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Environments That Encourage Positive Behavior

Dear Elizabeth,
My son likes to grab everything in sight, including things that can break. Saying “no” all the time isn’t working. Do you have any advice?
Miguel Todd
Sacramento, CA
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
  • The environment influences your child’s behavior
  • Carefully plan & arrange your physical environment
  • Work with everyone in your child’s circle of care
Expert Advice
Regina Lamourelle, Ed.D
Regina Lamourelle, Ed.D
Professor, early care & education
How an Environment Influences Your Child’s Behavior
Environments do not only influence a child’s behavior, they also influence the adult’s behavior. Our environments are like frames for experience and depending on the frame, we alter our behavior. Most of this is done non-consciously after many episodes where certain codes of behavior have been supported and reinforced. Children must learn these. For example, adults and older children know that they cannot run up and down the aisles, scream loudly, jump over and walk on the seats in church. We know that it is appropriate to scream at a concert or ball game but not in the classroom. We learned this as we grew because we observed what others did in the same situation or our behavior was redirected if it was not appropriate for the situation.

In early learning settings, one consideration should be does the environment support or hinder the behavior that the teacher is anticipating? I once had a toddler teacher who thought that she would minimize what she had to clean up by removing all but one of each of the toys from the shelves where children could get them. She did minimize the number of toys to pick up but increased the number of biting and crying incidents. Her frame of mind was, “I want a clean room.” This was an unrealistic expectation of toddlers because they do not have the social skills, vocabulary and experience to know how to share toys or to ask the teacher to put more toys out. This teacher created the environment that ended up being chaotic with many biting incidents and notes home to parents. The children suffered and the caregiver felt less competent.

Another thing to remember also is that “messes” are relative and to assume that every disorderly or non-linear condition is not necessarily a mess that should be fixed. I learned this lesson from a four-year-old at my preschool. I was substituting for a teacher while she went to the restroom and to “help her out” since it was the end of the day, I said, “Jonathan, lets clean up this mess!” Jonathan looked sad and said, “That’s not a mess, that is my factory.” I was not paying attention and what Jonathan had done was made a structure out of blocks and other things. I apologized and from then on I refrained from calling creative, fluid learning environments messes, because in reality a mess was my term for a situation that I did not value and I did value children’s creative efforts.

We must appreciate the learning value in allowing children to create without negative labels that send the message that their efforts are not appreciated or valued.

I could have said, “Jonathan, it is getting late and we need to put these things away so that janitors can clean the floor. Do you think you can build something similar tomorrow?” We later developed a system where we would put on the same music, “Zippity-Doo-Dah,” when it was time to put things away. This enabled the children to self-regulate and take care of their work without caregivers having to remind them.

How Should Parents Arrange Their Space at Home?
This is an excellent question because adults do not often consider that the behavior children are exhibiting is a direct result of inappropriate environmental planning or lack of appreciation for developmental limitations of children. Maria Montessori was one of the earliest theorists that realized that child-size equipment helped children be successful in their environment. Most homes have furniture that is not necessarily sized for children which may create “behavioral” issues if not compensated for. For example, placing a two or five year old at a table in a chair that is too short for them to adequately manipulate the food utensils may cause them to spill their food. The spilling or “messy” eating then gets treated as a discipline problem when it is an environmental issue.

Most preschools have appropriate-sized furniture but sometimes caregivers do not realize that the arrangement of the environment or timing of routines create behavioral issues For example, if the building blocks are placed near the quiet reading corner, the child building with blocks could infringe on the space of the child reading quietly resulting in a territorial dispute that may begin by pushing, shoving, or the tearing down of the block structure.

Thirsty and hungry children may misbehave because dehydrated, hungry brains do not have the chemicals on board to behave well. Over-controlling caregivers that insist that there is a right time for a child to drink rather than allowing the children to drink because they are thirsty or who will not allow a child to have a snack may inadvertently cause behavioral problems. We had a station in the room that had water and a healthy snack that children could eat when they felt they needed it. After the initial exploration with the water by the two year olds, the children soon learned that the snack center was there for them. This is also where we observed the power of peer pressure and socialization. The children themselves made sure that no one abused or “played” at the snack station. As new children came, others trained them for us. This helped children be in control of their basic needs and to respond to their body’s signals.
Child Care Provider Comments
Gino Colchico
Gino Colchico
Father of two
Our son is allowed to move freely throughout the home, use his toys in different rooms, as well as move things around, such as furniture, in order to accomplish whatever he is trying to do (build a fort, complete a puzzle, etc.). He is allowed to run and jump and climb wherever possible. We leave out musical instruments, books and drawing materials for easy access.
Ginny Aragon
Ginny Aragon
Child care provider for 34 years
I remove anything that is distracting in my nephew’s environment. When we’re out with him, it can be difficult. He will grab for the forks and spoons. I constantly remind him that we need to behave well in public; I move the salt shaker so he won’t be tempted to play with it. I’ll bring him Cheerios, and a book will entertain him and keep him engaged; I will let him pick out the book. Sometimes I read to him, other times I let him flip through the book on his own. I take his cue.
Tondra Gardner
Tondra Gardner
Licensed child care provider for two years
My philosophy is “control the environment -- not the little people in it.” Kids like a routine, and they like to know what their options are. We call my childcare “the place for little hands.” I have an enclosed patio that I converted just for play. We have our main space out there. The kids can paint in the free art area. I also have a music area and a block area. All the elements are low so they don’t have to ask. I have a few things that aren’t available at their reach so if they need paint, for example, they need to ask me.

Environment Makeover Featured Activity:
Environment Makeover
Environments That Encourage Positive Behavior Featured Video:
Environments That Encourage Positive Behavior
Topic: Child Care Management
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