Promoting Positive Behaviour

This chapter was added to the manual in September 2022.

1. Introduction

Children need consistent boundaries and responses (routines and rhythms). It is important to understand that for children who have experienced developmental trauma, traditional parenting including over reliance on behavioural responses such as reward charts, punishments and time out may be counter-productive and layer upon the sense of shame that children already experience. Further information on shame can be found in the Ilearn ARC Hub Course: ARC Hub and can be discussed during foster carer supervision, support groups and training.

Due to the difficulties that children have often experienced within their early relationships, they will have expectations that the world around them, including adults, is frightening and unpredictable and they need adults who understand this and can attune to them.

2. Legislation and Guidance

Key points to remember

Hertfordshire Foster Caring strives to be a Trauma Informed Service that uses the ARC (Attachment Regulation and Competence ref) framework as its structure.

The ARC is based on the idea that regulated and consistent caregivers can make sense of children's behaviours and respond effectively to meet the needs being met by behaviours and address feelings of a lack of safety that are behind them.

We work under the premise that "relational trauma requires relational repair" (Karen Treisman) and as such the following points should be considered by those caring for foster children:

  • Children in care are likely to have experienced trauma but not all children who have adverse experiences will be traumatised. Every child is unique and their responses to the same adversity will differ;
  • Trauma can affect brain development. Many traumatised children function at an earlier developmental level than their chronological age suggests;
  • Traumatised children may struggle to develop regulatory skills needed for learning and social relationships;
  • Some children react powerfully to sensory triggers related to their trauma by becoming hyperaroused or dissociating. These reactions often occur below the level of conscious awareness;
  • If adults involved with traumatised children are unable to manage their own emotions, this can escalate children's distress (this is emphasised in the framework as the importance of caregiver affect management);
  • Effective help requires intervention that is congruent with neuroscience, developmentally relevant and relational;
  • All behaviour is communication and remaining curious about what is being communicated and the underlying needs is crucial for meeting children's needs and finding solutions (attunement);
  • Post-traumatic growth and resilience is possible. Traumatised children need hope and adults involved with them must believe in a positive future for them.

The ARC Framework focuses on 2 questions:

  1. What need is this behaviour meeting?
  2. What danger is this behaviour avoiding?

3. Support for Foster Carers

Caregiver Affect Management is paramount in working in a trauma informed way. It is recognised that caring for a child who has experienced trauma can be profoundly difficult and your wellbeing as a foster carer needs to be prioritised along with an awareness of your own triggers. Supporting a child through behaviours that have their roots in distress and fear requires emotional resilience. Foster carers have the opportunity to talk about how fostering and other factors are impacting on them through supervision and support groups.

Foster carers are expected to attend ARC training (your Supervising Social Worker can provide details) and this learning is then embedded further through foster carer supervision, support groups and monthly ARC workshops.

The core training offered to foster carers is designed to increase the understanding of developmental trauma and the role of foster carers and will help equip carers with a curious approach to help meet children's needs. Please refer to the Foster Carers Learning and Development Programme.

It is good practice for foster carers to discuss any difficulties they are experiencing in terms of caring for a child or managing their behaviour which is seen as an opportunity for discussion rather than a weakness. It is acknowledged that caring for a traumatised child is difficult and can impact on all areas of foster carers' lives and that of their families, therefore seeking support is an integral part of fostering.

"A regulated adult can regulate a dysregulated child, but a dysregulated adult can never calm anyone" Bruce Perry

4. Helping the Child/Young Person to Settle In

Since your foster child is new to your home they will not know or understand your rules unless you explain them. You will need to be mindful of the child's background and early life experiences when setting boundaries and expectations.

It is important that the child is treated consistently by everyone who cares for them, particularly when there are two carers.

Depending on the age of the child, it is useful for them to be involved in conversations about what behaviour is accepted and when appropriate to consider possible consequences. Ongoing communication is really important and can be helpful as you start to get to know each other.

It is important that other members of your household or wider family have an understanding of trauma and brain development.

5. Ways to Encourage Positive Behaviour

Difficult behaviours often stand out more than good behaviours, but by praising good behaviour it encourages the child/young person to do this more. This is an effective method of managing behaviour used by childcare professionals. As with other approaches, be mindful of your child's responses as some children can find praise difficult to accept especially if they do not trust adults.

