In some ways, the line between positive and negative behavior exists in the eye of the beholder. Your value system, which stems from your family and cultural background as well as your own life experiences, will determine what you believe to be positive behavior. Your feelings about yourself and life in general will also color your perceptions. When adults feel positive about themselves, they are better able to understand and accept children's behavior.

This article is based on the premise that positive behaviors are those which help children move along toward the goal of becoming well-adjusted, fully functioning adults. In other words, behavior that is typical of a particular stage of development, that paves the way for the next stage, is positive. Positive behavior is not, therefore, the same thing as compliance with adult wishes, especially if those adult wishes reflect a lack of knowledge of children's development.

Some positive behavior can appear downright negative! T. Berry Brazelton (1992), a renowned pediatrician, argues that there are predictable times in the lives of all children when their behavior “falls apart”: when they seem to move backward in development in ways that perplex and dismay their parents and caregivers. These times invariably signal a rapid spurt of physical, cognitive, or socioemotional growth. An example might be the child on the verge of walking, whose frustration at being left behind evokes a sudden change in disposition and screams of rage. Brazelton views these periods, not as crisis points, but rather as “touchpoints,” unparalleled opportunities for understanding and supporting development, if we anticipate them positively and avoid becoming locked in power struggles.

By studying child development and carefully observing the behavior of many children, you can learn to adjust your expectations so that the behavior you expect is within the bounds of possibility for children to achieve. By observing the behavior of a particular child over time, you can begin to understand what particular behaviors mean for that child. You may begin to see how behavior that seemed irritating to you actually serves a positive function for a child.

Focusing on positive behavior places negative behavior in better perspective and develops a more accurate impression of the whole child. It allows you to emphasize strengths and help children overcome weaknesses. Early childhood educators with heightened awareness of positive behaviors will set the stage so that those behaviors can occur, and will respond in ways that make these acts occur more often. In other words, they will use techniques of indirect and direct guidance.

Infants

For babies, behavior is the language with which they can tell us what they need. Although we may enjoy babies more when they are sleeping, cooing, and snuggling, babies who cry when they are hungry or wet are also exhibiting positive behaviors. In fact, we worry about the infant who lies passively in the crib and seems to have given up on the world.

Babies are often noisy, although many adults seem to equate a quiet baby with a good baby. Unless they have a disability, babies increasingly use their vocal cords to get attention and express their excitement. They coo and babble to practice sounds and engage in conversations with willing partners.

Babies thrive on attention and fall to pieces when that attention is withheld. Gurgling, smiling, flailing arms and legs, even screaming in outrage—all are ways that healthy babies exert their influence on us to get the attention they need. Understanding caregivers willingly give babies their undivided attention during feedings, diaper changes, and other intimate moments throughout the day, instead of interpreting apparently negative behaviors as “just wanting attention.”

Babies with typical development are social. They like people and enjoy the games that people play with them. They form strong attachments to the people who are important in their lives. This attachment is an important part of becoming fully human—even when the tears that follow that important person's departure make your job a little harder. Toys, television, and propped-up bottles should never replace the human touch and voice in a baby's life. To be happy and secure, babies must be loved unconditionally, and this is your responsibility when they are in your care.

Unless they are impeded by some disability, babies are typically active. They roll over, then stand in their cribs, and before long climb out of those cribs. One of the pleasures of caregiving is sharing their sheer joy in movement. Out on the floor they scoot along until they learn to crawl, then they pull themselves up on furniture. Life grows more perilous as they encounter dangerous things that used to be out of their reach—the heater, the cord on a coffeemaker, cleaning chemicals in the cupboard under the sink.

Babies are curious, and their sense of danger is undeveloped. They don't get into things to be bad or to irritate their tired caregivers. They are merely following irresistible natural urges to explore their environments, seeking the knowledge they need to understand their world. They do this through tasting, touching, chewing, seeing, and hearing. As a caregiver, you may have the privilege of seeing them discover for the first time that one action makes something else happen: That kicking the side of the crib makes the bell on the mobile ring, or that pushing a dish to the edge of the highchair tray results in a satisfying crash on the floor and perhaps an interesting response from you. Rejoice in these signs of intellectual growth.

If your job with very young babies is to meet their needs so that they feel secure, your job with mobile babies is to prepare their environments so that they can explore safely and to encourage that exploration. With toddlers, your task will be to foster their growing sense of independence and autonomy—including their ability to say “no”—recognizing all these as positive behaviors.

Toddlers

Of course, there's more to toddler behavior than “No!” One positive behavior is that toddlers explore on their own. Toddlers want to use the tricycle, though they may walk it along instead of pedaling it. They like to walk on a balance beam, a curb, or a wall, or something else a few inches from the ground, perhaps holding onto an adult's hand.

Sometimes, happiness is climbing up on high places from which they may be worried about getting down. They will look and feel like “king of the mountain” and cause parents to scurry to the rescue lest they tumble down.

Try visualizing yourself as a toddler to understand the pleasures of toddler life. For example, happiness is getting into things and poking your fingers into things. A cardboard carton from the grocery store makes a toy that you can play with for days—in and out, out and in, sitting down, rising up—a rhythm of exploration. You poke at Grandma's toe through her open-toed shoe and could just as well poke around the electric cord if someone didn't watch out for you.

