Jun 9, 2011 by Martha Burns, Ph.D

Teaching positive behavior

Young children have so much to learn about life.  One crucial skill they work very hard at learning is how to get what they want or need in a positive way. 

Toddlers do not have very much control and for the most part cannot “think out” appropriate ways to handle frustration or anger. Your little one year old will act impulsively when he is angry with you or other children and may use inappropriate or unacceptable behaviors in response. This often becomes even more exaggerated when your child is tired. The calm, consistent and measured way that you and other caregivers respond to negative behaviors will shape your child’s ability to gradually develop self-control and learn appropriate ways to handle stressful social situations.  

Hitting and biting, as well as pushing, throwing toys, books, sand or mud, and yelling or temper outbursts continue to be treated as unacceptable behaviors you want to handle by enforcing time-outs immediately after the event occurs. Waiting even a few minutes to enforce a time-out makes it difficult for a toddler to understand what the time-out is for. Once your child has calmed down you can bring her back into the situation she was removed from. As she plays appropriately you can provide a little praise to help her understand the difference between positive behaviors and her prior unacceptable behavior.

By 18-20 months of age, begin to teach your toddler the word “sorry” so that if she does show an unacceptable behavior toward another child or an adult, she learns to pair an apology to the offended person with the behavior.  This provides a verbal scaffold with the action so that the child is building language to help his learning.  

You may often find that because of your fatigue and frustration with a young child who does not yet have very much self control you become tempted to yell or spank your child. You are human just as is your child and these are natural tendencies.  But, try to avoid yelling at your child or resorting to slaps, shaking or spanking in response to a negative behavior. By using a calm but firm voice with your toddler and the consistent response of moving your child to a quiet area removed from the current situation (time-out) you will model the kind behavior you are trying to instill in your child and give him, and yourself, time to calm down.

If your toddler seems to show temper outbursts very frequently or does not respond to timeouts and the undesirable behaviors continue, consult your physician to rule out physical problems that might be causing pain or discomfort. If those do not seem likely or have been ruled out, you may want to consult with a behavior specialist. These professionals can help you develop consistent, constructive approaches for managing the behavior of your toddler. A few sessions with a good child behavior specialist could save you time and money in the future if the negative behaviors persist or increase during the toddler years.

As your child progresses through the first year, continue to set limits for special types of play activity and behaviors that might be appropriate in some situations but not in others. For example, a child needs to have plenty of exercise but there are situations where your child may have to sit still. A dentist’s chair, the first haircut, airplane take-offs and landings are situations where your child needs to limit physical activity. Similarly, restaurants and other public places provide excellent opportunities to teach your child polite behavior and consideration of others. There are situations where it is acceptable to play with toys and others where it might not be, like a church service or solemn occasion, for example.

Setting limits teaches your toddler to be considerate and thoughtful of others and helps build social skills.  When your toddler learns how to use constructive behaviors to reach her goals, she will feel happier and more in control, and so will you.

Related Reading:

Traveling with a Toddler

Early Learning Success Leads to a Leg Up in Life