The child needs to be aware of what they did well and should be told as it is happening rather than after the event.

You should record behaviour to help you and other professionals understand it and use opportunities such as supervision, support groups and ARC workshops for exploration and developing effective responses.

There are many techniques which respond effectively to the needs expressed or danger felt and can reduce problematic behaviour. However, children and young people respond best to people that they like and respect, regardless of which technique you use and a positive relationship is the key to helping promote positive behaviours.

As a child/young person gets older they need to understand the consequences of their behaviour and take responsibility for it. However, some children may not ever be able to fully manage their behaviour. Taking into consideration their developmental age rather than chronological age and an understanding of their cognitive capacity is essential, so as not to shame a child who does not have the capacity to regulate, reflect or anticipate consequences.

You might find that giving rewards at both agreed and less specified times when you think that they are deserved can be the most effective way to encourage good behaviour. It is also useful to try and talk to a child when they are calm about a situation that may have happened, to talk things through and agree how it may be different in the future. However, all strategies should include an understanding that when children are in survival mode, they do not have access to higher thinking processes and therefore a focus on making good choices could be unhelpful and counter-productive (due to the potential to shame a child further for behaviour they could not control). It is also useful to know what difficulties your child may have stemming from impairment in executive functioning and brain development, if children's brains do not get what they need they do not grow as others do.

6. Boundaries and Expectations

Children need clear routines and boundaries which can help them to feel safe and cared for. It is important that children are told that it is normal and OK to have strong feelings and expressing those, but that there are certain behaviours that that are not OK.

7. Understanding Challenging Behaviour

What constitutes challenging behaviour will be different for different individuals and within different homes. This is why it is so important to explore your own triggers and your expectations around behaviour within your supervision and support groups.

A child/young person placed with you may be at a very low point in their lives. They are vulnerable and may 'act out' their feelings.

This may show itself in ways such as bed-wetting, stealing food or money, being rude or aggressive, destructive behaviours or running away. Being aware of any previous behaviours and how these have been addressed should be discussed prior to the placement as part of the matching process and also at the Placement Planning Meeting. The Placement Planning Meeting and if appropriate, Placement Support Meetings, should be used to discuss techniques to support the child and approach difficult behaviour. Supervising Social Workers (SSW) should support foster carers to keep up to date with current guidance and procedures in areas such as children going missing and Child sexual exploitation (see Hertfordshire Safeguarding Children Partnership Procedures, Safeguarding Children Abused Through Sexual Exploitation Procedure).

Talking things through with the child/young person along with your Supervising Social Worker can help work out the best way to manage challenging behaviours.

Sometimes the child/young person might not understand the reasons that things are going wrong for them and they might need your help to make sense of what is happening. Children who experienced emotional trauma may not be able to respond to reasoning or guidance in a positive way. Patience, acceptance and consistency by the foster carer is most important.

Remember that children and young people often do things wrong because of their age and understanding and these things are hard to help. Examples of this might be clumsiness, sleeping in and being grumpy. On the other hand, their experiences might leave them to exhibit challenging behaviours as means of 'acting out' their feelings. It's important to be able to recognise this in order to promote positive changes and support the child/young person in regulating their emotions and building up a rapport with you in order to explore these feelings.

It is perfectly reasonable to take time out for yourself (but never putting children in time out) saying things like "I need to get back into my thinking brain" or "I need to calm myself down a little". This models an adults capacity to regulate and helps children learn about their own capacity to regulate.

It is completely acceptable for the Foster Carer to apologise or make a repair, if you say something when you are cross, or put in place a sanction that later seems disproportionate, you will not "lose face" if you explain to the child/young person "I was upset, I am calm now and I can see that I over reacted" - you are teaching children the skill of self-reflection and how to make repair.

Praise and positive responses go a lot further than sanctions. Remember that body language and the tone of your voice can sometimes make things worse, e.g. if you raise your voice this may scare them or may result in them copying this behaviour.

8. Dealing with Challenging Behaviour

Most children present behaviour that needs to be responded to with some form of discipline at some point. Because of their formative experiences, some children may display very challenging behaviour.

"Too often we forget that discipline really means to teach, not to punish. A disciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioural consequence." Dan Siegel

Discipline is about teaching and not punishing, we do not punish children at all. Punishment is defined as making someone suffer because they hurt us.

