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Promoting Positive Behaviour in Nurseries

Last updated on 29th March 2023

Encouraging positive behaviour in children is one of the most important elements of their time at nursery. We have lots of tools at our disposal to help children grow and become more emotionally intelligent. Promoting positive behaviour in early years is important to prepare children for entering a more formal educational setting at school.

Working in a nursery or early years educational setting, you’ve got lots of responsibilities. Children need to learn positive behaviours, social skills, and get a foundation in literacy and numeracy. Here, we’re going to look at:

  • The different ways that children can learn positive behaviours.
  • How nursery staff can promote positive behaviours in the classroom.
  • Some practical examples of how to facilitate learning positive behaviours.
  • Why it’s important to promote positive behaviour and how to create a policy around it.
  • Tips you can apply in your classroom for managing challenging behaviours.

This will ensure that you’re equipped with all the information you need to have your pupils ready to go to school.

How do children learn about positive behaviour?

Young children find it much easier to learn by watching and being active in learning rather than by being told about something. This means that it’s important for you to always be modelling positive actions and behaviours.

There are three main ways that you can actively encourage positive behaviour:

1. Play – During structured or free play you can ensure children display positive social and emotional skills.
2. Interaction – Taking part in activities such as games gives you an opportunity to model good social behaviours.
3. Discussion – By talking with pupils in situations like story time, you can help them to understand positive behaviours.

You also need to have structures for positive reinforcement. When you tell a child that they’re wrong or naughty, you’re not giving them anything constructive. You should tell them when they have been good and what exactly was good about it. An example would be, “you’ve been very helpful clearing away the crayons for everyone after colouring time, thank you”.

Nursery teacher reading story book to group of kids in kindergarten

How do we promote positive behaviours?

In the UK, there are nearly 1.1 million early years education places for children. The government has set out a framework called Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) for young children in these settings. It gives guidance to you as a nursery school teacher about what a child should be taught, including about positive behaviours.

Included in the framework are requirements to provide children with opportunities for personal, social, and emotional development.

The aim of this is to give the child:

  • A positive sense of self.
  • Ways to form positive relationships.
  • Respect for others.
  • Social skills and emotional management.
  • An understanding of appropriate group behaviour.
  • Self-confidence in their abilities.

To teach these positive outcomes to young children takes careful planning as well as strong execution. Nursery school is a valuable time for children to learn about these aspects of themselves – they have a peer group around them and trained educational practitioners like yourself who can guide them during their learning.

In the EYFS framework there are guidelines on how to give students opportunity to develop positive behaviours.

Some broad examples include:

  • Using time to play and explore to give children a chance to “have a go” and begin to understand what they like and challenge themselves. This could be picking up leaves with unusual, “scary” textures or trying to throw a ball at a target.
  • Active learning gives children a chance to build concentration and persevere at a task they struggle with. Examples might be encouraging children to stay within the lines when it’s art time or repeating counting until they get it right, with plenty of praise at the end.
  • Creating and thinking critically allows children to make their own links within the world and build their own strategies to solve problems. You can use story time to allow children to choose different options to determine the ending to encourage them to think about outcomes.

We’re going to look at some core positive behaviours that should be encouraged in a nursery setting and give you some practical examples of how you can encourage them within your classroom setting.

Empathy and understanding

Empathy and understanding about others can make a child more resilient and open to others around them. It can take time for a child to learn to see the world from the perspective of others, an idea known as theory of mind (ToM). When you, as a teacher, can model empathy and talk about feelings it will become easier for children to figure out.

Children need to understand and identify their emotions. This will help them recognise them in others. During a creative session you can encourage your students to think of feelings and express those emotions through colours and shapes and have them tell you how their work fits with a feeling they have.


When you offer praise to a child it gives them something positive to aim for. It’s a great way to reinforce positive behaviour when they’re at nursery. Sometimes it may feel like you spend a lot of time preventing negative behaviour; giving praise will bring positive language back into the room.

Praise needs to be clear, direct, and defined. Telling a student at the end of the day, “You’ve been very good today”, offers very little. The child needs to know what they’ve done that was very good so that the behaviour can become repeatable. Make your words and any rewards directly linked to the good behaviour, and make it as close to the time of the good work as possible.

“Thank you for helping your classmate finish their maths questions just now, that’s very kind of you,” explains the reason for the praise, confirms exactly when the good behaviour happened, and attaches a positive feeling to the action, too.

Clear communication

It’s not always easy to communicate with young children. You need to model clear communication to them so they’ll understand how to ask for what they want with confidence, such as asking to go to the toilet or needing help with their work.

Make sure that when you ask a child to do something, your instructions are easy to follow. Rather than “tidy away the books”, “put the books back on the shelves like the other books” will get you a more certain outcome. Always be sure that you look the child in the eye when speaking, wherever possible, too.

Range of children in nursery sat playing together nicely on the floor

Positive reinforcement

We’ve already established that children like to be rewarded for good work. Being shouted at and punished doesn’t help much, especially with very young children. Encouraging good behaviour is always going to have better outcomes.

In your classroom, you can create a rewards chart for your pupils. Make it really clear what a reward can be given for, e.g. finishing work on time, saying please or thank you, helping others, etc. Offer a point or a sticker or similar for each parameter and every week you can give a certificate for the highest score in the class.

Creating house rules

Having rules within a classroom is important. Bringing the children into the rule making process should make them more responsive. It’s also a way to work on empathy, since the children will need to think about how their actions can affect their classmates.

