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.


5.1. Introduction

The second main question is addressed in this section by considering parent and staff adult strategies as revealed by the Adult Strategies Questionnaires. Focus groups addressed both perceptions of the extent and nature of behaviour difficulties and the strategies used by parents and professionals to address behaviours that cause concern - we have kept focus group reporting in this section rather than split the data in two sections when it is closely related.

5.2 Parental strategies

The parental adult strategies questionnaire (P- ASQ) tapped into the strategies parents use in relation to their children's behaviour. Perhaps unexpectedly in the light of some of the other results reported, parents reported there were no big differences between boys and girls and behaviour in terms of the level of challenge in coping with it, despite the fact that boys were perceived to produce more difficult behaviours overall. We also explored the relationship between age strata and behaviour that was difficult to cope with. 40.6% of behaviour across age groups was perceived by parents to be a little difficult to cope with, but only 10% was perceived to be very difficult., and for 49.5% there was no perceived difficulty in coping with the behaviours at all. Parents described a wide range of strategies in their management of their children's behaviour.

Certain areas of behaviour were reported as being more or less difficult to cope with. 27% of parents (n = 128) found that it was a little difficult to encourage their children's concentration, 6.6% found this very difficult. Strategies to deal with concentration difficulties were responding in generally positive ways (14%), getting involved (13%), and removing distractions (12%).

The number who found it difficult to support and have an impact upon poor relationships was very small with 82% of parents finding no difficulty at all in this aspect of their children's development despite the finding that specifically for peer relations there is some concern. Where there were difficulties strategies used were no problems (19%), encouraging friendships (13%) or other generally positive approaches (14%). There was some reported minor difficulties in coping with children's anxieties, self-esteem and toileting, but overall 80% of parents had no difficulties in these aspects. It seems likely that the majority of parents cope with such difficulties in young children, though 20% do report some problems.

Sleep difficulties and eating problems cause parents more anxiety, and here 30% report some or many difficulties in coping with sleep issues, with 10% using back-to-bed approaches and 8% mentioning the importance of routine. A figure of 44% report issues around eating and appetite. Strategies used here include praise (8% ) and no treats (7%). Both these areas appear to be more emotive for parents and they feel less skilled in helping their children develop consistent patterns of sleeping and eating behaviours. When toileting difficulties did occur, parents kept positive (35%) and highlighted that they avoided fuss (6%).

Meeting new people appears to be difficult for young children, and 71% of parents report feeling that their child behaves differently in some situations than others, including new situations (16%), playing up when out (11%) and at school (10%). A small number of children also appear to engage in power struggles with their parents (6.6%).

When dealing with feelings, parents provide reassurance (27%), encourage talk (25%) and offer comfort (12%). The main tactics for meeting self-esteem difficulties are praise (32%), positive responses (19%) and encouragement (18%). Strategies for helping children to behave positively include talking through a problem (23%), praising (20%), encouragement (10% ) and modelling (8%).

Overall the main strategies reported as used by parents when faced with difficulties in the area of behaviour are: time-out (16%), explaining that behaviour is not acceptable (14%), and negative reinforcement (10%). Many parents use a range of strategies in meeting their children's difficult behaviour, but they would like more help with behaviour in general (16%) with eating (8%) and with sleeping (6%). It is of note that 99% of parents feel it is important for nurseries, schools and families to share information that can support positive behaviour. They feel that feedback between staff and parents is important (53%, n=181), that this enables consistency (16%, n=55), and that good communication enables school support (12%, n= 39).

22% ( n= 144) of parents indicated to have discussed how they would answer the Strategies Questionnaire, of these 83% (n=120) said to have discussed this with their partner.

5.3 Parental Focus Groups

'Focus groups are group discussions organised to explore people's views and experiences on a specific set of issues.' Kitzinger (1994:103)

Parent Focus Groups representing a cross section of nursery schools, children's centres and Primary 1s from both North Lanarkshire and Edinburgh were held during May 2006. Parents were invited to attend and all were asked to give informed consent before participating. The meetings lasted on average 45 minutes and were facilitated by 2 researchers in 4 of the settings and 1 in the other 7. Here we have reported the discussions in such a way as to try capture the feel of the meetings.

The purpose of the focus groups was to seek parents' perceptions of their children's behaviour, where they have found difficulties and what strategies they have adopted to address these. The research team wanted to know what parents felt was 'positive' or acceptable behaviour and where or to whom parents are likely to go for advice and support on parenting. The transcribed discussions from all 11 groups have been drawn together and common themes drawn out that can then be triangulated with the quantitative findings of the wider research study. The use of focus groups were chosen in preference to individual interviews, partly because of time limitations but also because the group interaction would enable the team to contrast opinions of parents from a variety of backgrounds and also where children were accessing a range of settings. The team particularly wanted to access the views of vulnerable parents who may have felt more at ease to participate in a group rather than an individual interview. At the beginning of the focus group all participants were assured that their confidentiality would be respected and that the discussion would be used in aggregate form rather than attributed to any individual by name.

