but every child seeks approval and your positive regard. Find ways to communicate your respect for every child every day.