Understanding and responding to behaviour

4-8 years

Being a parent or carer of young children can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but it can also be a bit of a rollercoaster. Parenting is often described as a journey, with different stages that present different rewards and challenges along the way. Sometimes you overcome these challenges quite easily but other times you might need some advice. 

All parents find it hard going at times and many of you have told us that you’re not always confident in dealing with some of the more challenging aspects of your child’s behaviour. Well don’t worry – you’re in the right place!

On these pages we will signpost you to evidence-based positive parenting resources that are designed to help you understand your child’s behaviour better and to work out how best to respond.

We will also list some top tips for supporting positive behaviour in your children. ​​​​

What is positive parenting?

Positive parenting is a way to build healthier relationships between you and your children and promote family co-operation. It helps you to be sensitive, responsive and consistent in the way you interact with your children, so that your children are happier, more optimistic and more motivated to choose positive behaviours.

All our signposting and resources are focused on positive parenting.

Grandmother reading book with grandchildren

You may know that behaviour is your child’s voice.

All of our actions are driven by feelings and your child’s behaviour is their way of letting you know how they are feeling and what their needs are.

If you can understand your child’s behaviour you will be well on the way to working out a response that will promote the positive behaviour you would like to see.

Our top tips for managing behaviour in our 4-8 year olds

Stay calm

This helps to prevent situations escalating and is a good opportunity for you to model how you want your child to behave. Children from a young age can also be supported to breathe calmly, put their hand on their heart and feel the beats as a relaxation technique when they are panicking or becoming overwhelmed.

Reframe the behaviour

Instead of saying ‘Why are you behaving like this?’ try ‘What’s happened?’

Give praise

Rather than focusing on the negative behaviours, find opportunities to praise your child for small acts of kindness and good behaviour. Praise builds your child's self-esteem and helps to motivate them to choose behaviours they know you like.

Use empathy

Try to understand your child’s point of view and how they are feeling - even if you don’t necessarily agree with it. Feeling understood and listened to is very powerful and helps to build positive relationships. Try saying ‘I can see you are angry/upset/worried, let’s try using your words to tell me what you feel.’

Have realistic expectations

These should match what your child is able to do. We all develop at different rates and what one child finds easy, another may find hard. Acknowledge small steps and effort. Some examples of what you might see your child doing:

  • 4 year olds – may have an imaginary friend, may still use a comfort object, increasing ball skills, becoming more coordinated, getting dressed with minimal help, enjoying silly games and talk, sometimes might lie, may be bossy, may blur reality and fantasy, starting to choose own friends, tend to be dry at night.
  • 5 year olds – will be able to do most of the gross motor skills such as jumping, running and climbing, learning how to share but may still find this difficult, may become afraid of things e.g. monsters, learning to become more independent and want to choose clothes and food.
    Kindfulness - picture of children smiling
  • 6 year olds – May ride a bike, may start to see some words have more than one meaning, giggles about toilet talk, understands concept of time, testing limits around behaviour, may start to fear death. Children develop at different rates and what one child finds easy, another may find hard. Acknowledge small steps and effort.
  • 7 year olds – starting to talk about feelings and understand that they affect behaviour, hand-eye co-ordination is well developed, has good balance, able to understand reasoning and makes right decisions, tends to complain and has strong emotional reactions.
  • 8 year olds – focus and attention span are improving, likes to collect things, reading because they like the content of the book rather than just improving their skills, understands the days of the week and months, becoming more aware of their bodies, able to complete personal hygiene tasks and get dressed.

If you have any concerns about your child’s development, you can speak to the school nurse or your GP.

Use consistent boundaries

Make sure boundaries are clear and fair. This will help your child to feel safe and to become more independent.

Use rewards

Rewards help your child remember what behaviour you want to see more of.  There are a range of ideas that can support working towards rewards such as:

  • Filling a jar with pasta or marbles
  • Earning stickers or points
  • Cutting up a picture of the reward and they earn a piece of the picture

There are many ideas you can use – try to tie pictures or charts in with your child’s interests.

Give choices

Choices help your child become responsible e.g. Do you want to wear your red jumper or your blue one? Family Links has some great steps for giving choices and introduces ideas to help children understand there are consequences to the choices they make.

If you are concerned about your child’s behaviour you don’t have to cope alone. In the first instance speak to your child’s class teacher - are they seeing the same challenges?

More resources

Family Lives have video clips of parenting advice for a range of topics and age groups and an online programme you can register for.

The NHS has advice on Dealing with Child Behaviour Problems. It also has guidance on what to do if you are worried about your child’s emotional and mental health and when to use CAMHS.

You might also like to try this free short course: Understanding the impact of the pandemic on your child.

For more on the building blocks of brain development see our page: Five to Thrive.

Last updated on 20 November 2023