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Top 8 "Magic" Behavior Management Strategies for Young Children

If you wanted a magic answer for how to manage young children, here it is! BUT nothing is possible without patience and perserverance. There is no world where your toddler does not drive you crazy sometimes. They are emotional and irrational and learning how to function in the world. THEY HAVE TO BE TAUGHT. Learning the behaviors that are acceptable to the people around them is not automatic or innate. They have to be taught. The more patience and understanding you can provide, the easier it will be in the end. But, man, it can be hard! I hope this helps.


THEY HAVE TO BE TAUGHT. Learning the behaviors that are acceptable to the people around them is not automatic or innate.

#1 Positive Reinforcement

This might be quite obvious but we can't talk about management strategies without talking about positive reinforcement. Many times, when people are at the point when management gets hard, they look for strategies for how they should react in tough situations with their toddler. They forget about the proactive strategies they need to be implementing all this time. Positive Reinforcement is by far the most effective proactive strategy! Children want to do the right thing and they want attention from the people they love. Positive reinforcement teaches them what is "right" while also filling their emotional bucket. WIN WIN!


To implement positive reinforcement, make sure that you are doing your best to always acknowledge the things that your young child is doing right. Be specific with them about what is "good" about the behavior. Instead of simply saying "Good job," get more specific.

Example: Wow, you are doing a great job of putting those blocks together and using them to make something."

Example: "You should be so proud of yourself for staying safe at the museum today by staying close to me!"

Example: "You did a great job of asking me calmly for more food rather than getting upset that your food was all gone."


Check out this post for the most effective strategy for setting and enforcing expectations.


#2 Be Decisive

Your child has to know that you mean what you say. It's fine to change your mind once and awhile but generally, try to only say things that you mean and that you will follow through with. Prime example of what NOT to do often arises when caregivers get frustrated and say, "Don't you dare throw that on the floor or you will never get man and cheese again!" It is likely not true that you will never give it to them again. If you repeatedly say things that arent true, the child knows it is not true, and wont follow the directions because the consequence is irrelevant. You can easily say, "If you throw your mac and cheese on the ground, you will need to be all done with the mac and cheese and we'll choose something else to eat." Then, if they throw it, take away the mac and cheese and give them something else. They could throw a tantrum and potentially not eat any more at that time but reiterate that they didnt follow the directions and they can try again next time. I can promise you, the behavior will improve once they see that not following directions leads to a preferred item being removed. It is hard the first couple of times it happens because they may have an emotional reaction but then the behavior is gone. It's worth the investment.


It is hard the first couple of times it happens because they might have an emotional reaction but then the behavior is gone. It's worth the investment.

Another example scenario that often occurs is around transitioning. If you say, "After we eat lunch, we are going to go take a nap," no matter how much they tantrum or try to do 10000 things in between eating and going to take a nap, be decisive. Take them to their room for a nap. Maybe they grab one stuffed animal or toy that joins them on their way to go to nap, but its time to go take a nap so we are going to take a nap. If you are decisive and consistent with saying the expectation and then following through, the procrastination and refusal to go to nap disappears. You may feel like there should be a little "give and take" with your child. Theres a time and a place for debate and compromise, but as much as possible, you need to mean what you say and stick to it, especially with toddlers.


#3 Choose Your Battles

So with #2 in mind, we also need to sometimes be flexible. If you are asking your child to stop doing something that is not dangerous, mean, or going to create a giant mess, you are likely asking them to stop doing it just because it annoys you, you dont like it, or you don't feel like dealing with it. It's important to thoughtfully choose the times that you are going to ask your child not to do something. There are going to be so many times as young children that they are asked to stop or told "no" so making sure that you are choosing wisely is importan. A classic example of this is when a child is drumming on something or banging things together. It's loud so we often instinctively want to ask them to stop but actually does it matter at this moment that they are making loud sounds? If not, no need to intervene. It's actually a learning experience for them to learn about the sounds things make. If your child is playing in the water in the sink while washing hands and his/her shirt is getting a little wet, we often want to make them stop. But if they are enjoying this sensory experience, does it really matter if their shirt gets wet? Can you just change the shirt or leave them in the wet shirt? If so, why bother trying to stop the fun time and likely make him/her upset? They aren't actually doing something "wrong." Sometimes my daughter wants to go outside without shoes on, or without a coat on, or she wants to wear different shoes than the ones I want her to wear. Those are battles that I choose not to have. If your feet get cold, you'll learn why wearing shoes is a better choice. If you go out in the winter without a coat, you will probably quickly get cold and ask for your coat. Tantrum avoided. If you want to wear different shoes, fine! Stress of a tantrum avoided for both of us.