For example, taking a child's screen time away because they were rude to you is a punishment, it is not effective for children with trauma. For this to be effective they need to be able to regulate, to use working memory and anticipate consequences which they are unable to do.

The consequence of a child being rude is that there is a rupture in the relationship and we need to show children how to manage repairing relationships (or things) and explore how they can manage big emotions without enacting verbal or physical violence. In the ARC framework this is covered as "Modulation".

Foster Carer training, supervision and support groups should equip you with a range of positive strategies for managing challenging behaviour and discipline that is appropriate. In managing any challenging behaviour, it is the behaviour that is not acceptable and not the child. Although saying this to a child is meaningless if they are dysregulated as the meaning is too complex and their sense of shame often deafening to this information.

Within the Foster Care Agreement signed by you, you agree to not use any form of corporal punishment. The term 'corporal punishment' is defined as any intentional application of force as punishment including smacking, slapping, pinching, squeezing, shaking, throwing missiles, rough handling and all other humiliating forms of treatment or punishment.

Similarly, restriction of contact visits to and from the birth family and friends must not be used as a punishment, nor withholding receipt or sending of letters or phone calls. Any sanctions involving removal of activities or clubs that are felt to be beneficial to the child's personal, emotional and social development (e.g. brownies, sports clubs, social groups, birthday parties) should be avoided as this could be detrimental to the child's progress.

Children and young people must not be stopped from getting in touch with their social worker, Children's Guardian or Solicitor.

There are many different techniques used to help children and young people with behavioural problems. Examples such as positive reinforcement and contracts are all based on a negotiated agreement between a carer and child or young person.

The Foster Carer must give clear messages, be consistent, persistent, watch what happens, draw conclusions, and decide what must change.

It is important to note that if physical action is required in order to avert an immediate danger of personal injury or to avoid immediate danger to property, this should be taken. Examples could include removing items which could cause danger to a child, or other individuals removing themselves from a situations where it is felt they may be harmed, for example other children being taken to a different part of the house if it is felt they may be hurt. However if there are items of particular financial or sentimental value in your home this should be considered in your health and safety checklist to ensure they are out of harms way as a child should always receive the message that they are more important than material possessions.

9. Serious Incidents and Physical Intervention

If a serious incident such as an accident, assault or damage to property takes place, you should do what is needed to protect children/yourself from immediate harm, and then notify the Fostering Service immediately.

You should not use any form of physical intervention except as a last resort to prevent you or others from being injured or to prevent serious damage to property. Some carers receive training on understanding behaviour and physical intervention but the rule above still applies in these situations.

If any form of physical intervention is used, it must be the least intrusive to protect the child, you or others.

At no time should you act unless you are confident in managing the situation safely, without escalation or further injury.

You should endeavour to deal with as many of the challenges as possible that are involved in caring for children without the involvement of the Police, who should only be involved if:

  • An emergency occurs that requires their immediate involvement to protect the child or others;
  • Following discussion with your Supervising Social Worker, their manager or the Out of Hours Social Worker.

If any serious incident occurs or the Police are called, the child's social worker and your Supervising Social Worker must be notified without delay. You may be asked to provide a full written report of the incident and actions taken.

10. Safer Touch

Hertfordshire Fostering Service recognises the importance of nurture and the role that physical touch and affection plays in this, particularly for children who have experienced abuse and neglect within their early relationships. Children need to be supported to learn that touch can be positive and safe. Consider past experiences and follow the child's lead. You should always be guided by the Safer Caring policy which should be updated to reflect any changes in your household or as the needs of your foster child change. The Fostering Network guide "Safer caring; A New Approach" can be used for guidance and every foster carer should have a copy.

See: Safer Caring in Foster Care Procedure.

11. Responses to Concerning Behaviours

Whatever concerning behaviour a child is displaying, we should always remember the below responses:

Regulate: Children cannot reflect or reason while they are anxious or distressed and children need a regulated adult in order to be able to co-regulate.

Relate: Validate the child's feelings and help them to label their emotions to manage their behaviour.

Reason: Only once everyone is calm can we reflect with a child on what happened in order to problem solve and discuss support and consequences. Remember that it can take 45 minutes or more to recover from a meltdown and a child is likely to need increased nurture during this time.

