Effective behaviour management strategies for children aged 0–10 years

Content type
Short article
Published

July 2022

Researchers

Introduction

It is normal for children to sometimes exhibit challenging behaviour, such as behaving or expressing emotions in undesirable or inappropriate ways.1 Challenging behaviour can sometimes be related to the child’s developmental stage, or it may be an attempt to express the child’s needs or wants (e.g. being tired and needing a nap). Parents can feel overwhelmed and stressed by their child’s behaviour and be unsure where to go for help.1 Effective behaviour management strategies can help parents teach children what behaviour is acceptable, and how to manage their behaviour and appropriately express their emotions.2 This short article outlines the evidence on effective behaviour management strategies for children aged 0–10 years, and how practitioners can support families to use these strategies.

Strategies to address challenging behaviour related to neurodiversity or disability are not covered in this article. Resources on supporting children with neurodiversity or a disability are provided in the further reading section of this article.

The use and impact of different behaviour management strategies for children

Behaviour management strategies involve parents or other caregivers teaching their children how to behave appropriately.3 Australian parents use a range of strategies to manage their children’s behaviour. A 2018 survey1 of over 2,000 Australian parents of children aged 1–17 years found that in the past month:

  • 85% talked to their child about their child’s feelings when they misbehaved at least some of the time
  • 84% used non-physical consequences, like time-out (described in Table 1), at least some of the time
  • 17% used physical punishment (i.e. spanking, smacking, hitting, pinching or pulling a child with the intention of modifying behaviour) at least some of the time
  • 23% reported threating to use physical punishment at least some of the time.

Child psychology and development research has found that some strategies, such as physical punishment, can be harmful to children.4,5 There is strong evidence that physical punishment is associated with an increased risk of health, relationship and social issues in children.4,5 A meta-analysis5 of Australian and international studies examining over 160,000 children (aged 0–15 years) found that physical punishment was associated with an increased risk of:

  • mental health and behavioural problems in children
  • a negative child–parent relationship
  • physical abuse from parents
  • antisocial behaviour and mental health problems in adulthood.

There are alternative strategies (listed in Table 1) to physical punishment that are effective at addressing children’s undesirable behaviour and have a lower risk of negative impacts on children.5,6,7 There is good Australian and international evidence2,6,7,8,9 that these alternative strategies can:

  • improve children’s behaviour, problem-solving and social skills and emotional regulation 
  • decrease stress and mental health challenges for parents
  • improve the child–parent relationship.

What is the evidence on effective behaviour management strategies for children?

Table 1 provides a summary of key components of effective behaviour management strategies for children aged 0–10 years. Some strategies may be better suited to particular situations or work better for some children and families than others.3 Parents may need to try different strategies, or different combinations of strategies, to work out what best suits their child and their circumstances.3
 

Table 1: Key components of effective behaviour management strategies
Warmth and affectionBehaviour management is usually most effective when delivered by a parent who has a warm and loving relationship with the child, and when the discipline is not delivered with anger.2,6,7,8 Warmth and affection in parent–child relationships are also linked with more positive outcomes such as fewer conduct and peer problems .10
ConsistencyWhen parents are consistent in their behaviour management strategies, children learn what to expect if they misbehave.2,6,7,8 It’s not always possible, or even appropriate, to respond to a child’s behaviour in the same way every time but parents should aim to be as consistent as possible in their responses to a child’s behaviour. For example, laughing at undesirable behaviour in one instance, and then disciplining the child for it the next sends mixed messages. Inconsistent parenting can be confusing for children and lead to behavioural problems such as antisocial behaviour, hyperactivity, emotional difficulties and problems relating to peers.10
Clear rules and expectationsSetting clear rules and expectations on how children should behave and treat others helps them to learn and understand what behaviour is appropriate.6 The rules should be simple, easy for the child to understand and may need to be updated as the child gets older.6 
Encourage and reward desired behaviour

Behaviour management isn’t only about discouraging unwanted behaviour, it’s also about encouraging desired behaviour.2 This can be done by praising and giving children rewards when the child is behaving well.2,6,9

Parents can also encourage desired behaviour by leading by example and modelling the behaviour and emotional reactions that they would like to see in their children.6

Time-outUsing time-out can be an effective behaviour management strategy for children.2,6,7,11 Time-out involves placing a child in a quiet, safe place without any toys, games or positive attention from parents for a very short period of time.11,12 The time-out should immediately follow the undesirable behaviour, be consistently used by the parent, delivered calmly and with warmth, and be proportional to the child’s age and behaviour.6,11 Time-out should only be used for undesirable behaviour that the child can control (i.e. not for mistakes, being unable to perform a task or overwhelming emotions).11 It should be paired with strategies to teach children alternative desired behaviours and responses.11
Logical consequencesReacting to undesirable behaviour in a calm, nonviolent and logical way may reduce that behaviour.9 This could involve a logical consequence that is related and proportional to the undesirable behaviour, such as taking a toy away when a child plays too roughly with it.9
A child is not their behaviourIt is often helpful to think of a child as separate from their behaviour.6 Children are learning what behaviour and reactions are appropriate and acceptable. It’s a child’s behaviour that can be challenging and needs to be managed, not the child.6

How can practitioners support families to use effective behaviour management strategies?

