Disciplining preschoolers

Lesia Oesterreich
Family Life Extension Specialist
Human Development & Family Studies
Iowa State University

Copyright/Access Information

Preschoolers are delightful to have around, but at times can
be quite a challenge! Learning how to get along with others and
follow rules takes lots of practice for preschoolers; learning
how to guide and discipline preschoolers takes lots of patience
for caregivers.

Understanding preschool children

Preschool children are busy learning about the world around
them. They ask lots of questions and they love to imitate adults.
They are learning to share and take turns (but don't always want
to). Sometimes they want to play with others and sometimes they
want to be alone. Preschoolers also are quite independent. They
like to try new things and often take risks. They may try to shock
you at times by using “forbidden words.” Getting attention
is fun, being ignored is not.

Preschoolers like to make decisions for themselves because
it makes them feel important. They also are likely to get carried
away and become rather bossy. Preschoolers have lots of energy-sometimes
more energy than adults! They play hard, fast and furious; then
they tire suddenly and get cranky and irritable. Preschoolers
spend a lot of time learning how to get along with others. “Best
friends” are very important, but such friendships are brief
and may only last a few minutes. Hurt feelings (and sometimes
swift kicks) are part of the learning process too.

Ideas for caregivers

There is no one right way to discipline. An approach that is
successful in one situation may not work in another. Also, different
children respond in different ways to disciplining methods. Successful
caregivers often use a variety of approaches to deal with behavioral

Set up a safe and appropriate environment

One of the most important things a caregiver can do is to establish
a safe environment. Preschoolers move quickly and they love to
climb and explore. Take a close look at your child care environment,
both indoors and outdoors. A fenced in yard will help keep children
away from the street. Fix, repair, toss, or lock up anything that
might be a danger to children. You may be able to avoid some accidents
just waiting to happen.

You might also want to take a close look at toys and how your
children use them. Getting hit accidentally on the head with a
foam block is okay, but a “bonk” with a wooden block
is not. Preschoolers can learn basic rules for handling toys and
will require less supervision.

Problems often arise when children do not have enough toys
or materials to play with. Children need a variety of toys and
activities. Plenty of paper to draw on, materials to sort, collect,
trade, and share, and well-maintained equipment to climb or ride
on are important features of a successful child care program.
A safe place to play and appropriate toys to play with can save
you from saying “No” often and make your day easier.

Establish a predictable routine

Young children need a consistent routine and schedule. Their
small stomachs and high energy levels need nutritious snacks and
meals frequently. Establishing consistent times for eating, napping,
and playing helps children learn how to pace themselves. Balance
the day with active times, quiet times, times to be alone, and
times to be with others. Taking care of basic needs also helps
in preventing a frustrating situation with a cranky and whiny

Set a good example

Preschoolers love to imitate adults. Watch your bad habits
because children will be sure to copy them! If you want children
to treat each other kindly or have good eating habits, be sure
to demonstrate how to do it. Preschoolers are very interested
in “why” we do things; so explain the things you do
in simple terms. Children also learn a great deal from each other.
Encourage and demonstrate appropriate ways to share and play,
and be consistent.


Effective praise encourages learning, independence, and strong
self-esteem in children. The key to effective praise is to be
a coach more than a cheerleader. A cheerleader merely cheers:
“What a great job!” or “What a beautiful picture!”
A coach uses specific praise to teach and instill self worth.
For example, when a childs sets the table, you might say, “You
did such a good job setting the table! You put the spoons and
forks in the right place and remembered the napkins!” When
you look at a child's painting, you might remark, “This painting
just glows with color. You used blue, green, red, yellow, and
orange. Tell me how you did this!” Specific praise means
a lot more to a child than a brief “You are great.”

Time out

A commonly used form of discipline for preschoolers is called
“time out.” A time out is just that-a cooling off period.
When a child is misbehaving or out of control, he or she needs
to be removed or isolated for a few minutes. Time out can be used
with children ages 3 to 12 and with as many children as you have
private places. For young children, however, the time out period
needs to be no longer than 5 minutes or they tend to forget the
reason for the time out.

A time out gives a child a few minutes to settle down and think
about what has happened. Caregivers need to follow up by talking
with the child about the misbehavior. Young children do not always
understand their misdoings. It helps to explain what happened,
what they should not be doing, and what they can do instead. They
also need the opportunity to practice the correct behavior. Keep
such discussions simple. You might say, “It's not OK to hit
your friend. Instead, tell her with words that you want to play
with the blocks, too.”

