Stealing is defined as the act of taking something that belongs to someone else without their permission and with no intention of returning it. Stealing comes in different forms and severity. It can include using the parent’s credit card to pay for something online without permission, taking a chocolate bar from the fridge that belongs to someone else, walking out of a shop with a top that hasn’t been paid for, illegally downloading music, movies or software without paying, or taking the school iPad home with no intention of returning it.


For a range of reasons that are a part of normal development, many children have taken something that does not belong to them at one time or another, especially in the early years (up to age 4). For example, a toddler who takes his mum’s mobile phone, runs away and tries to hide because they like how their mum runs after them. Or a 3-year-old who can’t understand why they cannot take a toy their friend has that they like because they are still learning the concept of ‘yours’ vs. ‘mine’. Or a 4-year-old who picks up a lollipop without the parent realising and then walks out of the store. The child does not realise things in a shop cost money and that they cannot just take what they want without paying for it. They also have not grasped the concept of ownership so can’t understand why their parents are asking them to return it. When children mature, and with guidance from caregivers and society, they begin to understand that taking something that belongs to another person without permission is wrong. They develop the ability to control their impulses and not just give into the impulse of taking what interests them. They are able to stop and think about the consequences of their behaviour and the impact of their actions for themselves and the potential victim before they act.



For some children, stealing becomes persistent and chronic. Stealing can cause negative consequences for the child, the family, and the community at large.


Take the scenario in a classroom. Andrew has been taking money out of his teacher’s purse at least two–three times a week over a month. His teacher hadn’t noticed until one day when she realised fifty dollars was missing and was shocked to see Andrew with a big lunch with lots of tasty treats. She knew Andrew’s mum never gave any money to him to buy food from the canteen and it made her realise that Andrew had been consistently buying food over the last couple of weeks. She remembered asking Andrew a few weeks ago how he could afford lunch every day, but he was unable to explain how he was able to afford it. Andrew’s teacher felt a range of emotions: embarrassment because she had missed it for so long, and betrayal because she thought she had a good relationship with Andrew. When the other children found out, some responded by calling Andrew a thief, blaming him every time something could not be found and were vigilant around him and told him not to take their things. Andrew felt really embarrassed when he got caught. He felt ashamed and apologised profusely to his teacher. He explained how he was jealous of all the other kids being able to buy things, but not himself. He believed there was no other way of getting the money apart from stealing. Being able to buy treats made him feel better, especially as he would share them with his friends; and because he had not gotten caught, he kept doing it. While he feels he has changed and wants to move on, he is frustrated because the other children keep referring to the incident and he is fed up with nobody trusting him.

When stealing behaviour is prolonged and ongoing, it becomes ingrained in the child.


Stealing affects everyone involved, and the child who is stealing requires necessary help to learn positive ways of behaving and managing their emotions.


Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) is an evidence-based approach that is used to eliminate or minimise the occurrence of challenging behaviours.

PBS recognises that there is no single cause for stealing behaviour. It is a complex behaviour that is a product of the interaction between multiple factors contributing to its development and persistence.

Stealing behaviour is like the tip of the iceberg so it is essential to look beneath the surface to work out the why before we can address the problem.

There are three main setting-related factors which impact the child and their behaviour:

  • environment
  • activity, and
  • interaction

These factors place different demands on the child, and when any of these demands outweigh the child’s skills to cope with them, the child engages in challenging behaviours. Stealing may be the only way the child has learnt how to respond to these demands and get their message across.



Hazel has always found it hard to fit in at school. She is academically behind and has always had difficulty with making friends. Her dad runs his own business so works full time seven days a week. Her mother has severe depression so even though she is home she is not able to care for Hazel, give her attention, supervise what she is doing and provide her behaviour guidance and boundaries. So, Hazel is left to her own devices for most of the time. She recently started hanging out with a group of older children who often leave school early. They all go to the local shopping centre and hang out for hours. On one occasion they asked her to steal some food items from the local grocery store. Some of the skills needed to deal with the situation include:


  • Problem solving – Does Hazel understand that stealing is wrong? Does Hazel understand the consequences of her actions?
  • Communication – Can Hazel assertively communicate that she does not want to steal?
  • Social – Does Hazel recognise the difference between healthy vs unhealthy friendships?
  • Cognitive – Does Hazel understand the consequences of her behaviour?
  • Self-esteem – Does Hazel believe she has to put on a false front to get her friends’ attention and impress them as being a cool person?


As Hazel does not have the skills needed to cope with the demands, she resorts to stealing the food items. The example highlights that stealing behaviour is not without purpose. It is never too late to address stealing behaviour, even if it has been occurring for a while. PBS provides a road map to address stealing behaviour by using a holistic approach to develop a comprehensive and individualised PBS plan in three stages: Assess-Manage-Prevent.

  • ASSESS: How to identify the reasons that contribute to the stealing behaviour,
  • MANAGE: How to respond when stealing behaviour occurs, and
  • PREVENT: How to minimise or eliminate the occurrence of stealing behaviour.



Assess Stage Aims

The Assess stage helps to identity:

  • Activities during which the stealing behaviour occurs,
  • Environments in which the stealing behaviour occurs, and
  • People dealing with the stealing

Assess Stage Checklist:

  • Child’s profile – Gather information about the child to create a comprehensive picture of the child, their abilities and needs.
  • Behaviour data collection forms – Record measurable details (e.g. frequency, intensity, duration) about the child’s stealing
  • Functional Behaviour Analysis (FBA)- Systematically reflect on an incident by analysing the antecedents (what preceded the stealing behaviour), describing the stealing behaviour, consequences (what happened after the stealing behaviour).
  • Hypothesis – Determine the purpose (function) that the stealing behaviour served.


Manage Stage Aims

The Manage Stage outlines how to effectively respond to the behaviours that occur before the stealing and after. Appropriate responses can help to safely defuse, redirect, and de-escalate the situation in the least disruptive manner.

Manage Stage Checklist:

  • Escalation stages – Help those supporting the child to recognise the number of stages the child exhibits as their emotion rises (i.e. mild escalation, moderate escalation, extreme escalation, and recovery stage).
  • Escalation profile– Help those supporting the child to recognise what non-verbal and/or verbal behaviours are exhibited in the different escalation stages, and how long it can last.
  • De-escalation plan – Help those supporting the child with guidelines on how to immediately respond when the behaviour occurs, safely defuse, and de-escalate the situation in the least disruptive manner.


Prevent Stage Aims

This stage aims to minimise the occurrence of the stealing by reducing or avoiding the triggers that cause it and teach the child alternative behaviours.

Prevent Stage plan

The plan details strategies to minimise or avoid the triggers that contribute to the stealing behaviour by providing the child with:

  • Supportive environments – Tailoring environment related aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that contribute to the occurrence of stealing
  • Supportive activities – Tailoring activity related aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that contribute to the occurrence of stealing
  • Supportive interactions – Tailoring interaction aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that contribute to the occurrence of stealing behaviour, and
  • Teaching the child – Teaching the student positive ways of communicating their messages and managing their emotions and behaviours.



Use the practical tools (checklists, forms, and strategies) in S for Stealing: Positive Behaviour Support guide to develop comprehensive PBS plans that can be used to support children of all ages consistently in all settings.

This invaluable guide is useful for parents, caregivers, educators in childcare, early childhood, primary and secondary schools, disability, mental health, allied health, and supervisory professionals.