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Discipline & Behaviour Tips For Preschoolers

The basics

Systematic ignoring is deliberately withholding your attention from a child while she engages in a specific difficult behaviour. It means not looking at her, and not talking to her, while she behaves in that particular way.

The strategy is based on the fact that attention from another person can be a powerful motivator of human behaviour. Because the need for social contact and connection is built into humans, behaviour that attracts attention is more likely to occur again in the future.

Attention from a parent is a particularly powerful reward for children. This is because of the strong attachment and bond that exists between children and parents. Parental attention is so powerful that it sometimes makes little difference what kind of attention it is. From a child’s point of view, negative attention is better than no attention at all. Negative forms of attention such as scolding, yelling or even smacking can be rewarding to a child.

Reward your child with lots of attention when he is behaving well. But don’t pay any attention to him when the difficult behaviour occurs. By systematically paying and withholding attention like this, you can help shape your child’s behaviour.

Understanding preschooler behaviour

Preschoolers need boundaries that guide their natural enthusiasm but that don’t dampen their passion for life. Boundaries and routines offer security. They protect preschoolers from getting overwhelmed by too much responsibility before they’re ready.

Preschoolers are trying to understand the world around them, so we have to forgive them for being a bit distracted. A good rule is to always budget for another 30 minutes when doing things with your preschooler.

Preschool children are also still learning the everyday things that we take for granted, like how we talk to each other. For example, you might think your preschooler isn’t listening to you – but he might still be trying to figure out what someone said five minutes ago!

What to expect

Tantrums and other troubles 
If your child has tantrums, it might help to know that this behaviour is still very common among children aged 18-36 months. Hang in there – tantrums tend to tail off after children turn four.

You might also still have some eating battles with your child. If so, a good rule to keep in mind is that, as the parent, you’re responsible for making healthy food available on a regular basis. Your child can be responsible for deciding how much of the food gets eaten.

Some fights are a fact of life when kids get together. A few factors affect fighting – temperament, environment, age and skills. You can work with these factors to handle fighting in your family. 

Habits and lying 

Lots of children have habits. Your child’s habits might bother or frustrate you, but usually it’s nothing to worry about. Most habits go away by themselves. But if your child’s habit is interfering with everyday activities, has become embarrassing, or is even causing some harm, there are things you can do to help your child break the habit.

You might have caught your child telling the occasional lie. Lying is part of a child’s development, and it often starts around three years of age. Children aged 4-6 years usually lie a bit more. Generally, it’s better to teach children the value of honesty and telling the truth than to punish them for small lies. 

Anxiety 
Anxiety is a normal part of children’s development, and preschoolers often fear being on their own and in the dark. If your child shows signs of anxiety, you can support her by acknowledging her fear, gently encouraging her to do things she’s anxious about and praising her when she does, and avoiding labels like ’shy’ or ’anxious’. Step in to help her only when she actually gets anxious.

 

Changing preschooler behaviour: some tips

Use reminders 
Preschoolers have short memories and are easily distracted. You might need to remind your child about things several times. (You can test this by saying, ‘I’ll give you a treat tomorrow morning’ and see if your preschooler remembers!)

Share feelings 
If you can honestly tell your preschooler how his behaviour affects you, he can recognise his own emotions in yours, like a mirror, and be able to feel for you. So you might say, ‘I'm getting upset because there’s so much noise, and I can’t talk on the phone’. When you start the sentence with ‘I’, it gives your child the chance to change things for your sake.

Change the environment 
You can often prevent or minimise problem behaviour by changing your child’s environment. For example, if your preschooler is getting frustrated because your baby keeps crawling over her jigsaw puzzle, try to find a quiet spot where your preschooler can play undisturbed.

Use consequences 
When you explain the consequences of behaviour, your preschooler can figure out why something is wrong. This helps give him a better understanding of the world around him. Sometimes it’s OK not to explain too – for example, the most effective way to deal with your child’s swearing is to ignore the swearing completely.

Your preschooler can help set the consequences for undesirable behaviour – or at least agree to what you set. It’s amazing how much easier it is when children know what consequences to expect because they’ve already agreed on them. But sometimes you won’t have to set a consequence at all – you can just let your child begin to develop responsibility through experiencing the natural consequences of behaviour, like feeling a bit cold for refusing to put on a coat.

Time-out is a type of consequence. It involves having your child go to a place that’s apart from interesting activities, and other people, for a short period of time. It can be used for particularly difficult behaviour, or when you and your child both need a break from each other.

Try rewards 
Encouraging your child to change her behaviour can be tricky. When children get praise, encouragement and rewards for behaving well, they’re likely to want to keep behaving well.

Changing preschooler behaviour: some tips

Use reminders 
Preschoolers have short memories and are easily distracted. You might need to remind your child about things several times. (You can test this by saying, ‘I’ll give you a treat tomorrow morning’ and see if your preschooler remembers!)

Share feelings 
If you can honestly tell your preschooler how his behaviour affects you, he can recognise his own emotions in yours, like a mirror, and be able to feel for you. So you might say, ‘I'm getting upset because there’s so much noise, and I can’t talk on the phone’. When you start the sentence with ‘I’, it gives your child the chance to change things for your sake.

Change the environment 
You can often prevent or minimise problem behaviour by changing your child’s environment. For example, if your preschooler is getting frustrated because your baby keeps crawling over her jigsaw puzzle, try to find a quiet spot where your preschooler can play undisturbed.

Use consequences 
When you explain the consequences of behaviour, your preschooler can figure out why something is wrong. This helps give him a better understanding of the world around him. Sometimes it’s OK not to explain too – for example, the most effective way to deal with your child’s swearing is to ignore the swearing completely.

