Sue AsquithUnderstanding children’s behaviour

Many courses and publications about behaviour refer to Early Years Practitioners ‘managing children’s behaviour’. As an adult you will know that the only person that can control your own behaviour is you!

There are, however, many factors that influence the way in which we behave, and we can help children (and others) by understanding how our brains process stimuli and information, and how this in turn affects how we behave.

The science stuff

The amygdala is part of your brain responsible for handling emotions and triggering immediate reactions to stress and fear, and is fully developed in early childhood. There are two amygdala in your brain; the one in the right hemisphere of your limbic system - your 'social brain' - is responsible for handling emotions and triggering immediate reactions to stress and fear.

This amygdala is linked to the parts of the brain that:
  • Govern your senses, muscles and hormones
  • Enable your body to react quickly to any perceived threat, upset or stress
  • Trigger your emotions faster than your conscious awareness (like having a friend or family member on speed dial) to protect you from harm. 

On the other hand, the frontal cortex - your 'thinking brain' - controls reasoning and helps to us think before we act. This develops later in life, changing and maturing well into adulthood.

How does this link to children's behaviour?

Understanding some of the basic functions of the brain helps us to understand and support the behaviours displayed by others.

Some of our behaviours are uncontrolled reactions, where the amygdala has triggered the shut down of your 'thinking brain'. If the amygdala hijacks your 'thinking brain' and then remains unhappy, you revert to only using the reptilian (lower) brain which leaves you in ‘fight or flight mode’.

This can result in children:

  • Throwing tantrums, kicking, biting etc as the brain is ‘fighting’ the perceived threat
  • Trying to run away from the perceived threat
  • 'Frozen watchfulness', when they are unresponsive to surroundings but are aware of them (often referred to in child protection training)
  • 'Flock responses' where they are unsure and want to join you or a group of other people for reassurance.

Behind every outburst of behaviour there is a cause

When children have a behavioural outburst they are actually communicating to us that something has upset them.

Part of our role as Early Years Practitioners is to play detective, by unpicking this communication and finding the trigger. This is a proactive way to help the child identify their stress triggers. You may need help from parents to get the full picture and find all the clues!

Event sampling in your setting may help you find a pattern, and keeping a diary with parents may also help get the bigger picture.
When children have a behavioural outburst they are actually communicating to us that something has upset them.

Every one of us is unique

Every one of us is unique and therefore what upsets and stresses us varies greatly too. It might be a subconscious or conscious memory stored in your 'social brain'; certain images, sounds, smells, textures, tastes that set our amygdalae worrying and trigger a 'thinking brain' hijack.

More support:

Promoting Positive Behaviour online course

Promoting Positive Behaviour publication

Promoting Positive Behaviour factsheet

Promoting Positive Behaviour quiz

Biting incidents at nursery blog post

Play, exploration and discovery

Sometimes it is not obvious at first what the trigger to the behaviour is.

Play, exploration and discovery are important and are part of how our youngest children learn. Experimenting with different senses can be very enjoyable for children.

Sensory play, however, may be a source of stress for some children; for example if they are hypersensitive. If sensory play is found to be a trigger of upset for a child then you can work with this piece of information. Will providing a latex glove help them? This way they do not have direct contact with the sensory play resources which helps to reduce the stimuli.

Sometimes introducing sensory play gradually, one experience at a time - in an environment that is not ‘busy’ with colours, sounds, sights and people - will help to reduce the overall environmental stimuli.

SEND support

For more support in understanding and supporting children with SEND take a look at NDNA's SEND Champions programme.

Access SEND quizzes here​

Early Childhood Consultant Sue Asquith logoSue Asquith

This blog post was written by early childhood consultant Sue Asquith.

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