Where possible, practitioners working with families can: 

  • Ask parents if they need more support to manage their child’s behaviour.
  • Be curious with parents about the behaviour management strategies that they use with their children.
  • Steer parents away from using physical punishment as a behaviour management strategy and encourage parents to use the components described in Table 1.
  • Talk to families about which behaviour management strategies may work best for their child and family.
  • Share resources that provide practical advice for parents on effective behaviour management strategies, such as the Raising Children Network. Refer parents who need more support to evidence-based parenting programs. A list of evidence-based programs can be found in AIFS Evidence and Evaluation Support guidebook.
  • Encourage service providers, and each other, to run and evaluate evidence-based parenting programs. Guidance on implementing and evaluating programs can be found in AIFS Program Planning and Evaluation guide.

Conclusion

Effective behaviour management strategies are available and can have positive impacts for both children and parents. Where possible, practitioners can support parents to use these effective strategies, steer parents away from physical punishment, and refer parents to evidence-based parenting programs, if needed. 

Further reading

The Raising Children Network website provides helpful and practical advice for families about:

For further information on evidence-based parenting programs, see:

See these resources for information on working with young people and families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and this resource for information on working with Indigenous children and families.

See these resources for information on supporting children with neurodiversity, autism or a disability.

References 

  1. Rhodes, A. (2018). Child behaviour: How are Australian parents responding. Parkville, Victoria: The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne. Retrieved from www.rchpoll.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/20181017-behaviour-how-are-parents-responding-report.pdf
  2. Staunton, N. O. (2020). Promoting resilience through parenting programs for young children. Alhambra, CA: Alliant International University. Retrieved from www.proquest.com/docview/2178427962?pq-origsite=gscholar&fromopenview=true
  3. Raising Children Network. (2021). Behaviour management for children: A positive approach. Retrieved from raisingchildren.net.au/preschoolers/behaviour/behaviour-management-tips-tools/behaviour-management
  4. Gershoff, E. T., Goodman, G. S., Miller-Perrin, C. L., Holden, G. W., Jackson, Y., & Kazdin, A. E. (2018). The strength of the causal evidence against physical punishment of children and its implications for parents, psychologists, and policymakers. American Psychologist, 73(5), 626.
  5. Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(4), 453. 
  6. Porzig-Drummond, R. (2015). ‘Help, not punishment’: Moving on from physical punishment of children. Children Australia, 40(1), 43–57.
  7. Kaminski, J. W., Valle, L. A., Filene, J. H., & Boyle, C. L. (2008). A meta-analytic review of components associated with parent training program effectiveness. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36(4), 567–589.
  8. Jeong, J., Franchett, E. E., Ramos de Oliveira, C. V., Rehmani, K., & Yousafzai, A. K. (2021). Parenting interventions to promote early child development in the first three years of life: A global systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS Medicine, 18(5), e1003602.
  9. Leijten, P., Gardner, F., Melendez-Torres, G., Van Aar, J., Hutchings, J., Schulz, S.et al. (2019). Meta-analyses: Key parenting program components for disruptive child behavior. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 58(2), 180–190.
  10. Rioseco, P., Warren, D., & Daraganova, G. (2020). Children’s social-emotional wellbeing: The role of parenting, parents’ mental health and health behaviours. Southbank, Vic: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from Children’s social-emotional wellbeing: The role of parenting, parents’ mental health and health behaviours | Australian Institute of Family Studies (aifs.gov.au)
  11. Dadds, M. R., & Tully, L. A. (2019). What is it to discipline a child: What should it be? A reanalysis of time-out from the perspective of child mental health, attachment, and trauma. American Psychologist, 74(7), 794.
  12. Raising Children Network. (2020). Quiet time and time-out: Strategies for guiding child behaviour. Retrieved from raisingchildren.net.au/preschoolers/behaviour/rules-consequences/time-out

 

Acknowledgements

We thank Dr Kristel Alla for her assistance. Dr Alla is a Knowledge Translation Specialist at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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