Positive behaviour in the early years: research report

Report of research into perceptions of staff, service providers and parents in managing and promoting positive behaviour in early years and early primary settings.


9.1 Discussion

We find through the insights afforded from this study that the line between "misbehaviour" and "disruption" is very fine. Reid (1993) suggests that children naturally are mischievous and disruptive from time to time. Participants in this study shared a wide experience of time spent with young children. Many behaviours were seen to be typical of the age and progress of the child. Only when behaviours persisted beyond such typical parameters did they cause concern to practitioners. Then they felt skilled to support the child, but in their own view would benefit from further training in this area.

A thread coming through the study is the more active nature of young boys' learning. Boys have been shown to demonstrate aggressive and antisocial actions up to 10 times more often than girls (Offord et al. 1987). In this study attention can be drawn to perceptions of boys' behaviour that could benefit from careful interventions. Parents sometimes have different perspectives on their children's abilities and areas of difficulties even though reality does not always support this. Sometimes teachers and parents consider that boys' behaviour is more provocative and challenging (Maniadaki, et al, 2003). Many of the early years settings lacked good outdoor environments - more attention needs to be paid to 'free' adventurous outdoor activity for both boys and girls.

Difficult behaviours are often perceived to be in some way related to parenting, and some of the centres have addressed this by offering support in a number of ways but this can be challenging. There is a diversity of parenting needs. Some parents need only simple advice, for example, on dealing with their toddler's temper tantrums. Other parents' needs may stem from a lack of sufficient knowledge about child-rearing and appropriate parenting strategies-gaps that can lead to major disruptions in family functioning. Some children have parents who are ill-equipped to deal with the problems their child is presenting, like defiant behaviours (Queen's University, 2004). We found that young parents find their children's behaviour more challenging, and that a 'hard to reach' or 'hard to engage' group of parents were clear in their lack of confidence in professionals, preferring family based support.

The development of appropriate pro social behaviours in early years settings is a critical task. It has been suggested that this will go some way to preventing emotional behavioural problems in school age children (Eisenberg and Fabes, 1998). There is also evidence that early pro-social behaviour predicts subsequent attainment (Caprara et al, 2000). Parents and early years professionals have a range of strategies to cope with children's behaviour and a great interest in doing so. Young children respond to consistency, clear boundaries, rich choice of learning activities and skilled interaction of the professionals who work with them.

Our findings have interesting parallels with the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education Project ( EPPE) (Sylva, Melhuish, Sammons, Siraj-Blatchford and Taggart, 2004). The EPPE project is the first UK large-scale prospective study on the effects of pre-school provision in which 3,000 children were followed longitudinally. A major aim of the EPPE research was to investigate the contribution of centre quality to children's developmental progress. EPPE found that the quality of early education is a significant factor in enhancing children's development, their results indicated that the ECERS-R is a more sensitive measure of quality related to children's social-behavioural development than the ECERS-E (the English extension of ECERS-R) which in turn picks up on cognitive elements of development more effectively.

Their particular focus on the following factors in relation to children they identified at 'at risk' and needing additional support, fits with the findings of the present study, for example the moderate concerns we found in relation to about 30% of the sample, the lesser proportions of severe concern (3-5%), the drop in perceived difficulties to 20% (Teacher SDQ) as child becomes 5-6yrs may also reflect effectiveness of pre-school education and care.

  • Pre-3 age of child
  • Young mothers
  • Girls and boys
  • Trained teachers
  • Responsive interactive teachers
  • Communication with parents
  • Small proportion continuing to be 'at risk' 2.3%
  • 1 in 3 'at risk' of developing learning difficulties at beginning of pre-school
  • the reduces to 1 in 5 at end of pre-school

Sylva et al also provide evidence for their claim that 'for all children the quality of the home learning environment is more important for intellectual and social development than parental education, occupation or income. What parents do is more important than who parents are' (Executive Summary, page ii). In the Positive Behaviour Project we found the responding parents to be aware of their children's behaviour, to be concerned to support their children towards sociable behaviours and to be keen to work with pre-school and primary staff towards that end. Sylva found that "1 in 3 children were 'at risk' of developing learning difficulties at the start of pre-school, however, this fell to one in five by the time they started school. This suggests that attending pre-school can be an effective intervention for the reduction of special educational needs ( SEN) especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children" (Executive summary, page iii; Sammons et al., 2002). By contrast Tymms et al (2005) found a lack of evidence for pre-school impact, but evidence supporting the strong impact of home factors.

In the Positive Behaviour study both parents and staff held a view that working together in children's best interests was important and provided opportunities for consistency of approach. Sylva reports that "the most effective settings shared child related information between parents and staff" (Executive Summary, page vii). The quality of relationships is emphasised by Sylva et al and also by Harrison (2007) who reports that the feelings a child has about the relationship with their first teacher is statistically related to successful outcomes in primary school. The perceived drop in concerning behaviours in the present study as children engage with pre-school and early primary education may also be attributable to the quality of settings.

