Understanding Young Children’s Behavior

Understanding Young Children’s Behavior

Before knowing how to guide young children’s behavior positively, you must first understand the five basic reasons for a child’s actions.   Remember, children’s behavior is an important way that they communicate with us.  Understanding these reasons will help you be more reflective rather than reactive and will result in more positive outcomes for both you and the child.  It will also help you create an atmosphere that supports and nurtures the child.  In the next few sections, you will find tips on guiding children’s behavior, which you can apply skillfully once you determine what may be causing the child to act in ways that seem problematic or difficult. 

These five questions may help you consider what may be motivating a child’s behavior and how to respond most constructively (borrowed from Understanding Behavior: A Key To Discipline by the National Association for the Education of Young Children).

Is this a developmental stage?
Many behavior problems that occur in early childhood appear when a child is entering a new developmental stage.  Feeding and sleeping problems may also arise.  Be firm but supportive during these times, and be extra patient and loving.   

Is this an individual or temperament difference?
Not all children of a certain age act the same way. These individual differences may be the result of a variety of causes, ranging from different temperaments (shyness or moodiness) to actual disabilities or disorders (like a speech or hearing problem).  

Is the environment causing the behavior?
Sometimes the environment causes a behavior that may seem inappropriate. An overcrowded child care setting or the lack of an appropriate number or types of toys can increase aggression or spark jealousy. 

Is the child in a new or unfamiliar situation or facing a new task or problem?
Perhaps this is the first time a young toddler has been asked to share a toy or treasured object. Developmentally, the child does not truly understand the concept of sharing yet, so mastering this new skill will take some practice.  Or, perhaps a new baby was born or a loved one, like a grandparent, died. 

Does the child have unmet emotional needs?
Emotional needs that are unmet can be very difficult to discern. They can affect children’s behavior in a variety of ways.  Some children may be withdrawn; some may be aggressive, while others may cling to their parents or caregivers.  In these situations, provide extra love and attention, such as encouraging participation in play activities and praising the child for being sensitive to others’ feelings. Clues to what the child is feeling or struggling with may be found in observing their play activities.

If a child is misbehaving or acting unusually, make sure that he is not hungry, bored, tired, feeling lonely or getting sick.  These are commons things that affect children’s behavior. 

Children’s behavior often becomes disorganized as they are experiencing intense developmental changes.  Understanding the underlying causes of these behaviors will help you respond more sensitively.  

The Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut generously donated its expertise to create this content. For more information please go to