Figure 5.1 - Parent Focus Group Composition

Group Composition

Group size: 1-10, most often 5 (2 with other observers in the room)

2 particularly vulnerable groups (young/teenage mothers)
1 with high minority ethnic representation
Age group: 1 group with parents under 25 - 2 groups included a grandmother

Children age range from 4 months to 17 years

Up to 5 children (1 whose youngest 2 in care) one set of twins

Mainly women

44 mothers

2 grandmothers

1 father

There was considerable variation in the focus groups not only in terms of the setting but also numbers of parents present and their domestic circumstances. Nevertheless there seem to be common themes in parents' experiences of their own children's behaviour and the strategies that they had adopted to cope with any difficulties.

5.3.1 Nature and extent of negative behaviours

Anecdotally there were very few reports of extreme behaviour and these were in a setting where the Head of Centre had already identified vulnerable families (such as teenage parents and parental drug misuse). Parents were all very conscious of public opinion of acceptable children's behaviour and also how parents should be reacting to this. There was a general view that children behave differently when outwith the home, usually in a positive sense such as being helpful in the nursery, and this matched the findings of the SDQ that half of parents believe their children are always considerate of other people's feelings. There was a recognition that children's behaviour is related to their age and stage of development and parents realised that this impacted on how they might react to certain behaviours… "You can get really caught up (in argument with child) and he is too young to reason". The extent to which parents find their child's behaviour acceptable, and their ability to cope, is also affected by whether it is their first child. Parents report that they become more confident almost through a process of trial and error.

While in staff focus groups reference was made to the difference between boys' and girls' behaviour, gender bias was not a recurring theme within parent discussions. However what did come up in one group was that women mother their sons differently than their daughters.

The main difficulty parents reported experiencing, particularly in public, was their children's temper tantrums. They found this to be more common in the under 3s, which links to the findings of the Parental SDQ where 48% of parents surveyed recognised that their child has a temper tantrum at some time. Even when prompted there were very few references made to difficulties in common areas such as children's eating or sleeping. Parents might recognise a problem such as: " (he/she) drinks ginger all the time, then will just take a mouthful of mince and that's it!" but equally these did not seem to be the kind of issues that caused parents any coping difficulties. Perhaps, because like many other behaviours, they felt that it was 'normal' behaviour that you dealt with at the time: "Not for eating! I wouldn't punish him ….it would put him off." Similarly difficulties with sleeping, that potentially can be exhausting for both parent and child, even in the short term, are dealt with through simple measures such as establishing routines, lying beside their child, reading to them or leaving them to their own devices - again it was a stage that many expected their child to go through. However one parent did mention that, for her, the problem with being faced with sleep related behaviour was that it was during the night when it was unlikely that she would be able to access professional advice or help.

For one group the main behaviour issue which arose was respect for adults, both parents and nursery/school staff and they felt that this may be specific to UK society. They also related this to the way in which children behave in public and one mother in particular believed that the public expectations in the UK of how parents should deal with misbehaviour was directly opposite to that in her own country. She believed that because of this and of fears of prosecution, parents were afraid to reprimand their children appropriately. Implicit in the discussion was whether children should be physically punished. Interestingly across all 11 focus groups there was little other mention of physical punishment, other than in one where all parents had smacked their children at some stage. In this setting one parent reported on the way in which a parenting course had helped her: "hurting them doesn't work, shouting at them doesn't work, stopped telling them they were 'bad', stopped saying they weren't nice …. but that the way they behaved was not acceptable".

Parents were able to articulate at different levels what their own and their children's limitations were, and it seemed to be the non specific behaviours of their children that parents had most difficulty with, such as being cheeky or defiant. This was the type of issue that parents found were hardest to be consistent in dealing with in their children, and in the focus groups they discussed the methods they had used and the people they had approached for help. Parents tended to realise that the way they have been parented themselves, and issues they have within their own relationships, will impact on how they relate to their children. This included effects on disciplining them, yet they reported preferring to seek out advice on any behaviour difficulties from families and friends rather than from professional sources, and gave varying reasons for this.

5.3.2 Strategies

Some of the parents had attended parenting groups, for example 'mellow parenting', which had given them new ideas for dealing with unacceptable behaviour, and even those who had not attended recognised their value and would like to see more being offered. These groups could be offered by their child's early years' setting, or by other agencies, but access was often limited because of lack of foresight (or resources) in providing a crèche. Many parents found their centre very supportive, a 'lifeline' even, however there were also many references to the lack of co-ordination between the various agencies: in information provided for and about families as well as how families are perceived and 'judged'. Other than the nursery or school the agencies that parents were most often coming into contact with were health visitors and social workers, although depending on the nature of the setting there could be others, such as midwives, Sure Start workers, family support workers and educational psychologists. What parents wanted most from these workers was respect. One particular focus group spoke at great length about the church and the role of organised religion in supporting children's positive behaviour, parents felt it set moral standards and they were able to use the Bible to teach their child the difference between right and wrong. Involvement in churches had given these families great support and parents felt this was because the people involved had a shared ethos however only one other parent in another focus group mentioned the support she gained from church attendance.

