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Child Development and Parenting: Infants

A Step-by-Step Guide for How to Discipline Children in Early Childhood

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Even when parents do everything they can to prevent misbehavior before it happens (e.g., by creating house rules, offering praise, and creating a warm, affectionate family life), kids will still end up misbehaving. Though such misbehavior is certainly an annoyance, it also can be looked upon as an opportunity to teach children a positive lesson about getting along with others. The following section of this article describes in step by step language, how misbehaviors that do occur can be corrected.

Communication is the key form of discipline to administer when particular forms of misbehavior are new, or when rules have been newly set and are not yet well understood. The first time young children misbehave, parents should get their attention and briefly but firmly explain to them exactly what they want the children to do. For example, the family rule is, "Pick up your toys before dinner," and Joy doesn't do this before coming to the dinner table. Dad can then say, "Joy, please pick up your dolls before coming to the dinner table." If Joy complies quickly, Dad should then praise Joy, saying, "Thank you for following directions so quickly."

If Joy doesn't follow directions quickly, or begins to pout and to refuse to pick up the dolls, Dad should escalate to the next level or stage of discipline. He should repeat his message about what he wants Joy to do, and briefly explain why it's important. He should then inform Joy what the consequence will be if she doesn't comply. For example, Dad could say, "Joy, please pick up your dolls before dinner so that Daddy doesn't trip on them when he comes to the table. If you do not pick up your dolls now, you will not be allowed to play with the dolls tomorrow night." This is a logical and concrete consequence (which will be discussed more later in this article).

If Joy complies, Dad should praise her for the good choice. However, if Joy continues to refuse to pick up her dolls, Dad needs to remind her again about why the rule is important, repeat the consequence, and then follow through by actually making the consequence happen. So, Dad should say, "Joy, it's important to pick up your dolls before dinner. We could trip on those dolls and hurt ourselves if they stay on the floor. Because you haven't shown me you can take responsibility for your dolls yet, you will not be able to play with them tomorrow after school." The next day, Dad should make sure Joy's favorite box of dress-up dolls isn't on the shelf to play with. Learning how to clearly communicate expectations and consequences to children is a key component of discipline.

Sometimes, young children will misbehave so seriously that parents need to skip the first communication stage and go straight to the "follow through" stage (e.g., providing an undesirable consequence in response to the misbehavior) in order to communicate to children the seriousness of an offense. For instance, parents should immediately provide consequences whenever children use any form of violence (physical or verbal). Parents should also immediately provide a consequence when children engage in dangerous behavior, such as playing with stove burners or matches. In order for the consequence to be a teaching device and not just a simple punishment, it MUST be paired with a communication of the rule that has been violated. For example, a parents might say, "It's never OK to hit anyone", when sending a child to the corner for a time-out (e.g., a short break from being included in family activity). Time-outs are generally good consequences to offer when misbehavior occurs. Children dislike being segregated from the rest of the family, but this sort of temporary consequence is not actually harmful to children. The proper use of time-outs is discussed later in this article.

When disciplining their children, parents should take care to remain calm and use a firm but even tone of voice. Speaking calmly communicates to children that parents are in control of themselves, and serves as a model for how they can themselves act.

It's also important that parents resist entering a debate or argument with children. Children will often try to rile up and upset their parents' emotions as a way to gain control over their parents. If parents lose their poise and control when fighting with children, then children feel like they have "won". It is important that parents ignore children's whining, crying, yelling, pouting and other outbursts to avoid this outcome. When parents give into these ploys by becoming upset, yelling, and repeatedly lecturing children about the misbehavior, they may actually increase the likelihood that the misbehavior will occur again. Giving kids lots of attention (even if it is negative attention) can reinforce bad behaviors (i.e., if a kid wants attention and their yelling gets attention, they will continue to yell in the future). The key to discipling misbehaving children is for parents to stay calm, and to make their communications firm, brief, and simple.