Effective preschool behavior management is the key to maintaining a peaceful and productive classroom community. But when you’re dealing with 20 or more children under the age of 5, this is easier said than done! This age group can have seemingly boundless energy and are all rapidly growing and learning, all at different paces. Building and nurturing friendships is an important milestone at this age, and emotions can run high and are hard to control. Effective preschool behavior management comes down to a few key practices.
The secret to your success is putting clear behavior expectations in place and enforcing and communicating them in a kind, consistent manner. In tandem, you’ll organize your room, materials, and your lesson plans with a few guidelines in mind to continually support positive behavior.
Develop clear behavior guidelines
Whether you call them rules, guidelines, or agreements, you will have agreed upon expectations for behavior in your classroom. Depending on the age group, it is most powerful to create these guidelines with input from your students, and not simply prescribed by you. Rather than a laundry list of “don’ts,” you’ll want to keep it simple and short. Common in early childhood settings are a variation of: “Be safe. Be respectful. Be kind.”
Continually working from your behavior guidelines, you will address any specific classroom behavior expectation. Ex: “We use walking feet in the classroom to be safe.” You’ll review these guidelines each morning, and then every chance you get as your students move throughout the day.
Children thrive on routines. They need to know exactly what is expected of them, and also what to expect out of their day. Each morning you’ll run through the day’s activities, following your carefully preplanned schedule. Providing this consistency will help build trust between you and your students by clearly communicating expectations. It also empowers them to “own” their day and promotes autonomy.
Everyone thrives on praise, no matter their age. Recognize and call out when good things are happening. Instead of “Don’t run,” you’ll say “Please be safe and use walking feet.” Another strategy, which can be easier said than done, is to focus on all the good things happening even if someone is having a rough day. Ignoring an outburst and instead focusing attention on a positive interaction can sometimes work, instead of immediate escalation.
The trick is to recognize that some behaviors need immediate attention for safety reasons (i.e.: biting). But other times, children might self-correct if they witness a classmate receiving positive attention. Simply saying: “I notice that Katie is doing a great job picking up the blocks!” might motivate others to pitch in, too. However it’s important to acknowledge that some behavioral issues might be rooted in wanting or needing attention. In this case, ignoring what is happening may only escalate the situation.
Pictures speak louder than words, especially when your audience can’t read yet! Picture cues for behavior guidelines are necessary, ideally actual photos of your students engaging in positive behaviors. But don’t stop with your behavior guidelines. Label material stations with photos so students can self-manage the clean-up process, hang photos of handwashing steps in the bathroom, photos of students lining up, you name it. Give your students environmental scaffolding to encourage independence.
Manage transitions carefully
Moving between activities throughout the day is the most common time for behavior issues to arise. You’ll manage these hectic times best if you carefully train your students on your expectations at each stage of their day. Consider a transition timer or countdown, and building transition time directly into your routine and lesson plans. Some preschool teachers benefit from building a repertoire of go-to transition activities that are built into the day-to-day, but that they can also pull out on the fly as needed.
Teach empathy and other social skills
Just like all other school subjects, social skills must be taught. Use circle time to share mini-lessons on being a good friend, how to share, etc. Read books that address empathy and that focus on recognizing and managing feelings. Use puppets or student volunteers to model treating others with kindness and respect. Children start to develop the ability to empathize around 2 years old, so encourage interactions that take into account classmates’ feelings. Building strong bonds with and amongst your students will lead to a positive classroom culture.
If you notice that the majority of behavior problems are occurring during a specific time of day, consider making a change by examining what could be happening. Are you asking for a high level of concentration just before nap when they are tired? If so, you might consider rearranging your scheduled activities. Do things start to fall apart halfway through circle time? Maybe circle time is too long. Take care to modulate activity level throughout the day, and always keep a pulse on what is working and what isn’t.
Engage with families
A strong home connection is beneficial in so many ways, including behavior management. Get input each morning on how a child’s day started. If they didn’t sleep well or had a rough morning, you’ll want to know. Keep families in the loop and enlist their help when behavior problems occur. Is it happening at home too? You might consider leveraging brightwheel, an easy-to-use, mobile software app to engage with your families. With brightwheel, you can message your families and share behavioral observations to keep them in the loop.
Build a community that cares about and for each other through positive experiences and you’ll reduce the occurence of problem behaviors. It’s important to remember that any challenging behavior you witness, especially in such young children, is the child attempting to communicate something. Think of it this way: It is your job to uncover and address the root cause of a student’s “problem” behavior.