National Network for Child Care's Connections Newsletter

Mary Anne Pace-Nichols, Ph.D.
Human Development Specialist
Human Development and Family Studies
University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service

Copyright/Access Information

“If I could get rid of Ricky, my class would be great.”

Have you ever felt that removing one or maybe two children from your group would solve your classroom behavior problems? Research suggests that some misbehavior may be a result of classroom management. It also suggests that the children who misbehave probably need special guidance more than the other children in the group. These children need to learn to be responsible for themselves and how to live effectively with other people. These two things are learned through discipline and guidance.

Studying the principles of child development and discipline helps give us ideas, but applying them in the classroom requires practice. The following information is designed to help you decide the best approach to use with each child in your group. Think about Ricky as you go through the steps.

Ricky, age five, decided to destroy the building-block sky scraper that was the pride of a group of children who had worked hard to build such a complex structure. With one broad swipe, Ricky demolished the building and chaos broke out in the classroom.


The first inclination may be to punish Ricky for his behavior, but stop. Take a closer look at the total picture before you make a decision. Rather than putting the group's chaos on hold to handle Ricky's behavior, focus on all children involved in the situation and their feelings – including Ricky. You can guide this conversation by saying something like, “You must be really disappointed.” Give the children time to express their frustration, disappointment, anger, sadness, and other feelings. Doing this also allows Ricky to hear the feelings which resulted from his behavior, teaching him that his behavior has an effect on others. After feelings have been processed, it is time to talk about what happened.


“What happened?” There are at least two sides to every story, so check it out. Stick to the details of the situation – what actually happened. If possible, come to some agreement among those involved. Summarize what has been said to make sure that you have the story right. If there are differences of opinion, summarize each child's opinion. People often see things differently. Recognizing each child's view encourages her or him to maintain honesty and integrity. Stating that Ricky knocked the building down is not blaming – it is stating a fact. Look for information which may explain why Ricky was destructive. For example, comments may reflect a rejection of Ricky's involvement in building. In that case, it is time to talk about Ricky's feelings of being left out or rejected. Be sure to talk about all the feelings.

Once the feelings have been discussed, it is time to talk with Ricky. Thank the other children for helping you understand what happened, and help them decide what to do next. “Do you want to help build another skyscraper – or find something else to do?”


“Why did you do that?” is a question we often ask children, but they may not be able to tell us. Young children can begin to express feelings and show facial expressions which show that feeling. This situation offers an opportunity to teach Ricky how to get in touch with and express his feelings. You may have to help him by saying things like, “You looked very angry when you knocked the building down. Can you tell me what made you so angry? Let's talk about some things that you could do instead of knocking the blocks down.”

Ricky may not be able to verbalize anything that helps you understand his behavior. Observe him while he is talking to see if his expressions show anger, sadness, feelings of guilt, confusion, or attempts to get attention. The motivation for the behavior is as important as the behavior itself when you are deciding how to discipline Ricky. Differences in levels of development will also influence the kind of discipline chosen for a specific child. There are several questions to ask that will help determine the reason(s) for the behavior. It is not a matter of determining whether these factors influence the behavior, but how they influence behavior.

– Is the behavior a result of the level of PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT?

If children say Ricky always knocks the blocks down, you can observe more closely to compare his development with other children in the room. Ricky may have stayed up too late or maybe he is hungry. Perhaps Ricky needs to be more physically active during that time of day. Think of other ways that physical development and needs may influence relationships in the classroom.

-Is the behavior a result of the level of COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT?

Children of different ages and stages use blocks differently. To a two-year-old, blocks are things to stack and fall. To a three-year-old, blocks become buildings, tunnels, houses, etc. when stacked. Older children can build more elaborate structures that may involve buildings and roads within a town. The impact of a falling structure is quite different on various age groups.

– Is the behavior a result of the level of SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT?

Children become social beings very gradually. Around the age of three, they begin to learn to share. They play in the same space, but do not interact with each other. Older children interact more, but may not have a fully developed set of social skills to draw upon. When children are stressed, they are even less social – much like adults. It appears that Ricky may need some social skills. He may not know how to ask to play with the group or how to appreciate their product.

– Is the behavior a result of the level of EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT?

Emotional reasons may be the most difficult to identify. As stated above, children are still learning what they need to know about their inside feelings and how to label and express them.

According to Rudolf Dreikurs, a well-known parent educator, children misbehave for one of four reasons (“Goals of Misbehavior” listed below). Behaviors for each reason produce a certain “reaction” from the care provider/adult. To decide why the child is behaving a certain way, identify your feelings first. Then, match it with one of the goals. For example, if you feel angry, the child may be trying to gain power.


 Goal:  To get attention; “I need constant attention to feel worthwhile.”
 Adult/Provider's Feelings:  Feels annoyed
 What to do:
  • Ignore behavior if possible.
  • Give attention when child does not expect it for positive behavior.
 Goal:  To gain or pursue power: “I am important if I can make you do what I want.”
 Adult/Provider's Feelings:  Feels angry; fights or gives in
 What to do:
  • Withdraw from power struggle.
  • Refuse to fight or give in.
  • Work to win child's cooperation.

 Goal:  To get revenge: “Since I am so unlikable, I will hurt others just as I have been hurt.”
 Adult/Provider's Feelings:  Feels hurt; wants to get back at child
 What to do:
  • Give child love at other times.
  • Avoid hurt and avoid retaliation through punishment.
  • Work at building trust and mutual respect.

 Goal:  To demonstrate inadequacy. “I am worthless and hopeless. Just leave me alone.”
 Adult/Provider's Feelings:  Feels discouraged; wants to give up on child
 What to do:
  • Do not give up on child.
  • Avoid criticism and find legitimate reasons to compliment the child.
  • Encourage child whenever possible.
  • Look for the positive, no matter how small.


In the case mentioned above, Ricky's teachers/caregivers felt his “goal” for misbehavior fell into the third category – to get revenge.

Ricky has had much difficulty getting others to like him, both children and adults. Not many children would consider Ricky a good friend. His two-year history in the child care program included repeated experiences of the type described in the block incident.

The staff agreed to focus on Ricky's strengths, and to help other children appreciate his strengths. Ricky was an excellent artist. Since Ricky liked to play with the children who often built with blocks, the staff suggested that Ricky make drawings that could accompany the block structures, such as maps, signs, or flags.

Dr. Dreikurs talks about children's need to belong, to have a place. In the perfect world, children would gain a sense of belonging through cooperative, positive behavior. For many children, their life experiences have taught them the opposite – their way of belonging and being noticed is through destructive and uncooperative behavior.

Dealing with misbehavior is stressful. There is no question about it. When you approach behavior management or discipline as another form of teaching – and not just stopping undesirable behavior – you will see how much it contributes to the development of healthy, happy children.


Dreikurs, R., & Soltz, V. (1964, reissued, 1987). *Children: The challenge.* New York: Hawthorn/Dutton.

Glen, H. S., & Nelson, J. (1989). *Raising self-reliant children in a self-indulgent world.* Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing & Communication.

Nelson, J. (1987). *Positive discipline* New York: Ballantine.

National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Part of CYFERNET, the National Extension Service
Children Youth and Family Educational Research Network. Permission is granted to reproduce
these materials in whole or in part for educational purposes only (not for profit beyond the cost of
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Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Pace-Nichols, M. A. (1994). Behavior management:The big stressor. In Todd, C.M. (Ed.), *School-age connections*, 3(3), pp. 1-4. Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.


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