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Children demonstrate the emerging ability to manage and adjust behaviors in accordance with social and cultural contexts.

In the first three years of life, children’s behavior is often described as tantrums and impulsive. These behaviors are developmentally appropriate and normal! The role of the caregiver is extremely important during this period in order to support children in managing their behavior and actions.

As in all of development, behavior regulation occurs within children’s cultural and social contexts. Culture expectations set up what is acceptable and what is non-acceptable. Caregivers are responsible for communicating these expectations and providing support children need to guide their behavior. Children learn these rules and begin to adapt their behavior depending on individual situations. For example, children may be able to recognize what behaviors they can display at home versus what they can display at a childcare center or at a relative’s home.

Behavior regulation starts with attentive caregivers meeting children’s needs. If caregivers are consistent in meeting children’s needs, they build trust. In infancy, children look to these trusted adults for cues in different situations. This is called social referencing and helps children guide their behavior. They pay very close attention to the facial cues of these adults before acting. In toddlerhood, children continue to use social referencing, but will also use language or private speech to help guide their behavior and actions. While children are developing their capacity in managing their impulses and learning self-control, they still will be able to recognize when they need their co-regulator instead of just relying on their own abilities to control, manage, and adapt their behavior.

Behavior Regulation and Experiences

Behavior regulation is often challenging because it is based on children’s experiences, which may differ from one child to another, yet, there are certain societal expectations that children must adhere to, especially when these expectations are safety-related. However, if children have not been exposed to “common” expectations, children may not act in the “expected” manner. For example, children who live in high-rise buildings may see windows as dangerous and refuse to get close to any window, even at ground level. Or, children who live in one-story homes may attempt to climb a set of stairs without an idea that they can fall down. Both these examples highlight the important role context plays in behavior regulation. These children are not purposefully “misbehaving” or having difficulty with their impulses; they are exploring the world based on what is familiar and comfortable to them.

Birth to 9 months

Children respond to internal states and external states and have little or no self-control over their behavior. Children depend on caregivers to co-regulate their behavior.

Indicators for children include:

  • Cries when hungry, tired, uncomfortable, or bored
  • Uses physical movements to disengage from interaction, turns head, averts gaze
  • Physically explores environment through touch, e.g., sucking, gnawing, hitting, pulling, banging
  • Shows curiosity and limited restraint when exploring the environment, e.g., reaches for objects that adults or other children are holding

Strategies for interaction

  • Be emotionally available and sensitive to the child’s needs
  • Provide consistency and routines for sleeping, eating, and diapering
  • Respond promptly and thoughtfully to the child’s cues
  • Manage own expectations with the understanding that the child cannot control his behavior
  • Create a safe environment for the child to actively explore

7 months to 18 months

The use of social referencing emerges and supports children in developing an internal capacity to modify some of their behaviors. Children still depend heavily on the use of their caregiver to help co-regulate their behaviors.

Indicators for children include:

  • Explores environment while unaware of boundaries and limits, e.g., crawls toward a shelf and attempts to climb it
  • Reads cues and body language of caregiver(s) and familiar others to guide reactions and behaviors in novel and uncertain situations
  • Demonstrates frustration, e.g., cries, bites
  • Has difficulty channeling excitement, e.g., screams, jumps, squeezes, bites
  • Chooses between two options, e.g., “You can have the red ball or the blue ball”
  • Completes a forbidden action regardless of referencing a caregiver’s reaction, e.g., looks toward their caregiver before touching the forbidden object and then touches it anyway

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide the child with plenty of warning in between transitions; use picture cards to help
  • Guide the child with both nonverbal and verbal communication, e.g., use facial expressions that match what is being said
  • Establish routines for everyday activities
  • Manage own expectations with the understanding that the child cannot control his behavior
  • Use redirection and distraction to avoid power struggles

16 months to 24 months

Children may be able to demonstrate limited self-control over behavior by responding to cues found in the environment. Children also begin to use more complex strategies to help manage feelings of impulsivity.

Indicators for children include:

  • Communicates “mine” when another child takes a toy away
  • Communicates “no” to self when reaching for forbidden objects
  • Begins to respond to caregiver’s cues and modifies behavior, e.g., does not touch the forbidden object, once recognizing the caregiver is discouraging the action

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide the child with clear limits and provide reminders of them through the day
  • Model thoughtful and respectful behavior when interacting with the child
  • Encourage the child to express what he or she is feeling, e.g., stomp feet if mad

21 months to 36 months

Children demonstrate some limited self-control over their behavior without adult intervention or prompting. Children have knowledge of a wide range of expected behaviors and can manage some of those expectations. Children also have an increased capacity to recognize when they need their caregiver to help regulate instead of relying on their own self-regulation strategies.

Indicators for children include:

  • Increases the use of private speech in everyday play and interactions
  • Increasingly reacts appropriately to adults’ facial expressions, tone, and affect, before acting on an impulse
  • Identifies situations where he or she needs the caregiver to support in controlling behavior, e.g., holds caregiver’s hand when crossing the street
  • Transitions smoothly if is prepared ahead of time
  • Checks in with caregiver through nonverbal and verbal communication, e.g., glances, waves, points, says name, asks a question, all without having to be in close proximity
  • Demonstrates an awareness of expectations, e.g., approaches and gently touches a baby, waits for brief periods of time when turn-taking

Strategies for interaction

  • Prepare the child for changes in routines and transitions by providing them plenty of time to anticipate and plan for change
  • Acknowledge and praise desirable behavior by saying what the child did and why it is important
  • Be consistent in limit-setting and responses
  • Briefly revisit behavior after the child has reached a calm state, e.g., “You were so upset, I am so sorry you felt that way. It’s important to remember that we do not hit our friends.”

Keep in Mind

Children do not master self-regulatory tasks in the first three years of life. Below are some of children’s behaviors that demonstrate the beginning signs of self-regulation. By 36 months, children:

  • Can recover from stressful situations with support of caregivers
  • Have limited self-control over behavior, with support from caregivers
  • Can attend for increasing amounts of time
  • Can manage some of their eating, sleeping, and eliminating processes with support from caregivers

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Reviewed: 2012