Where low expectations, limited adult strategies and poverty combine there is beginning to be a recognition (Brooks-Gunn et al, 2003) of the importance of "understanding of familial and educational processes that underlie change in the developmental trajectories of young children" ( EPPE final report, page 2). Building on the recognition of the importance of practitioners and families being in tune in their approaches towards children's behaviour means adding effective approaches in working with 'hard to reach' families into the early childhood training agenda, to the training priorities identified by staff in this project.

Additionally the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education research found that "…. at entry to pre-school girls generally show better social development than boys, especially in cooperation/conformity and independence and concentration" (Executive Summary, page iii). In the present study findings include that staff perceive boys to exhibit more behaviour in the abnormal categories than they do girls. This is consistent with Stephenson et al's Sydney study in which teachers reported 5% of boys and 2% of girls having serious enough behaviours to "warrant additional management support" (Stephenson et al, 2002, p.233). We find that approaches that are both proactive and responsive to the needs and developmental trajectories of boys are therefore required.

Transitions remain a persistent issue. Many parents in the present study commented on the importance of staff approachability, visits to the new setting, sharing of information and positive attitudes towards change shared by parents and staff. Transitions data in the present study highlight that staff have extensive and worthwhile knowledge to share with receiving settings. The timing of such exchange is important, and leadership from senior staff is needed to prioritise transitions approaches so that the more vulnerable children and their families will be supported to make effective transitions. Sanders et al (2005) found that certain children could be identified as more likely to experience problems: where children are young, have identified concerning behaviours or who are experiencing other transitions in their lives, transition support will be needed beyond the immediate transfer time.

9.2 Conclusions

In conclusion, there was considerable consistency in data emerging from all measures that parents and staff perceived that the majority of children generally displayed positive behaviour.

Overall compared to previous studies there was a fairly stable level of concern about the extent of behavioural difficulties. While parental perceptions overall indicate that over half of the children have no behaviour difficulties (57.7%), 30.7 % are perceived to have minor difficulties, and 5.6 % fall into the categories of definite and severe difficulties.

The extent and nature of behavioural difficulties perceived in young children aged 0-6 in early childcare, pre-school and primary settings in most instances lie in the expected range (as reported in previous studies) of an approximate 20% of children presenting with a range of difficulties that cause concern. The concept of additional support needs has widened, and there is an additional group of children, ranging on particular measures from 20% to 40% levels of concern, whose difficulties whilst reported to have been present for upwards of 6 months. Nevertheless staff report confidence in their own skills and the team efforts they are able to make, thus difficulties should be met by appropriate provision and well timed intervention, and would not normally be expected to give long term concerns.

Analysis of the 'staff-only' data ( TSDQ, well-being, involvement) representing children whose parents did not return questionnaires but who were observed by staff in settings, indicated there was only a very slightly higher percentage children causing concern in some categories.

There is variety in early childhood environments to an extent that in some settings the provision of daily activities scores lower than hoped for in terms of quality of provision. Taken with the higher levels of concerning behaviour that arise in terms of children's concentration and involvement his finding sits alongside the HMIe (2006) report that suggests staff in early years settings should focus more on the learning needs of individual children.

Case study foci show that greater attention needs to be paid to some features of 0-3 provision in line with 'Birth to Three - Supporting Our Youngest Children' (Scottish Executive, 2005). Increased efforts to take advantage of inter-agency support and collaboration are also needed in some settings. Transitions are challenging for children and with anticipated changes in curriculum design an opportunity exists to address this challenge in ways that are helpful to children. Development opportunities for staff are needed to further this process.

The results reported in this study show a consistency across different measures. Staff express concerns but say that the behaviours they encounter are containable as they feel confident in their own skills, though they emphasise the contribution of good teamwork with colleagues, training opportunities and good parent-staff relationships. Levels of concern are fairly stable in relation to previous studies. For children low involvement and lack of concentration is helped by rich learning environments with a good variety and balance of activities, high quality interactions and more challenge and engagement in learning. Parents and staff use similar strategies to manage children's behaviours and agree on the value of good communication between them, with parents feeling that they can learn from staff. A high percentage of parents are very positive about transitions and the benefits for children evident when pre-school and school are working together.

Given that all behaviour occurs in context, the widening of perceptions of young children's lives beyond service provision, the sharing of information and support between professionals and parents, and the recognition that sometimes the best or most acceptable supports come from within the family, lead to a conclusion that the early years sector, pre-school and primary, needs to find innovative ways of building on current good practice to create a more inclusive approach for all children and their families.

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