Behaviour management and young children

Ages 2-5 years

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Dealing with children’s behaviour is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting.

Behaviour management is about guiding your child’s behaviour so that they learn the appropriate way to behave, rather than just punishing them when they do something you don’t like. A positive and constructive approach is often the best way to guide your child’s behaviour.

Understanding: the first step to child behaviour management

It’s normal for children to behave in challenging ways at different stages and in particular situations. So trying to understand your child’s behaviour is an important step in managing it. For example, tantrums are very common in toddlers and preschoolers, because at this age children have big feelings and not enough words to express them. Helping your child express his feelings in a better way will be more effective than punishment.


Children are more likely to repeat behaviour that earns praise. This means you can use praise to help change difficult behaviour and replace it with desirable behaviour.

The first step is to watch for times when your child behaves the way you want. When you see this, immediately get your child’s attention and tell them exactly what you liked – for example, ‘It’s great how you used words to ask for that toy’.


A reward is a consequence of good behaviour. It’s a way of saying ‘well done’ after your child has done something good or behaved well. For example, as a reward for keeping his room tidy, you might let your child choose what’s for dinner.

Rewards can work well at first, but it’s best not to overuse them. If you need to use them a lot, it might help to rethink the situation – are there any other strategies that you could try to encourage the behaviour you want? Or is the task or behaviour too hard for your child right now?

Note that bribery and rewards aren’t the same. A bribe is given before the behaviour you want, and a reward is given after. Rewards reinforce good behaviour, but bribes don’t.

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Routines help family members know who should do what, when, in what order and how often. This can mean less inappropriate behaviour about boring things such as cleaning teeth, tidying up after play, or switching the TV off.

You can also build routines for young children around play, meals and sleep. When children have had enough good-quality sleep, nutritious food and plenty of play, they’re more likely to behave the way you want.

Planned ignoring

Planned ignoring is paying no attention to a child when they're misbehaving. It means not looking at them and not talking to them while they behaves that way.

For example, if you’re having a family meal and your child is bouncing up and down on his seat, you could leave them out of the conversation and not look at them until they stop.

When they stops, you could say, ‘I love it when you sit still on your chair at dinner. Why don’t you tell us what you did at preschool today?’

Be prepared – behaviour that’s ignored often gets worse before it gets better. Children might complain or nag more, hoping you’ll respond. You should consider this when deciding whether to use planned ignoring as a behaviour strategy.


Family rules are positive statements about how your family wants to look after and treat its members. Rules can help everyone in your family get along better, and make family life more peaceful. Children as young as three can help you make the rules and talk about why your family needs them.

Choose the most important things to make rules about – for example, a rule about not physically hurting each other would be a must for most families.

You might also develop rules about safety, manners, politeness, daily routines and respect for each other.


There are times when you might choose to use negative consequences for difficult behaviour – for example, to reinforce rules when simple reminders haven’t worked.

Some consequences for difficult behaviour include:

  • your child refuses to carry her coat to the park, she feels cold later.
  • your child swears at his dad, he isn’t allowed to watch TV later.
  • your child refuses to share a toy, he has to have five minutes of time-out in a safe and boring room without toys.

Reserve consequences for children over three years. Children younger than this don’t really understand consequences, particularly if they don’t understand the connection between their actions and the outcomes of those actions.

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