What is Positive Behavior?

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

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.


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.

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