Caption: Responses to Concerning Behaviours

Underlying Communication


Possible Responses

I don't feel safe
I don't trust you
I don't know how I feel
I feel rubbish or stupid
I feel anxious or scared
I feel sad
I feel angry
I can't cope with my difficult feelings
I feel overwhelmed
I need to escape
I need to protect myself
I don't know whether I still exist
I need you to attend to me to feel safe and loved
This is the only way I know to make you like me
I need to be in control to feel safe
I don't have the skills you're expecting
I don't believe you won't leave me

Low level behaviours

Be proactive
When possible, identify the behaviours you want to address rather than being reactive once they occur. Focus on a limited number of behaviours, no more than two or three at a time. This can help to get in front of the behaviour.

Identify the need behind the behaviour
Ask yourself How does this behaviour make sense? What need is this behaviour meeting?
Remember the lens through which the child views the world and that behaviours that are survival responses are difficult to change.

Identify patterns of behaviour
What triggers lead to the behaviour?
What response do they typically receive, and how does this behaviour impact you and your arousal level as their carer?
Consider what has been effective before in responding to the behaviour

Use go-to strategies
Some suggestions are below, however your responses will be dependant upon the above considerations and your knowledge of your child

  1. Respond to attachment-seeking by moving closer to child, using their name and acknowledging their need, e.g.
    " I haven't forgotten you Sam. I will just turn the dinner off and then I'll come to you."
  2. If appropriate use a soothing touch
  3. Offer a movement break
  4. Offer a sensory support such as a stress toy or by reducing sensory input e.g. turning off music or lowering lights.
  5. Move things on without making demands, e.g. "It can be hard to have to stop playing, how about we play together for 5 minutes first then we can go to have our dinner"
  6. Use "I wonder…" to help child identify feelings, e.g.
    "I'm wondering if you are trying to stop me leaving because you feel worried about being alone at night"
  7. Validate their feelings, e.g.
    "It can be scary to try new things, I know I feel that way sometimes."
    "I know it's hard to think right now"
    "I'm sorry that it's made you so cross"

Fast breathing
Stiff body posture
clenched fists or jaw
Rapid or high-pitched speech
continually talking, asking questions
making noises
not sitting still
talking under their breath
disruptive behaviour
demanding attention

Mid-level behaviours

See responses above

  1. Connect with the child before gently correcting
  2. Acknowledge their feelings of unfairness
  3. Re-phrase requests so they don't imply a demand, e.g. instead of "Tidy away your toys" try "we can't go to the park until the floor has been cleared"
  4. Try to problem solve with the child, e.g.,
    "What can we do to help make picking up your toys easier. How are we going to solve this?"
  5. Natural consequences are the most effective for learning, e.g. if a child eats treats meant for the next day then there won't be any left. If you have to think of a consequence then this is unlikely to be natural, for example taking a phone away for being late home.
  6. Give choices about what will happen next calmly, repeating as often as necessary. Some children can find choices overwhelming so use your judgement
  7. Use distraction. Sometimes noticing a small injury on a child ("Is that a scratch on your finger?"). Can distract them and also give an opportunity to offer nurture.

Refusing to eat/controlling behaviour around food
refusal to follow rules
non-compliant behaviour
Disrespectful language
minor damage to school property

  Harmful behaviours (any action that causes harm to self or someone else)

See responses above

  1. Use self-regulation techniques to keep yourself calm
  2. Make sure your hands are visible, palms towards the child so they now you will not hurt them
  3. Keep your body posture, facial expression and tone calm.
  4. Keep a distance so the child does not feel trapped, often removing the option of flight can leave the child with fight as their only survival response
  5. Speak rhythmically like you would to an infant
  6. Narrate what you see in a calm voice, but leave space to be wrong e.g. "I may be wrong but you seem very frustrated right now."
  7. Use "time in" rather than "time out" as when a child feels unsafe sending them away can worsen this and trigger feelings of rejection. If the child chooses to remove themselves from the situation let them know you are close by when they need you. At times you may need to separate children or remove yourself from the situation for safety or to regulate yourself.
  8. Do not chase a child unless they are in danger as it can seem like an attack. Reassure them, "I'm still here when you're ready."
  9. Allowing a child to use a flight response when it is safe to do so can avoid them needing to resort to fight if they feel trapped.