How to Teach Young Children “Keep your hands to yourself”

keep hands to yourself
How to Teach Young Children to Keep Their Hands to Themselves

How to Teach Young Children, “Keep your hands to yourself.”

“Keep your hands feet and other objects to yourself.”

Once upon a time when I was in 4th grade, we had classroom rules on the wall to set expectations for our behavior. If we broke a rule, we got our name on the board. That was a warning. If we did it again, we got a check mark, which meant we had to write the rules three times as punishment. I did not get in trouble very often because I was afraid to do anything wrong. I kept my hands to myself. That’s just me.

However, I did get in trouble for talking sometimes. I was a talker. I liked to talk to my friends. If you know me, you know that is an understatement. Thanks to my habit for talking, I had frequent opportunities to write the rules over and over. I will never forget the number one rule was “Keep hands, feet and other objects to yourself.”


Recently in our home, we had the opportunity to love a foster child that was constantly poking, touching, grabbing, hitting, and pinching himself and others with his hands. He could NOT keep his hands to himself! You could see the look in his eye when something got in his focus. He would gently touch hair until it wasn’t so gentle anymore, and then it turned into pulling.

Throughout the day, I found myself telling him to stop and keep his hands to himself all day long. He did NOT understand. He is a sweet boy with cognitive delay and some challenging behaviors. Although he tried his hardest, bless his heart, he would not stop touching everything and everybody. My insisting he stop only created a power struggle. The firmer I got, the stronger the struggle.

With this child, if we got into a power struggle–no matter how little, it would turn into a tantrum. Every. Single. Time. It did not take me long to realize that I needed to change my approach to his behavior.

When managing challenging behaviors, I have always been taught “teach children what TO DO instead of what NOT TO DO.

When managing challenging behaviors, I have always been taught “teach children what TO DO instead of what NOT to do.” I use this tip with parents all the time in early intervention. It got me thinking about how to apply that to teaching a child to understand the frequently given instruction of “keep your hands to yourself.”

If we take a moment to examine the phrase “keep your hands to yourself,” you notice that it is not clear and concrete language. The wording of “keeping” something “to yourself” was perhaps a little over his head. I had the idea to make this more clear by giving him small tasks to do with his hands. It worked! He was proud to understand and follow the simple instructions that earned him praise from us, and we were pleased that this served to distract him from what he was hitting, punching, pinching, poking, or ripping apart.

Hand Activities Meant to Distract 

Eventually my new plan was when we needed to redirect his hands, we distracted him by giving him tasks to do with his hands to replace the previous activity. Behavior management is not my strong suit, but I must have remembered something from class, because this worked.

My most common distraction was “Where is your pocket?” and “What is in your pocket?” This simple request would result in his hands in his pockets showing me his pocket lint or playground rocks.

Other examples of these distraction hands tasks include:

Touch your nose.
Wiggle your fingers.
Touch your ear.
Pat your head.
Touch your belly button.
Clap your hands.

This might not work for every child, but it worked wonderfully for him.
For example, now if he was playing with somebody’s hair, which led to getting excited and pulling, instead of saying “stop pulling her hair” which would cause him to scream and maybe bite, I tried this approach. Now I said “Hey buddy can you pat your head? GOOD JOB! Where’s your nose? You found it! And so on… as he forgot about the hair….and that person had time to escape. Everybody wins.

Pair It with the Words “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”

I eventually was able to say “She doesn’t like when you pull her hair. Let’s stop doing that and do something else with your hands,” and then launch right into the distraction tasks such as wiggle fingers, find your ears etc. Afterwards I followed up with “You did a good job keeping your hands to yourself.” Over time, that phrase, “keep your hands to yourself” was associated with concrete actions and a positive experience. I don’t know if he ever learned what “keep your hands to yourself meant,” but when I used this strategy he was successful.

In conclusion, “keep your hands feet and other objects to yourself” was an OK rule for a 4th grader, but a little difficult for a child on a 2 year old level to understand and obey. Providing simple easy-to-follow tasks can distract from the bad behavior you are trying to stop and give an opportunity for positive feedback and interactions and eventually teach a good social skill of “keeping your hands to yourself.”

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