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.



Children's behaviour invites the attention of their parents and attracts the interest of education professionals. This has always been the case as a search through the literature illustrates. However taking a focus on positive behaviour in young children allows us to establish both the evidence on perceptions of positive as well as on disruptive or negative behaviours. Contemporary public debate, discussion in the media and the presentation of programmes on topics such as child development, children's behaviour, behavioural interventions, and styles of parenting have focused on children's behaviour and have coincided with a public debate which suggests a deterioration in standards of behaviour. Consequently as a society we are questioning the sources of such change. Perceptions that increasing numbers of children begin primary school education with complex needs, or that higher numbers of children present with difficulties of increasing complexity, are supported to some extent by numbers of referrals to community mental health teams and speech and language therapists. Additionally an increasing number of children with identified additional support needs are also participating in mainstream education, including children whose behaviour may be particularly challenging.

Children's behaviours are subject to interpretation. The extent to which behaviours are perceived as problematic or not is often dependent on context. Differences of view about the same behaviour can occur within families, in school and in the wider community. Day-to-day variations can occur and will be influenced by a whole range of factors. In considering the possible influences on young children's behaviour it is helpful to reflect on the various situations in which they spend their time and the interrelatedness of experiences in each.

Since none of the situations children inhabit operates independently from the others, the interrelatedness of children's pre-school setting, home and primary school setting need each to be considered: it is helpful therefore to consider an ecological model. Each educational setting is also likely to be affected by external factors which are not directly in the control of those who work there (Bourdieu,1991), but which nevertheless influence practice. For example, local education authority policies, parental employment, the social context of the area or the sense of rights and responsibilities held in a particular community might each have an effect - intended or coincidental - on the attitudes, principles or sense of well being of the educators or the attitudes, involvement and well-being of the pupils with whom they work. We are used to considering the major transitions that affect children, we are less used to recognising that some children handle a number of transitions every day.

This study looks at behaviour before and after transition to a new setting or into school. To do so it is helpful to consider the overlap of the settings involved. Together, children, teachers and parents might co-construct transitions in the context of each of their overlapping experiences and the culture in which they live. The child in educational transition occupies (at least) three environments or microsystems: their home world, the pre-school world and the school world: we need to look beyond the single settings to the relationships between them (Fabian & Dunlop, 2002). These interconnections can be seen as important for the child as the events taking place within any one of the single settings. This idea of overlap and interrelatedness draws from Bronfenbrenner's work (1989). In terms of work on children's behaviour at times of transition the interlocking meso-systems represent the transitional experiences of children, in that they come about through the intersection of home and pre-school, pre-school and school and home and school. A representation of this proposed model for interpreting children's lived lives follows (Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1 Systems influencing transition to school

Figure 1.1 Systems influencing transition to school

© Dunlop (2002) after Bronfenbrenner

Elsewhere it has been proposed that the interrelationships fostered in the overlapping parts of children's lives allow children themselves to be active with others and the environment. Relationships, learning and teaching approaches are influenced by the environment and in turn influence it. It can be argued that this is how children's learning is socially constructed: not as a mechanism that adults enforce on children, but by each potentially influencing experiences in another (Fabian and Dunlop 2002).

A third layer in a systems approach, exosystems, will house initiatives and events at which the transition child may not even be present. Despite the fact that local educational policies, programmes, social services, health care, housing issues, parental employment, interventions, the local community's facilities and the reorganisation of any one of these elements may not be experienced by the child at first hand, all may profoundly affect the child at their centre.

The case studies presented in this report tap into a systems approach which shows the importance of 'working together' and 'information'. These elements can be seen as critical to empowering child, parent and teacher. Further, there may be various discourses of childhood (Burman, 1994) and several cultures represented (Bronfenbrenner, 1999) in the systems approach. These discourses and cultures may be distinctly different and so there may be a pressing need to cross over them, to develop a shared language and a mutual view of any particular child.