Isolation in coping with children was an obvious issue for lone parent families, particularly if they needed services out of the conventional operating hours, but two parent families can also have stressful periods when left alone with their children and appreciate when their partner has an input. Others felt that their partner's input could lead to inconsistency in how the child's behaviour was handled, particularly where the parents do not live together. There was a comment that fathers do not play a large role in children's upbringing, perhaps reflected in the composition of the focus groups where only one of the 47 participants was male (a father). The wider parent survey also generated a low paternal response of less than 7%. Families were perceived as having a major role in offering not only advice but also respite through babysitting and enabling parents to have time away from their exhausting role.

Modelling of appropriate behaviour was a recurring theme in the focus groups. This was something that parents believed they should be doing themselves but siblings, peers and other adults, including school and nursery staff could also have both positive and negative impacts on children's behaviour. Sibling rivalry was discussed as sometimes being difficult to handle, particularly where there is physical fighting, but older siblings can also be held up to younger children as positive role models. A view that children may imitate the behaviour of their peers was felt to be a consideration in transition arrangements - one mother whose son was placed in a room full of 4 year olds when he was only 3, was now perceived as displaying behaviour too advanced for his years. Parents believed that children's behaviour was influenced by the media, this caused concern, as it does not always offer children positive role models - parents also acknowledged that society is different now from when they were children.

There was one discussion around whether the relationship that teachers and staff had with children promoted respect for adults, and that the staff were too 'playful' with children. In the main staff were felt to be a good source of support and could offer useful tips on behaviour management, these included: reward systems such as stickers; giving children responsibility; taking time to listen to children and explaining things; the 'naughty chair'; withholding treats; and most importantly to be consistent with their children. Some of the settings had offered courses or were able to signpost parents to other sources of help. Parents are under the impression that their children behave better when in nursery, which did not correlate with the findings of the staff focus groups.

Across the two areas in the research study parents were using similar strategies to cope with behaviour difficulties, the most effective being to give praise to their child. Another popular approach is 'time out' or a variation on it; this in itself could pose a problem for parents, as they had to find somewhere appropriate. For example it was not considered to be an effective punishment if it was fun for their child to spend time alone in their room.

There were a few examples of children with severe behavioural difficulties that had clearly required professional help: an example was where one mother had support for her autistic son from a range of agencies but felt that she herself had been neglected. The issue of meeting parents' own needs and the impact this could have on their ability to cope with their children was discussed at length in several of the focus groups and ranged from depression to abusive partners; not only is this need not always explicitly acknowledged but there is also not necessarily onsite access to this type of support. Nonetheless the contact with other parents experiencing similar difficulties was highly valued.

5.3.3 Acceptable Behaviour

Parents expressed love for their children and instinctively knew that children have to test boundaries as they move through their different stages. They would like to see their children sharing more and playing 'nicely' with their siblings and peers; they would like them to be helpful in the public and private sphere and for children to be respectful to adults. According to the parent survey children are already exhibiting these types of behaviour most of the time.

5. 4 Staff strategies

Having established the areas of behaviour that cause concern and the extent to which they do raise concern amongst staff it is interesting to turn to the extent to which staff feel skilled to meet children's observed needs. Nearly half of the staff respondents feel quite well skilled to support children's behaviour. 6.5% feel only slightly skilled and 44% feel very skilled (Table 5.1).

Table 5.1 - Level of skill and preparation for supporting children's behaviour expressed by staff

Level of skill



Valid Percent

Cumulative Percent

yes, slightly





yes, quite well





yes, very well









Staff made use of a wide range of strategies. There were ten most commonly used approaches - these are shown in Table 5.2

Table 5.2 - Ways in which staff support children's positive behaviour


Number of staff using strategy
out of n=168

363 mentions

Praise and encouragement



Positive reinforcement



Through positive behaviour policy & strategy



Consistency between staff















Communicating with parents



Parent workshops



Staff used a range of other strategies from correcting behaviour (10) to cooperative learning (1) - per strategy small numbers of staff mentioned each strategy (n=127 mentions in total across all strategies)

Correcting behaviour, staff training and support, staff self-evaluation, clear rules, happy environment, time-out,build trust, create a happy environment, remove attention, concentration strategies, patience, attentive listening, classroom assistant support, child-level response, encourage apology, negative reinforcement, self-esteem building, appropriate materials, external help, structured play, offering challenges, display children's work, persistence, offer choices, one-to-one, distraction, pupils self-evaluation, cooperative learning

As with parents, staff felt that it was important to share information between parents and staff (Table 5.3). Doing so leads to a more rounded picture of the child, and to consistency through collaboration between the important people in children's lives brings mutual support and clear benefits to the child. These are just the sorts of benefits that could be widened by leadership support for, and a greater focus on improved inter-agency working for the children whose behaviour most demands a coordinated approach. Here the group of 'hard to reach' young parents told us clearly that family support is what works best for them - where this is not available, services have to try to replicate what it is that good family support offers.

Table 5.3 - Ways in which sharing of information between professionals and families is seen to be helpful by staff

Sharing information



Valid Percent

Cumulative Percent







rounded picture















mutual support





child benefits




















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