Approaches to Managing Children's Behavior
By Sandra Crosser, Ph.D.

Driving down a clear stretch of highway and worried about being late for an appointment, I edged the speedometer up a bit, just a bit. Blocked from view by the pillions of the overpass, a vehicle suddenly appeared in the median strip. I tapped the brakes, holding the pedal down until just in line with the car, which was clearly marked “Highway Patrol.” I could be in trouble. Please, not a ticket! I monitored traffic in my review mirror. No flashers. The patrolman must be having a good day, must be in a forgiving mood. I altered my speed, keeping it well within the legal limit for at least two miles, then, sensing that I had not been caught breaking the rules, I was soon back at it again. Shame on me. How childish.


Yes, how childish. How many times have we seen children exhibit the same panicky behavior when they sense they have been caught breaking a rule? Some adults believe that if we catch children when they break rules and consistently punish them for their misbehavior, they will stop breaking the rules. Logic suggests that if Jason anticipates punishment, he will adjust his behavior to avoid punishment. In many cases, the logic works. I anticipated punishment (speeding ticket), so I adjusted my behavior (applied the brakes) to avoid the punishment. It sounds simple. All the teacher needs to do is be observant and consistently punish infractions of the rules. Can we conclude that punishment is an effective tool to eliminate undesirable behavior?



In his book, Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn makes the case that punishment does work to control behavior. However, Kohn also challenges educators to think about two related issues. First, punishment controls behavior when the punisher is present. For example, when I knew that the patrolman could no longer see me, I broke the law again.  Second, punishment does nothing to develop self-control. Let’s look at both of these points:


External Control

Punishment is control from the outside, or external control. It is a behaviorist technique and it is a form of manipulation of others. If the teacher chooses to use punishment or the threat of punishment as a tool for classroom management, then the teacher should be aware of the implications. Typically there are classroom rules (usually 5), and the children are told what the rules are and what will happen if the rules are broken. When misbehavior occurs, the behaviorist teacher applies punishment equally to all, without regard for individual differences in children. If the child continues to break the rule, the severity of the punishment increases. In some classrooms, teachers implement a system of checkmarks and names on the board, a system of tickets, or other warning and demerit plans. Regardless of the particular system employed, the threat of punishment tends to work to keep the classroom relatively peaceful and under control. That is, peaceful and under control as long is the teacher is monitoring, or policing the classroom. It is a short-term fix.


Internal Control

We would hope for more than that for our children. We would hope that children would develop internal controls so that they would be able to monitor themselves and their own behavior thoughtfully and, as they mature, with increasing skill. That is, we would hope to enable children to develop internal control, rather than rely on external control of their behavior. When an individual develops self-control, it is empowering. Gaining power over our own behavior allows us to live in concert with others over an entire lifetime, while external control only enables us to live under the rule of another in a specific situation. It is somewhat like the difference between living under a dictatorship and living in freedom.


The Guidance Approach

If the teacher does not rely on a system of rules and related punishments, how is the teacher to maintain an orderly environment? The alternative to the punishment approach has been labeled the guidance approach. The guidance approach is a way of looking at children as novices who are learning social skills and self-control as they develop. The teacher is a coach who teaches skills and helps children to negotiate prosocial behaviors as they live and work with others. When a child exhibits an unacceptable behavior, the teacher helps the child to think of alternative behaviors that could be substituted next time the situation arises.

When children are simply punished for a behavior they are, in effect, being cheated. For example, imagine that two children are fighting over who is to play with a toy. The teacher says, “Until you can learn to share I’m taking the toy and no one will play with it.”  The children are being punished. However, neither child has learned what to do next time a similar situation arises. If the only behavior a child knows is not acceptable, it is still the only behavior she knows how to use. Without an alternative, she will probably use the same unacceptable behavior again. When the teacher uses the guidance approach, the teacher acts as a moderator and coach to help the children develop a plan to solve the problem. The teacher helps the child think of alternative behaviors that are acceptable socially, but still help the child meet his needs. That way the teacher is providing a tool for the child to use in the future. When children have a smorgasbord of possible behaviors from which to choose, they are less likely to choose to behave in unacceptable ways.

When old behaviors are firmly entrenched, new behaviors may be difficult to learn. Therefore, the teacher may engage the child in role-play to help to establish the desired behaviors. The teacher could also use puppet skits and children’s literature to reinforce the new behaviors. Children will probably need to practice and be reminded of new ways to solve their problems.

If the child’s behavior has harmed another person or their property, then the teacher who uses guidance supports the child in making a plan to right the wrong. Because injury to others or their property is a moral injustice, the perpetrator needs to reason through the injustice. Punishment is not enough to develop a strong moral foundation. Just as the teacher is responsible for teaching the academic curriculum, so the teacher is responsible for teaching children how to negotiate the social and emotional curriculum. When teachers think of mistaken behavior as an opportunity to teach, then children are empowered. It is an approach that is more time consuming than handing out punishments, but it is infinitely more valuable. For a more in-depth look at the guidance approach, see the Dan Gartrell book, Guidance Approach for the Encouraging Classroom.


The Authoritative Style

Overall, the most effective style of adult /child interaction for promoting self-control in children is the authoritative style. Adults who use the authoritative style recognize that they hold the ultimate responsibility for the child, but they relinquish some of the control over the child’s behavioral choices as appropriate for the child’s maturity and developmental level. For example, the adult could offer the two-year-old the choice between milk and juice. The four-year-old may choose which friend to invite for a play date or which of three shirts to wear to school. The adult accepts the child’s decision and requires the child to live with the decision. In that way, the child learns that making decisions is something they are capable of doing and can control. They also learn that decisions have consequences for us individually. The child gradually learns self-control.

The authoritative style also involves two-way communication. The adult listens to the child respectfully, carries on pleasant conversations and asks the child’s opinions. While there will be some directives in any interaction with a child, the authoritative style provides for interaction. When there is a conflict, the child is encouraged to tell her side of the story and receives a fair hearing. The adult uses induction, or reasoning, giving explanations for decisions. That does not mean that the adult argues with the child. The adult has ultimate responsibility, so he also has ultimate say in matters that affect the child.

The authoritative style builds a relationship that is warm and responsive. The adult is consistent, available, fair, and friendly. When the child believes that the adult is a steady, reliable resource, the child is freed to become independent and exploratory. The child views the adult as a refuge where he can return for support when needed. That knowledge permits the child to strike out on his own, try new challenges, and live with less anxiety.



Use of the authoritative style builds the potential for the child to develop self-control. Thinking in terms of guidance, rather than discipline and punishment is a challenging change for many teachers to implement. Yet, if we think about the behaviorist approach of external control through punishment as a short-term fix for classroom behavior problems, we realize that we can do much better for our children. When we use a guidance approach to our daily interactions with children, we enable children to develop internal controls for their behavior. In this way, we can provide children with tools that will truly empower them for a lifetime.



Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada, OH. Read more about research in early childhood in her new book, What Do We Know About Early Childhood Education: Research Based Practice published by Delmar Learning, 2005.




Gartrell, D. (2002). Guidance Approach for the Encouraging

            Classroom. Clifton Park, NY: Delmar Learning.


Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by Rewards. Boston: Houghton

            Mifflin Company.