The documents 'Better Behaviour Better Learning' (Scottish Executive, 2001) and the 'Better Behaviour in Scotland's Schools Policy Update' (Scottish Executive, 2004) show that no matter what the extent or nature of indiscipline is within any given context or situation, it is a barrier to learning and teaching. Low-level, inappropriate behaviour which typically takes place in classrooms, such as talking out of turn, interrupting others or being inattentive is a nuisance to teachers and pupils alike, and is well recognised as being the most common concern. The range of behaviours recognised can range from such low-level behaviour to much more serious behaviours which may leave children "marginalised and disengaged from the education process" (para 2.6, SEED, 2001). There is a considerable literature on behaviour in the early years. In terms of this project on positive behaviour five key areas emerge:

  • Common understandings of inappropriate behaviour
  • Perceptions of pre-school staff
  • Perceptions of primary school staff
  • Perceptions of parents
  • The significance of the transition from pre-school to primary education

The preparedness of children for the school environment, and the degree to which schools are 'child ready' (Dunlop, 2003a) are shown to be factors in positive behaviour in primary schools. There is evidence to suggest that disruptive behaviours which are apparent in early childhood tend to persist and may become more severe in later years (Campbell and Ewing, 1990; Moffit, 1993; Pierce et al, 1999). An early study of parental perceptions (Richman, Stevenson and Graham, 1982) suggested that 60% of children with behavioural problems at age 3 will still be experiencing problems at age 8. Against this background there are difficulties of a shared understanding between sectors of what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate and disruptive behaviours. It may be problematic to distinguish between behaviours that are temporary and in part developmental and those which may be precursors of more serious behaviours.

The complex needs of children in the early years can present staff with behaviour issues in, for example, language and communication skills, socialisation and levels of personal independence among children (Foot et al., 2004; Munn et al., 2004). It is not simple to characterise what constitutes concerning or 'challenging' behaviour as expectations in relation to age, gender, developmental levels and social and educational context combine to form individual perceptions of difficulties - "(T)here is no agreement on what counts as a social, emotional or behavioural difficulty….yet such difficulties clearly exist" ( SEED, 2001, p. 13).

This recognition of the complexity of the causes of concerning behaviour is helpful, for its roots may lie in social, psychological or medical domains. Alongside national initiatives to promote better behaviour and improve discipline in schools a range of associated early years work is underway. Greig (2001) explored the social and emotional competence of children starting school in a Scottish local authority, nurture groups are increasingly common, and McLean (2003) has recently reported on gender issues in terms of boys' readiness for school, drawn from a Glasgow based study.

The transition from early years settings into primary education is one which is important for all concerned. Dunlop (2003a) addresses the complexity of transition from pre-school to school and highlights issues of family and child well being and ability of individual children to adapt to change. Dunlop uses an ecological model which shows a positive way forward to considering the interaction of the systems in which children are participating, their transitions between them and the interactions of within child behaviour with relational factors at times of transition. Changes occur for all children as they start school: such transitions can provide opportunities for positive growth and change, but for some children these typical transitions combine with other challenges to make them more vulnerable. For these children in particular the quality, nature and continuity of pre-school and primary environments, curriculum, relationships and interactions may be crucial to their well-being and involvement in learning.

The work of Ferre Laevers (1994, 2000) shows that where there is a lack of involvement and well-being in children, their development and learning may be threatened. Use of a system that investigates how the child functions in the group or in the class aids professional reflection and action to support the development of positive behaviours in the early years (2003). Laevers' process-oriented child monitoring system for young children provides such support.

The final report of the Effective Provision for Pre-school Education ( EPPE) (Sylva et al., 2004) offers insights into a range of research outcomes that are relevant to the 'Positive Behaviour Project'. Two of the five research questions asked by the EPPE Project were: 'What is the impact of pre-school on children's intellectual and social/behavioural development?' and 'Are some pre-schools more effective than others in promoting children's development?'. The range of methods used to answer these research questions included child social/behavioural profiles completed by pre-school and primary staff. Home learning, warmth of relationships, social/behavioural profiles in pre-school and at school entry, multiple-disadvantage and the benefits of an early start in pre-school were all significant factors in this large scale study. In the design of the Positive Behaviour Project we considered the instruments used to explore perceptions of children's behaviour in the EPPE project as the value of being able to discuss findings against a background of a large longitudinal study was recognised. Social/behavioural development was assessed by teachers using the Goodman (1997) Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. Five measures of social behaviour are reported: Self-regulation, Positive social behaviour, Antisocial behaviour and Anxious behaviour. Previous uses of the schedule were considered in the study design (Goodman et al., 1998; Goodman et al., 2000).

Understanding children's needs in the early years underpins informed support for their well-being and development. An assessment of the nature and scale of behaviour issues in pre-school and early primary is therefore important to future strategies for promoting positive behaviour nationally and locally, relating to support and development of staff, approaches to the promotion of positive behaviour in the early years, and issues relating to transition, working with parents, information sharing and integrated multi-agency/multi-disciplinary working.

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