Lesia Oesterreich, M.S.
Family Life Extension Specialist
Human Development and Family Studies
Iowa State University
Children are delightful to have around but at times can be
quite a challenge! Guidance and discipline of children are ongoing
processes that will embrace everything you do with children. Learning
self-control and how to get along with others is part of growing
up, and family child care providers play an important role in
teaching children these important skills.
The word discipline comes from the word disciple, meaning to teach. Caring for children for long hours each day, year after year, gives providers a wonderful opportunity to help shape, guide, and nurture the behavior of children. A good understanding of children and guidance techniques is the basis for effective discipline. Take time to view things from a child's perspective. It can make a difference in your relationship with children.
Infants generally don't pose much of a discipline problem, but they can be a challenge because they are so dependent upon adults for their basic needs. The most troublesome behavior for providers is usually crying. Infants cry because they are wet, hungry, cold, or lonely. Crying is their only way of letting adults know that they need something. Sometimes infants have colic. They seem to cry for no apparent reason. Studies show that infants who have their needs met quickly, and who are held and comforted when they cry, develop a strong sense of security and well being and actually may cry much less later on.
Like babies, toddlers like to be held, talked to, and comforted.
And they still express themselves a great deal by crying, shrieking,
jabbering, grunting, and pointing. The few words they can say
may mean many things. "Cup!" may mean "Hand me
my cup!" or "I want more milk," or "The cup
just fell off the table" or "The dog just stole my cup!"
This limited communication makes it very hard to understand a
Toddler behavior can frustrate adults. They reach out and grab things (like eye-glasses). They are rather clumsy and awkward with gestures. A well-meant pat can feel like a whack. A spoonful of peas may wind up more on the floor than in the mouth.
Toddlers are also very possessive. "No" and "Mine" are favorite words, and they are quite willing to hit or bite to get (or keep) a favorite toy. In fact, toddlers may spend as much time carrying around and protecting toys as they do playing with them.
Toddlers are always "on the go" and often play until they "run out of gas." They have very little skill at pacing themselves and can be happy one minute and cranky the next. Much of this behavior depends on the new skills that they are developing. Sometimes they will scream for a cookie that can't be reached, but at other times they may lead (or drag) you to the jar and point. Learning how to do things in a socially acceptable way is a big step for a toddler.
Preschoolers are 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 are also quite independent. They like to try new
things and often take risks. They also may try to shock you by
using forbidden words. Getting attention is fun; being ignored
Preschoolers like to make decisions for themselves. Making decisions helps them feel important. Preschoolers get a little carried away and become rather bossy too. Preschoolers have lots of energy - sometimes more energy than adults! They play hard, fast, and furious. Sometimes they get tired rather suddenly and become 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 last only a few minutes. Hurt feelings (and sometimes swift kicks from friends) are part of the learning process.
Although school-age children seem so grown up, their social
skills are not yet well developed. It is not uncommon for school-agers
to argue and fight a great deal with friends. School-agers need
considerable help learning social skills like how to make friends,
trust others, work in a team, and resolve conflicts. Children
also need to be taught how to use good manners, ask for help,
and negotiate with others.
School-agers enjoy being "older" but may not like the responsibility that goes with getting older. Often they have to be reminded to carry out homework responsibilities or household chores. Learning self-discipline is an ongoing process that improves each year.
School-agers often set standards for themselves that are frustratingly high or unsatisfyingly low. Children this age have not had much experience in setting and achieving goals or in measuring their own strengths and weaknesses. They need adults to provide experiences that are challenging yet achievable.
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 use a variety of approaches to deal with behavioral problems. The following are some approaches that you can use.
One of the most important things a caregiver can do is to establish
a safe environment. Children move quickly, and they love to climb
and explore. Take a close look at your home indoors and outdoors.
A fenced-in yard will help keep children away from the street.
Childproof your home by locking up dangerous chemicals and medicines,
covering electrical outlets, and storing breakable objects up
high. Often you can just see an accident waiting to happen. Fix,
repair, toss, or lock up anything that might be a danger to children.
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" on the head with a hard wooden block is not. Toddlers need toys that they can push, pull, grab, or yank without causing major damage. 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 of different ages and interests 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.
Young children need a consistent routine and schedule. Their small stomachs and high energy levels need nutritious snacks and meals frequently. Establish consistent times for eating, napping, and playing. It helps children learn how to pace themselves. Balance active time with quiet time and group time with time to be alone. This kind of balancing leads to a well-planned and balanced routine. Taking care of basic needs also can help prevent a situation with a cranky and whiny child.
Young children love to imitate adults. Watch your habits because children will be sure to be copy them! If you want children to treat each other kindly or have good eating habits, be sure to demonstrate how to do it. Talk about what you do, and explain things in simple terms. Toddlers may not fully understand everything you say, but they will begin to understand that there are reasons for doing things a certain way. Preschoolers and school-agers of course are very interested in "why" we do things. Children also learn a great deal from each other. Encourage 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 child 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."
