Four-year-olds need their own model of behaviour management, says child psychology expert

Dr Sam Wass tells Simon Creasey that our youngest students need a bespoke style of behaviour management
30th October 2016, 6:01pm

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Four-year-olds need their own model of behaviour management, says child psychology expert

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/four-year-olds-need-their-own-model-behaviour-management-says-child-psychology-expert
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“Four-year-olds do very much what they want to do,” explains Dr Sam Wass, child psychologist and academic at the University of East London and the University of Cambridge.

And the co-presenter of Channel 4’s The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds is convinced that the best way of tackling that compulsion is not to try and force these children to do what you want to do via traditional behaviour management methods. In fact, he says the 4-6 age group demands a completely different model of behaviour management to all other school-age groups.  

“Four-year-olds behave in a simple and honest way and they say what they think,” says Wass. “Whereas with a six-year-old, it’s very much about what do they think the acceptable thing to do is and what are the patterns of behaviour that are going to impress their friends?”

“Similarly, when something naughty happens and the teacher comes into the classroom and asks ‘Who did this?’, a four- to five-year-old will almost always give an honest answer. But seven-, eight- or nine-year-old children become fascinated with the idea [of lying]. Once they discover that they can tell a lie to protect the group, they are obsessed about it and they spend ages planning what they will tell the teacher when they come back into the room.”

Different approaches

Another vital difference between four- and five-year-olds and older children is that they don’t break rules for the same reasons, he says. An older child might break the rules to impress their friends but, for a four- or five-year-old, it is usually down to an inability to regulate their emotions.

“When you see a four- or five-year-old who is not sharing a toy, often it’s not because they don’t understand how to do it,” says Wass. “Rather, it’s because emotion regulation and keeping control of yourself when you are in a bad mood is a real challenge for younger children.” 

So what’s the best way that teachers can deal with misbehaving younger children?

“Young children really value consistency and reliability in a teacher,” says Wass. “They really value the fact that the teacher doesn’t have up-and-down moods the way a child does.

“Empathy is also important. You have to have the ability to recognise the emotions that a child feels.”

Emotional repsonse

Take that aforementioned example of a younger child who refuses to share toys with other children.

“It’s very tempting to treat that child as if they have been naughty - as if they know what they’re doing and they are doing it very deliberately to annoy the other child or the adult - so you [the teacher] tell off the child and sometimes raise your voice,” Wass explains. “But all of the research suggests that the most common reason why a child would fail to share a toy is because they are upset about something else or they are in a bad mood or they are feeling tired and emotional.

“If a child is feeling tired and emotional, going up and telling off that child is almost always an ineffective way of disciplining that child because it’s just going to make that child more upset, whereas empathising with that child, saying to that child ‘I can see it’s very upsetting, I can see you’re tired, I can see you’re in a bad mood…’ is almost a more effective way of helping a child regulate that behaviour.”

If that hasn’t got some of the more ‘traditional’ behaviour advocates up in arms, then his last piece of advice will certainly do the trick - though it is something many EYFS teachers will no doubt applaud.

Another ineffective way of dealing with younger children, says Wass, would be to sit them down and tell them what to do.

“Young children don’t have the ability to be told what to do and then do it, so if you try to force a very young child to do something, it won’t work and they will get upset and then it becomes an emotional thing,” explains Wass. “The way to start with a child is to let them follow their own interest and then gradually introduce discipline as you go.”

This is an edited version of an article in the 28 October edition of TES. To subscribe, click here. This week’s TES magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.

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