You should have a plan of the target rules you want to see the children come up with. Keep the rules simple and try and make them positive, so “hands up to speak” rather than “no shouting out”. Encourage the children to discuss why each rule is important and what it looks like.

Once you’ve built your class rules with your students you can engage them further by having them illustrate and decorate your list. Use the rules to underpin your positive reinforcement strategy and refer to them when offering praise.

Why do we need to promote positive behaviour in nursery schools?

Every child has the right to a happy and safe childhood. This needs to be offered through good parenting as well as a positive educational setting. By equipping children early on with positive behaviour strategies, they will find moving into a more formal school setting easier.

Using EYFS principles, you will give a student a good grounding in positive behaviour. They will thrive with quality and consistent teaching and support and be given a secure foundation to develop from.

Between birth to five-years-old is one of the most important times in a child’s development. Without positive behaviours being modelled, taught, and reinforced, children can develop bad habits that are hard to break. A child can struggle in school and with their peer relationships which could have a long-term impact on their future.

Do we need a positive behaviour policy?

Although there is no legal requirement for a nursery to have a positive behaviour policy, it is good practice. What one parent may deem acceptable behaviour for their children might not be acceptable for others, for example parents can have different ideas surrounding bad language.

When you create a positive behaviour policy, you can be sure that everyone understands the rules.

In your policy you need to outline:

  • What positive behaviour looks like.
  • How the nursery will work to teach it.
  • What negative behaviour looks like.
  • How negative behaviour will be dealt with.

This will ensure that teachers, support staff, and parents all fully understand what will happen in the school day.

Once you have a positive behaviour policy in place, you can use this to work on your class rules with your children. Make sure that what you communicate to your pupils matches exactly with what’s in the policy. Children need consistency with the rules they have to stick to.

Nursery worker implementing positive behaviour through play

Using a behaviour charter

A behaviour charter is another term for a behaviour policy, setting out the expectations of good behaviour from children whilst at nursery. It also codifies what your nursery will offer to children and parents in terms of praise and corrective actions in cases of bad behaviour.

It works a little like a corporate mission statement or statement of values. Embedded in a behaviour charter are the guiding principles of what your nursery sees as positive behaviour. It might include values such as being respectful, being heard, or being treated fairly. From these ideas you draw your positive behaviours.

By having the expectations set out in a clear document, supported by policy and classroom education, you can be sure you’re encouraging positive behaviours. Since other policies should the ideas in the charter within them, you know you can turn to it for clarification on any issues that might arise.

Tips for managing difficult behaviour

As much as we all want a well-run classroom, full of children displaying positive behaviours, it’s not going to happen all the time. We’re going to give you five top tips that are easily actionable for managing difficult behaviour in a nursery setting.

1. Don’t shout

No one likes being shouted at. It makes us feel belittled and humiliated. If you don’t like being shouted at, imagine how a child feels.

When a child is acting out or displaying negative behaviours, as the adult you need to stay calm. Yes, you need to have an authoritative tone if you need to take control of a situation, but a raised voice normally indicates you’ve lost control of the room.

2. Tackle tantrums carefully

Tantrums are to be expected from young children. How you deal with them in your classroom will make all the difference to the atmosphere you create.

A tantrum is an irrational outburst filled with raw emotions. A child can easily be distracted away from their feelings, whether it’s with some one-on-one play with a new toy or with a group exercise like some impromptu singing. In the long term there are strategies you can work on in class to build resilience.

3. Avoid collective punishment

You’d not stand for collective punishment from your boss because it’s not fair. Instil that principle of fairness into your classroom. Ensure that any punishment you have to mete out is fair and proportionate, such as a time-out session for the children displaying negative behaviours.

4. Explain the rules clearly

Although the children in your class had a hand in developing your rules, they’re going to need reminders. When difficult behaviour arises, be sure to explain exactly which rule is being broken. This will reinforce that the rules are serious. The child will know exactly what they’ve done wrong, rather than just get told they’re naughty.

5. Listen to the child

One of the behaviours you’re modelling for your children is empathy and understanding. Even when a child is displaying difficult behaviours, you can still work on this aspect with them.

Before handing out a punishment, talk on their level and understand why they have become angry or upset. There will be a reason why they’ve thrown a toy or hit another pupil. Asking them to verbalise their feelings will also help them understand the situation. Don’t accept excuses, but use what the child tells you to understand areas that you can work on with them.


Children are always learning new things, including ways to behave. By promoting positive behaviour in nursery school, you are setting your children up to be well-behaved in school so they’ll receive an all-round better education.

There are lots of ways that children learn behaviour. You need to show them through your own actions, give them chance to explore their feelings and boundaries, and give them praise and rewards when they get it right.

In your nursery, you should have a positive behaviour policy that will govern how everyone will deal with good and bad behaviour. Ideally, this will be backed up by a behaviour charter that will be more conceptual and values driven. You can then use these to guide your class to design their own rules so that they understand why rules and good behaviour are important.

By having positive behaviours modelled, taught, and talked about in your classroom, your nursery will be a happy place that sends well developed children off to their first day of primary school.

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About the author

Joanne Rushton

Joanne began her career in customer services in a UK bank before moving to South East Asia to discover the world. After time in Malaysia and Australia, she settled in Hanoi, Vietnam to become an English teacher. She's now a full-time writer covering, travel, education, and technology.

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