It's important to thoughtfully choose the times that you are going to ask your child not to do something. There are going to be so many times as young children that they are asked to stop or told "no."

#4 Offer Choices

This is a pretty simple one. As often as possible, offer your child a choice between 2-3 things. It literally works at least 90% of the time. They think they don't want to do something at all but then once you give them some control by giving them a choice, they are on board!

Example: "We have to go to nap, do you want to walk there or do you want me to carry you?"

Example: "You have to eat some vegetables at dinner, would you rather peas or broccoli?"

Example: "We are going outside and it will be cold, do you want to wear these shoes or these shoes?


See this post for much more detail about offering choice.


#5 Have Consistent Routine/Schedule

Young children, especially as they become more independent, easily get frustrated about the small amount of control they actually have. Routines and schedule help them understand what is expected and what is coming which allows them to do things without someone telling them what to do. It is a huge source of comfort for them when they know what to expect and what is expected of them. So do things in the same order every single day as often as possible. Side note: Even if it is the same every day, it is still very helpful to give young children warnings or a "heads up" for what is going to happen.


See this post for much more detail and examples about consistency and routine.


#6 Variety of and Access to Materials

As with routine, the more strategies we can use to let young children operate independently, the "better" their behavior will be. The materials that they have access to is a source for being proactive. As much as possible, set up your space at home so that your child has access to materials he/she likes to interact with independently. Simultaneosly, make sure they your child does not have access to materials that the cannot independently interact with. This will allow you, as the caregiver, to be in control of when you are actively playing with/supporting your child and when you are able to leave them to be independent. If you want to make dinner and you want your child to play on their own, make sure they have access to multiple things they'll like to play with. Also, make sure they cannot access things you do not want them to play with like markers, paint, knives, salt and pepper shakers, etc. Side note: This is another topic but important to mention: Children do need to be introduced to and specifically taught how to play with any material they interact with. They may then need some consistent monitoring until they are independently using it correctly. They don't just know. I digress for now.


Children do need to be introduced to and specifically taught how to play with any material they interact with. They don't just know.

#7 Use and Enforce Natural Consequences

This is our first reactive strategy. A great deal of behavior management in young children is proactive but things will still come up and responding appropriately is important too.


Most behaviors that we want children to avoid have a natural negative consequence. Use these and enforce them as often as possible rather than trying to come up with you own consequence for the behavior.

Example: If the child knocks over food, it will spill on the floor and now they can't eat it any more. Take the food away and do not give them more.

Example: If the child wants to go outside in the rain without a raincoat, they will get wet. Sure maybe this seems fun until they cant change their clothes and they dont want to be wet anymore. You may eventually change the childs cold but hopefully first they interpret this as, "I'm not going to try to do that again because that was uncomfortable."

Example: If they use a mean voice or take something from another child, that child doesnt want to play with them anymore. Don't immediately mediate the situation. Let the child understand that people don't want to play with you when you act like that.

Example that isnt necessarily "natural" but is socially natural: If you don't follow the directions, then you can't participate. If you really want to read a story with me but you arent looking at the book and listening to the story, then we aren't going to read a book. OR If you want to help me cook but you are going too close to the oven and trying to grab things that I haven't told you get, then you aren't able to help me cook right now. In these times, the child needs to find something else to do. Not being able to do the preferred activity for a very clear reason is code for "Well, I'm not going to do that again because I didnt get what I wanted."


#8 Planned Ignoring

For certain behaviors, ignoring the behavior altogether is a very effective strategy. Like I said with #1, children want to do the right thing and they want attention from the people they love. Sometimes even negative attention can be reinforcing for a child so sometimes ignoring, rather than acknowledging, is very effective. It is important to differentiate which situations are appropriate and effective to ignore and which are not.


Read this post to learn more about using this powerful strategy of planned ignoring.


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