Changing your child’s behaviour can be hard work. It’s almost always easier – and often more effective – to change your child’s environment. This simple behaviour management tool can make undesirable behaviour a lot less likely to happen.

How changing the environment can change child behaviour

The environment around your child can influence his behaviour, so changing the environment can help to change your child’s behaviour.

The environment includes the physical things around your child, as well as where and when your child does things, and what your child is asked to do.

But often the environment has things that trigger unwanted behaviour in children. So when you’ve got a child behaviour problem, it’s a good idea to look at what’s going on in your child’s environment. For example, it’s normal for children to:

  • experiment with household objects you don’t want them to have

  • explore new surroundings, even when it isn’t safe

  • have tantrums when they’re tired

  • not want to share their favourite toys

  • not do what you ask if they don’t understand what you’re asking.

The environment around your child has lots of possibilities, which means there are lots of possibilities for changing it too. For example, you can change the physical environment, move the location of your child’s activities, move your child or others, change the scheduling or timing of what your child is doing, or change the way you ask your child to do things.

Changing your child’s physical environment

Here are some ideas for changing the physical things in your child’s environment to help your child behave the way you want.

At home

  • Move fragile or expensive items out of sight and reach of little fingers – this is important for safety as well as good behaviour.

  • Consider your children’s sleep arrangements. For example, sleeping your baby in a cot for as long as possible can prevent early problems with getting out of bed. If your children share a room and sometimes keep each other awake, moving one child to another bedroom to settle can help.

  • Make sure screens like tablets and TVs are off when you need your child to focus on something like getting ready for school in the morning.

Out and about

  • Choose an outside table at a restaurant. You’ll be less stressed, and children’s laughter, talking and moving around is less likely to cause discomfort to others.

  • Have one parent sit between two children in the back seat of the car. This might prevent fighting on a long car drive.

  • If you’re planning a family day out, look for places that have things that both you and your children will enjoy – for example, a playground for the children and a coffee cart for you, or a cycle path and shady picnic spot for all of you.

Toys and belongings

  • Install a child gate on the door of an older sibling’s room. This will give the older child some time playing with toys, undisturbed by a younger sibling.

  • Put your child’s favourite toys in a place that she can reach. This way she won’t be tempted to climb or get into unsafe places when she’s looking for her toys. Similarly, keep toys that need your help for times when you can be around to play with your child.

  • Help children choose and put away toys they might not want to share with visiting children.

"We moved all the grown-up stuff from the lower levels of our bookshelves. Grown-up books, breakable things and dangerous stuff went away, and we replaced it all with children’s books, soft toys and household stuff that the kids could play with, like plastic containers. And we attached the bookshelves to the walls too, so the kids could help themselves to things but stay safe at the same time." 

– Mother of two

Changing the timing of activities in your child’s environment

You can change your child’s environment by changing when things happen. Here are some ideas:

  • Encourage quiet, calming activities before bedtime.

  • Take your child grocery shopping after an afternoon nap.

  • Get up earlier to reduce pressure and stress in the morning rush for school.

  • Start bath time earlier to avoid tantrums about getting out of the bath.

  • Plan frequent breaks on a long car drive.

Keeping the environment interesting and stimulating

  • Put together a bag of special activities to take on long car trips or to other places where your child needs to wait, like the doctor’s waiting room.

  • Involve your child in shopping by letting him put things in the trolley, look for items, or pay at the checkout.

  • Put on a music DVD or a CD, or get your child started on an activity like colouring in, before you make a telephone call.

'Our children love books. When they were little, they liked to keep a stack of books next to their favourite reading chair. We changed some of the books in the stack every few days, so it always had some books that they hadn’t seen for a while. Even now that they’re older they like to have a changing stack of books by their beds.'

– Mother of two

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

Explore more