When a child is running out into the street or about to get into the household bleach, there is no time for negotiation. Caregivers must remove a child from a dangerous situation. Picking up a child, holding him, or putting him in his crib for a few minutes until things can be made safe is perfectly okay. A child may protest loudly, but your primary responsibility is to keep him safe.
A more sophisticated form of "remove or isolate"
is called "time out." A "time out" is just
that - a cooling off period. When a child is misbehaving or out
of control, he 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 else
they will 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 his misbehavior.
Young children often don't 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 okay to hit your sister. Instead, tell her with words that you want to play with the blocks too."
CHILD: John won't let me ride in the wagon!
CAREGIVER: Sounds like you are upset about that.
CHILD: Yeah, he's mean!
CHILD: I had the wagon first!
CAREGIVER: You were playing with the wagon before John was?
CHILD: Yeah, then he took it away.
CAREGIVER: Hmm. Wonder why?
CHILD: I don't know. I guess he got mad because I wouldn't let him play.
CAREGIVER: Wonder how both of you could play with the wagon?
CHILD: Maybe John could ride and I could pull!
This is an example of active listening, where the caregiver
tries 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. Young children have 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 need 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 could pull and the other one could sit. Which idea do you like best?"
Natural and logical consequences are effective in helping children
see the connection between their actions and the results of their
behavior. Natural consequences include the results of a child's
actions without any adult interference. For example, the natural
consequence of refusing to eat is hunger. The natural consequence
of dropping your cookie in the bathtub is that it will get all
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 because she might get hit by a car!
When natural consequences are unsafe for a child, you can use logical consequences to help the child correct her behavior. Logical consequences require adult intervention. A logical consequence for a 4-year-old running into the street could be losing the privilege of playing outside. The caregiver might comment, "Looks like you need to play inside. When you can stay out of the street, then you can play outdoors."
The following examples also illustrate the use of logical consequences:
This technique works especially well with very young children. When a child is doing something unacceptable, try to call attention to another activity - perhaps playing with another toy or reading a book together. The goal is to distract the child from the problem temporarily. For example, if a toddler wants to climb into the dishwasher as you are unloading it, perhaps you can distract him with a stuffed toy. 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.
Sometimes the problem with behavior is not what the child is doing as much as how she is doing it. When this happens, you may need to redirect or teach the child to do it in a different way. If a child is drawing on books, remove the books and say, "Books are not for drawing on." At the same time, substitute an appropriate material saying, "If you want to draw on something, draw on this paper." If the child is throwing blocks, you can remove the blocks and give him a ball to throw. If he wants to dance on the coffee table, help him down and ask him to perform for you on the front porch.
Behavior that is not harmful to the child or others can be
ignored. The goal is to have the child stop the undesirable behavior
by not paying attention to it. This can be effective in some situations
with older toddlers and preschoolers. Withhold all attention,
praise, and support. Without the desired attention, the child
eventually quits whatever he is doing. 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 us."
Remember that it is more effective to reward good behavior
than to punish bad behavior. 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 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 back where it belongs, the child may learn that cleaning up is valued and appreciated.
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 or the consequences of their behavior. A child who is rewarded with a cookie each time he helps clean up begins to place much more importance on the cookie than the feeling of accomplishment or appreciation for a well organized toy shelf where he can find his favorite truck. Overuse of food as a reward may lead to problems later on with malnutrition, obesity, and dental caries.
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 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?" Take time to sit down and think
about the problem. It can help you find a more successful way
to handle things.
Make a matrix, with the number of the incident across the top (1st incident, 2nd incident, 3rd incident). For each incident, record this information:
Give your solution time to work, and evaluate its success or failure. If you do not find a change in behavior after several weeks, go through the process again, and try another alternative.
Young children 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, and 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 them how to behave. Usually, spanking distresses a child so much that she can't pay attention when you try to explain what you want her to do. It's hard to reason with a screaming, crying child.
Adults who frequently slap a toddler's hands often are dismayed to find the toddler slapping back or worse yet, slapping and hitting others. 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 or sisters or other children often react by bullying others. Also, children who are spanked frequently often 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 is 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 claims.
Parents sometimes give child care 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.
Use your words carefully when you teach children. Focus on
what to do rather than what not to do.
TRY SAYING: "Slow down and walk" INSTEAD OF: "Stop running"
TRY SAYING: "Come hold my hand" INSTEAD OF: "Don't touch anything"
TRY SAYING: "Keep your feet on the floor" INSTEAD OF: "Don't climb on the couch"
TRY SAYING: "Use your quiet voice inside" INSTEAD OF: "Stop screaming and shouting"
Disciplining 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 toddler drops your favorite scarf in the toilet or waters your favorite house plant with pancake syrup. Just remember that all children misbehave or argue some of the time. You can respond quickly when children need guidance if you understand the reasons for their behavior and know your options.