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What’s the Right Amount of Discipline for Preschoolers

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Parents and teachers have a big responsibility. In addition to making sure their children learn the skills they need in school, early educators also must teach good behavior. Sometimes, encouraging little learners to behave in class can seem like a pointless effort. When challenging behaviors come up again and again, instructors may wonder what, if anything, works to encourage good behavior.

One of the issues with past disciplinary approaches is the emphasis on what to do after behavior occurs: how you punish a child for an infraction or reward him for positive behavior. Sascha Longstreth and Sarah Garrity, authors of Effective Discipline Policies suggest a different approach. Rather than focusing on the behavior and its consequences, they suggest a holistic approach to discipline, looking at the whole child and how they think about rules.

So how do we prevent negative behavior? It is important to remember that children behave based on their emotions. If something makes them mad or upset, they are more likely to act out aggressively. This is because they have not yet learned how to properly recognize and cope with their feelings. The first goal of every early childhood setting is to begin equipping children with the skills to recognize their emotions and handle them effectively. What does being mad feel like? If I know I’m mad, what are some set things I can do to calm down? Provide children with a script or pre-prescribed coping mechanism before something upsets them. Then, when an issue does arise, they have a non-aggressive way to address it.

Another important prevention technique is ensuring there is a good relationship between students and their instructor. In a large classroom, it can be hard for teachers to give each child individual attention. However, talking to a child only when she does something wrong will leave her resentful and distrustful of the adult and make her less likely to change her behavior. Caregivers must instead make it a point to talk positively with children outside the context of discipline. Ask them how their weekend was; have them describe their drawing to you; play silly word games with them at recess. Once children trust and respect their instructors, they are less likely to get defensive and angry when discipline must be implemented, leading to fewer negative outbursts.

What about rewards?

Rewards and punishments both operate on the same principle: addressing behavior after it happens. Children do not understand why a rule is in place or why they should behave a certain way; they only know that if they do, they receive a prize. Once the reward is no longer offered, they may revert back to a negative behavior because their reinforcement is gone. This does not aid learning. That being said, rewards can sometimes be used if typical preventative measures prove ineffective. Positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment, so if behavior must be addressed after the fact for a child to respond, caregivers had best try rewards first. For example, if a child has coping skills for his anger but only uses them 50% percent of the time, rewarding him for making it all day with no incidents will encourage him to improve. The instructor should still continue to explain the rules and how his actions make others feel, but an extra incentive will help keep positive behavior on the child’s mind.

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