Baby Hints & Tips

Understanding your child’s behaviour

Expert tips by Jan Jones (Early Childhood Educator)

When children are behaving well, the reasons for their behaviour are very similar. Well-behaved children are happy, engaged and responsive. However, when children are not behaving well the reasons behind this behaviour can be very broad, such as:

  • Physical discomfort: feeling tired or hungry, being in pain or feeling unwell, or being too hot or too cold.
  • Emotional discomfort: feeling angry, frustrated, bored or jealous, feeling very energetic, and feeling misunderstood or unable to communicate needs.
  • Past learning: children may have learned ways of communicating needs that were appropriate at an earlier age, but are now no longer appropriate. Also, if children are being asked to complete an activity that is not matched to their abilities or past learning, they can become bored or frustrated.
  • Current learning: children learn by testing and experimenting – they test both the limits to their own abilities and the limitations that you as a parent may put on their behaviour, through guiding social behaviour, creating routines and ensuring safety.
  • Environment: the child’s experience of emotional or physical development may be triggered through being in a new or frightening environment or by factors in the environment such as temperature, noise, or other people’s behaviour.
  • Temperament

How a child’s temperament can affect parenting:

As all parents know, children are born with distinct and individual personalities. Children’s personality traits can influence how easy they are to parent, however this is not simply because some personality traits are easier to live with than others, but is due to the degree of fit or match between the child’s personality and their parent’s personality.

For instance, a parent with an outgoing temperament will find a child with a similar temperament easier to parent than a child with a timid, shy temperament. This is because the parent is able to understand and anticipate their child’s needs with less effort, because their child’s needs are similar to their own.

The following is a short list of common personality descriptions, which may occur in both children and parents:

  • Assertive
  • Calm
  • Cheerful
  • Compassionate
  • Compliant
  • Curious
  • Energetic
  • Independent
  • Irritable
  • Passive
  • Persistent
  • Reflective
  • Shy
  • Sociable
  • Spirited
  • Timid

Temperament is not fixed at birth, but is modified with the experiences of the child over time.

What is ‘bad’ behaviour?

All parents can easily identify ‘bad’ behaviour. It is hitting, biting, screaming, kicking, refusing to share, refusing to cooperate and much more. The typical parental responses to ‘bad’ behaviour involve versions of behaviour management strategies such as ignoring, punishment or time out.

However, if ‘bad’ behaviour is the result of obvious environmental features or blameless internal factors such as illness or inability, parents do not discipline their children but excuse the behaviour.

In fact, all ‘bad’ behaviour falls into the categories outlines above, as children always have reasons for their behaviour, but these reasons are not always understood by the adults observing. The following is a technique to assist parents to understand what is behind ‘bad’ behaviour.

Measuring behaviour:

Measuring and recording your child’s undesirable behaviour is the starting point for understanding what is behind the behaviour.

STAR charts – are a simple way of recording your child’s behaviour and provide a convenient record of what has gone on. STAR charts are organised into four sections:

  1. Settings – date, time, location, people involved, activity, mood.
  2. Triggers – what happened before the behaviour occurred.
  3. Actions – actual observed behaviour.
  4. Results – what happened after the behaviour, involving the child and any others.

An example of a STAR chart





Monday 1.30pm at the supermarket. Brodie is tired as he slept badly the previous night. I am in a rush as we have many errands to do before collecting Matthew from schoolBrodie wants lollies, chocolate biscuits, toys and numerous small things as he walks down the aisle. I have said no to every demand. Brodie’s demands are getting louder.Brodie stops walking beside the trolley. He screams incoherently about wanting something. His face turns red, he starts crying and screaming and pushes me away when I try to calm him.I am forced to leave the supermarket without getting what I want. Brodie is difficult to get in the car. I drop him at Granny’s and then have to go and pick up Matthew without him.
Wednesday 11.30am  Brodie with Granny. She stops to collect milk from the local milk bar on the way home from the park. Brodie has just had a lovely time feeding the ducks.Brodie wants Granny to buy him lollies.Brodie starts whining about wanting lollies or toys. He appears to be working himself up into a tantrum state.Granny buys Brodie some lollies and he is still very excitable when I collect him from her several hours later. Granny is getting tired of Brodie’;s behaviour and has sometimes said she cannot help with him.
Saturday 5pm. Brodie with father at the hardware store. Brodie is a little bored as Dad has taken longer than expected to find what he needs.Brodie sees some small brightly coloured chisels and paint brushes at eye height. Because they are pretty he thinks they are toys and demands that his father buy them for him. Dad refuses.Brodie begins to yell and scream his demands. Brodie’s father gives him a good smack on his bottom. Brodie screams louder at first but later cries quietly as Dad continues to threaten.Brodie very tearful and Dad very angry and upset. The planned home maintenance chores do not get done. We argue over this parenting strategy later.

What can these STAR charts tell us about Brodie’s behaviour. Firstly, in these three incidents it is easy to see that each of the adults affected by Brodie’s behaviour deals with it in a different way. Mum leaves the scene without completing her shopping, Granny gives in and buys Brodie lollies and Dad gives him a smack. It would be very helpful if Brodie could expect consistent reactions to his requests for lollies, toys, etc. This means that the three adults will need to discuss their responses and work out a consistent approach. The one that is most likely to succeed is leaving the scene but that is not always possible. Another strategy that might help is avoiding the triggers as much as possible. In this case, that means shopping without Brodie and this will require extra planning from the adults. Establishing guidelines for Brodie may also be effective. He could be given certain times when he is allowed to have a treat and this needs to be carefully monitored by the adults. Brodie will have to have the expectations explained to him before he enters a shop, so that, over time, he will learn when he can expect a treat.

Each of these strategies will require persistence over time from the adults as it takes a considerable amount of time for anyone to change their behaviour, particularly if it sometimes brings rewards. 

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