Active listening

Child: John won't let me ride in the wagon.
Father: Sounds like you are upset about that.
Child: Yeah, he's mean!
Father: Hmm. You sound really angry!
Child: Yeah! I had the wagon first.
Father: You were playing with the wagon before John was?
Child: Yeah, then he took it away.
Father: Hmm. Wonder why?
Child: I dunno. Maybe because I wouldn't let him play.

Father: Wonder how both of you could play with the wagon?
Child: Maybe he could ride and I could pull!

This is an example of active listening where the caregiver
is trying to understand the problem as well as the child's feelings.
The caregiver does not try to end the conversation; instead, she
encourages it. With the caregiver's time and support, the child
is able to explore the situation, understand the problem, and
even offer a solution. Sometimes preschoolers do not need an adult
to intervene. Rather, they need someone who will listen and help
them work through a problem.

It's important to note that young children still have very
limited problem-solving skills. The child in the above example
was 5 years old. With a 3-year-old in the same situation, the
caregiver may have needed to be more direct or offer a suggestion.
For instance, the caregiver could say,Maybe you
could both sit in the wagon, or maybe one of you can pull and
the other one can sit. Which idea do you like best?”

Watch your language

Use your words carefully to teach children. Focus on what to
do rather than what not to do.

Try saying… Instead of…
Slow down and walk. Stop running.
Come hold my hand. Don't touch anything.
Keep your feet on the floor. Don't climb on the couch.
Use your quiet voice inside. Stop screaming and shouting.

Natural or logical consequences

Natural and logical consequences help children understand the
connection between their actions and the results of their misbehavior.
Natural consequences are results that would naturally happen after
a child's behavior without any adult interference. The following
examples show how natural consequences work.

  • Four-year-old Cara was tossing a quarter around in the car.
    Her mother asked her to put the quarter in her pocket. Cara continued
    to toss her money and the quarter flew out the window. She lost
    her quarter.
  • Five-year-old Juan kept forgetting to put the ball in his
    toy box when he came inside from playing. One afternoon the ball
    disappeared. Juan lost his ball.

Natural consequences are sometimes dangerous or impractical.
For example, it would be dangerous for a child to experience the
natural consequence of running into the street and getting hit
by a car! In these situations, logical consequences may be used
to help the child correct her behavior. Logical consequences require
adult intervention. A logical consequence of a child running into
the street could be losing the privilege of playing outside. The
caregiver might comment, “Looks like you will need to play
inside. When you can stay out of the street, then you can play

The following examples also illustrate the use of logical consequences:

  • Four-year-old Alex said “Yuck!” and hurled his
    muffin across the table. Alex's caregiver calmly picked up the
    muffin and put it in the trash, commenting, “When you keep
    your food on your plate, then you can eat.” Alex went without
    a snack.
  • Four-year old Renata loves to play with puzzles but refuses
    to help clean up. Her caregiver decides to give the puzzles a
    “vacation” and puts them in the storage closet for
    a day. She comments, “Renata, cleaning up the puzzles is
    part of playing with them. Tomorrow you will have another chance
    to show that you can play with puzzles and clean up when you
    are through.”
  • Five-year-old Dena and four-year-old Peter are fighting.
    Their caregiver says, “Looks like you two are having trouble
    getting along. Find something that you can play with together
    or you'll have to play alone.”


When a child is doing something unacceptable, try to call attention
to another activity­perhaps playing with another toy or reading
a book together. A frustrated or cranky child can often be distracted
with a song or a fingerplay. since young children's attention
spans are short, distraction is often effective.


Often, the problem is not what the child is doing, but the
way he or she is doing it. When this happens, redirecting or teaching
the child a different way to do the same thing can be effective.
If the child is using books to build, remove the books and say,
“Books are not for building with.” Offer a substitute
at the same time and say, “If you want to build, use these
blocks.” If the child is climbing on a chair to make his
structure taller, help him down, saying, “That's too dangerous
to climb on the chair. Let's lay your tower down on the floor
and see how long you can make it instead.”

Ignoring the behavior

Behavior that is not harmful to the child or others can be
ignored. Undesirable behavior can sometimes be stopped by not
paying attention to it. In some situations this can work very
effectively. Withhold all attention, praise, and support. Eventually,
the child quits the unacceptable behavior because it does not
bring the desired attention. This works particularly well when
a child uses forbidden or swear words to get attention.

Ignoring really means no attention at all, but if you feel
you must respond, you might try “active ignoring.” You
may wish to make a casual statement like “Go swear in the
bathroom because we don't want to hear it” or “You can
scream out here in the hall where it won't bother the rest of
the children.”