Happiness is Julia picking up rocks on a walk and saying, “One for my daddy, one for my mommy, one for both of them.”

Happiness is having people around who realize how hard it is for toddlers to change their minds. For instance, after they've decided they want to eat a peanut butter sandwich, it is really hard to have to settle for a jelly sandwich.

Happiness is singing the song Eency Weency Spider with your teacher, then singing it at home for mommy and daddy and being asked in amazement, “Where did you learn that?” Also, happiness is bringing home a drawing of pretty squiggles and having daddy say, “Matt, this looks like writing. Look, dear, at the writing Matt did today. Good, Matt.”

Happiness is eating your dinner from your pretty Peter Rabbit dish, getting your fingers and face sticky, and not having anyone care about the mess.

Happiness is being able to ask for help or for something you need, like saying, “Water. Kim, water.” Or when mother asks, “Do you want your coat on?” being able to say, “Coat on.”

After toddlers turn two and become aware of the toilet, they like handling this alone. Sometimes for fun they sit backward on the toilet so they can hold on to the lid. They like surprising their teacher by going to the bathroom all alone without a reminder, and remembering to wash their hands afterward. They like the teacher's individual comments complimenting them for doing the task alone.

Toddlers really anticipate going outdoors. One teacher showed her charges how to put on their coats a magic way, by laying them front side up on the floor, collars at the children's feet. The children put their arms into the sleeves and flipped the coats over their heads and, like magic, the coats were on and ready to be zipped up. “I did it!” each shouted happily one after another as they succeeded at this task.

Three- to Six-Year-Olds

For a three- to six-year-old, action is a positive behavior, the key to healthy development, the sign that the child is growing. Physical action means continuous running, climbing, crawling, and hopping. Young children sit still only if it is their decision, and that is why it is preferable to let children choose their activities. They generally know best what their body needs next. If they decide to look at a book or do a painting, their concentration can be quite intense.

Pretend that you are a three- to six-year-old now. Positive behavior is laughing after recovering from the shock of having a turtle put in your face by a teasing boy. Positive behavior is taunting when your best friend tries to hit you with paperwads, “Missed me! You missed me! Now you've gotta kiss me!” Positive behavior is pretending about a big banner seen across the street, “Yeh! It's a big net and it is winding around us. It's got us! We can't get away!” and having your friends pretend to be caught in the struggle and laugh with you.

Positive behavior is singing into the stethoscope and finding out whether you can hear yourself. Positive behavior is making skis out of the hollow wooden ramps from the block corner, putting your feet in, and walking, and having your buddies laugh at the new discovery that they hadn't seen before. Positive behavior is wanting to throw a rope over a tree limb, then having your friend hold a stool for you while you get high enough to succeed. Positive behavior is hanging by your knees on the jungle gym and having your friend say, “I didn't know you could do that!”

Positive behavior is playing lotto and knowing which large card has the picture that is turned up on the small card. Positive behavior is feeling big enough to say “Bye” to Mom or Dad and joining other children at play. Positive behavior is wrestling with your friend in the grass and knowing you can hold your own and that your friend won't really hurt you. Positive behavior is feeling relieved that Mom finally bought you some blue jeans like the ones worn by the older boys in the school. Positive behavior is being glad when Daddy surprises you by stopping by the school to visit for a while and coping with sad feelings when he leaves. Positive behavior is doing your job at clean-up time and having the teacher say, “Thank you. We really worked together on clean up today!”

Talking and listening are positive behaviors, although for young children, talking is often more interesting than listening. You will frequently hear conversations that sound like two interviews run together on the tape recorder with both children talking and neither listening.

Talking, getting your ideas across and telling someone how you feel, is a positive behavior. One child whispers to another, “You're my friend,” or shouts, “No! no!” when someone takes a toy. Talking is asking for information, “Why do I have to take a nap?” It's telling the teacher important news before someone else does—“I have a new baby sister!” Talking is telling a best friend, “I'm going to take you and Carlos to the rodeo this night.” Talking and having someone to listen, to talk back, and not to say “shut up” are positive interactions for three- to five-year-olds.

Positive behavior is Clair painting a picture for each of her brothers, or Jeremiah taking a cookie home to his brother, “'Cause he doesn't have any cookies.” Positive behavior is Lakeisha tying Sondra's shoes when she didn't have any of her own to tie. And positive behavior is Keith swinging alone chanting

Swing, swing
My swing is swinging
Swing, swing
I'm making it go.

All children's behavior has meaning, and the adult's task is to search for that meaning. What do the things children do tell you about them? You can't draw conclusions from one or two incidents but must watch children over a period of time. When you sit down and reflect on the day's events after school, or at home after the children are safely tucked in each day, ask yourself “What positive behavior did I observe today?” Then you can analyze what you did to help or hinder what happened. These can be lessons for the future.

Of course, problems should not be ignored. Apparent problems may be positive behavior for some children. For example, you might have children who are quiet and withdrawn who then gradually grow to trust you and themselves and begin to stretch and strain the rules. These may be problems for you, but for those children the actions signify growth. What do you do? Certainly, don't try to control their behavior and push them back into their shells! Ignore them for a while unless someone's going to get hurt, because these children may be working through a problem through acts of self-expression. The teacher's goal is to tailor the guidance to children's individual needs. Within a short time, these children will likely be willing to follow the rules again.