Remember that it is more effective to reward good behavior
than to punish bad behvior. A reward or “positive reinforcement”
refers to positive ways adults can respond when children behave
in desirable ways. Positively rewarded behavior is usually repeated.
Rewarding a child for good behavior at the right time is very
important. So is the reward itself. You can use social or material
rewards with children.

social rewards – Social rewards such as smiling,
praising, patting, hugging, and listening make a child feel special
and encourage good behavior. If you smile and nod when a child
puts a toy where it belongs, the child may learn that cleaning
up is valued and appreciated.

material rewards – Material rewards are objects
that children desire. Money, candy, toys, stickers, etc., are
all material rewards. These, too, can be used to reinforce behavior,
but present some drawbacks. Children can become too accustomed
to material rewards and refuse to behave properly without them.
Frequent use of such rewards also may teach children to bargain
or negotiate for more and bigger payoffs.

Children often place significant importance on the reward itself
rather than on their behavior. A child who is rewarded with a
cookie each time she helps clean up begins to place much more
importance on the cookie than on the feeling of acomplishment
or appreciation for a well-organized toy shelf where she can find
her favorite puzzle. Overuse of food as a reward may lead to problems
later on with malnutrition, obesity, and dental caries.

When all else fails

Sometimes children have a behavioral problem that seems to
happen over and over. When nothing seems to be working, try the
who, what, when, where, and how method. Ask yourself:

  • When does the troublesome behavior seem to happen?
  • What happens just before and just after?
  • Where does it happen and with whom?
  • How do I usually respond?
  • How could I prevent the behavior?
  • What other approaches could I use?

The best method to find a more successful way to cope with
behavioral problems is to take the time to think about options.

Does spanking work?

Preschoolers often respond well to physical action when you
need to discipline them. Touching them on the arm, taking them
by the hand, picking them up, holding, or restraining them are
all good ways to get their attention. Spanking also will get their
attention, but doesn't do a very good job of teaching children
how to behave. In fact, it generally distresses a child so much
that he or she can't pay attention to your explanations and directions.
It's hard to reason with a screaming, crying child.

Spanking and slapping can quickly get out-of-hand for both
adults and children. Most reported cases of abuse involve loving,
well-meaning adults who just lost control. Studies show that children
who experience or witness a great deal of spanking, slapping,
or hitting are much more likely to become aggressive themselves.
Children who are bullied by older brothers, sisters, or other
children often react by bullying others. Children who are spanked
frequently hit younger children.

It is not acceptable for a child care provider to punish
a child by slapping, hitting or spanking.
Pinching, punching,
or shaking a child are also inappropriate. Any of these actions
can result in injury and may be in violation of state child abuse
protection laws. You could also be liable for damage and injury

Parents sometimes give child caare providers permission to
punish children physically. They may encourage the provider to
spank, slap, or even bite their child. Providers should remember
that it is NEVER okay to physically or mentally hurt a child.
Child care professionals are in business to protect and care for
children, not hurt them.

Most providers find it more successful to focus on teaching
a child what to do rather than what not to do. It
may help to think of behavior problems as an opportunity to teach
children new skills.

A Tough Job

Discipling children is not easy. And you won't always feel
good about how you handled a situation. It's important to recognize
that you are human. After all, it's hard to be calm when a child
throws a tantrum or injures another child. Just remember that
children misbehave and argue some of the time. They are learning
the skills they need to get along with others. You can respond
more quickly and effectively when children need guidance if you
understand the reasons for their behavior and know your options
for dealing with it.

National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Part of CYFERNET, the
National Extension Service Children Youth and Family Educational
Research Network. Permission is granted to reproduce these materials
in whole or in part for educational purposes only (not for profit
beyond the cost of reproduction) provided that the author and
Network receive acknowledgment and this notice is included:

Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child
Care – NNCC. (1993) Oesterreich, L. Iowa Family Child Care Handbook,
pp. 217-227. Iowa State University Extension. Ames, Iowa.

Any additions or changes to these materials must be preapproved
by the author .

Extension Distribution Center
119 Printing and Publications Bldg.
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011- 3171
Phone: (515) 294-5247
Fax : (515) 294-2945
e-mail : pubdist@iastate.edu


Lesia Oesterreich
1086 Lebaron Hall
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011
PHONE:: (515) 294-0363
FAX:: (515) 294-5507
E-MAIL:: loesterr@iastate.edu

FORMAT AVAILABLE:: Print – 5 pages.
Level 2 – State Review
DOCUMENT SIZE:: 45K or 6 pages
ENTRY DATE:: September 1994



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