Your preschooler can help set the consequences for undesirable behaviour – or at least agree to what you set. It’s amazing how much easier it is when children know what consequences to expect because they’ve already agreed on them. But sometimes you won’t have to set a consequence at all – you can just let your child begin to develop responsibility through experiencing the natural consequences of behaviour, like feeling a bit cold for refusing to put on a coat.

Time-out is a type of consequence. It involves having your child go to a place that’s apart from interesting activities, and other people, for a short period of time. It can be used for particularly difficult behaviour, or when you and your child both need a break from each other.

Try rewards 
Encouraging your child to change her behaviour can be tricky. When children get praise, encouragement and rewards for behaving well, they’re likely to want to keep behaving well.

Discipline

The word ‘discipline means ‘to teach’ – not necessarily to punish. The true goal is to teach your child the rules of behaviour so he can use them.

Children learn self-discipline by growing up in a loving family, with fair and predictable rules and expectations. Punishment can actually interfere with their development of self-discipline.

Physical punishment doesn’t help children learn proper behaviour. It doesn’t give them the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. Instead, it can make them fearful, insecure and resentful. Children learn from example, and hitting teaches them to get what they want by hitting. 

If you have concerns about your preschooler’s behaviour, seek professional help. You can also read more practical advice about discipline.

Some parents might hit their child because they’re trying to relieve their own tension or stress in a situation. For more help with managing your own stress and angry feelings, try reading Feeling stressed and When you feel you might hurt your child

What to make rules about

Choose the most important things to make rules about – for example, a rule about not physically hurting each other would be a must for most families. You might also develop rules about:

  • safety

  • manners

  • politeness

  • daily routines

  • how you treat each other.

    Every family’s rules will be different. The standards you create will be influenced by your beliefs, values, your situation and your child’s maturity and needs.

    Kinds of rules

    Rules come in different shapes and sizes. But all good rules have something in common: they are specific and easy to understand.

    ‘Do’ rules
    ‘Do’ rules are good teaching tools, and they’re best in most situations because they guide your child’s behaviour in a positive way. Here are some examples:

  • Sit down to eat.

  • Speak in a polite voice.

  • Wear your seatbelt in the car.

  • Be gentle with each other.

  • Be home by curfew.

    ‘Don’t’ rules
    It’s best to have more ‘do’ than ‘don't’ rules – use ‘don’t’ rules when it’s difficult to explain exactly what to do instead. Here are some examples:

  • Don’t spit.

  • Don’t ask for things in the supermarket.

  • Don’t get in a car with a P-plater who has been drinking.

    Ground rules
    These are rules that apply everywhere, no matter what. Some ground rules might apply to the whole family, whereas others might apply just to younger children, or to teenagers. Rules about politeness and not hurting each other are examples of ground rules.

    Situation rules
    Sometimes it can be helpful to have a short set of rules for specific situations. For example, you might have rules for:

  • travelling in the car

  • visiting another person’s house

  • using the computer

  • going shopping.

    How many rules? 
    A few clear and specific rules are likely to be more effective than a long list. This is especially true for younger children, who are less able to remember them. As children get older and more mature, the rules can ‘grow’ along with them. If your child tends to break the rules, you might need to choose your battles and focus on basic issues like safety and fairness.

    How to develop rules

    Children and teenagers appreciate being involved in the rule-making process.

    Taking part in discussions about rules won’t necessarily stop young people from breaking them. It will, however, help them understand what the rules are and why they’re needed.

    Many families find it useful to write down a set of rules about how family members are expected to behave. Writing them down makes them clear, and can also prevent arguments about what is or isn’t allowed. Sticking the rules on the fridge, or in another prominent spot, can help younger children be constantly aware of them.

    Written rules are also helpful for teenagers. For children of this age, instead of making the rules public by sticking them on the fridge, it’s a good idea to keep them somewhere a little more private that's still close to hand for when you need to refer to them.   

    For younger children, consider drawing pictures that depict the rules. You can then turn the artwork into a poster to be placed in a prominent spot. Involving children in drawing or colouring the poster will give you a chance to discuss the rules with them.

    When to start making rules

    You can start making simple rules as soon as your child has the language skills to understand them. This is part of teaching your child what you expect.

    Young children will need supervision and support to follow rules. Preschoolers tend to forget, are inconsistent in their behaviour and can be easily distracted. Remember that a false sense of security in a rule can lead to tragic consequences (for example, ‘He knows not to go near the dam’, ‘She knows not to touch matches’).

    Some children with special needs might also need help to understand and remember rules.

    All children are different, but it’s usually not until they reach middle to late primary school age you can start relying on them to follow rules without your guidance in most situations.

    Clear rules and boundaries will help give your teenager a sense of security and let him know where he stands. This is especially important during adolescence, when so many other things in his life are changing.

    Get your child’s attention

    When giving an instruction, first make sure you have your child’s attention. Children, like everyone else, tend to turn a deaf ear to things they’d rather not hear. So, instead of talking to your child from across the room, try the following:

  • Take the time to walk over.

  • Stoop down so that your face is at eye level. Look your child right in the eye.

  • Tell your child what you want him to do. Use a serious but friendly face and voice.

  • A gentle touch on your child’s shoulder can help focus his attention.

    Make sure it’s an instruction

    Don’t state an instruction as a question. Instructions that are phrased as questions can be confusing to children.

    Let’s say, for example, that your child drops a lolly wrapper and turns to walk away. ‘Do you want to pick that up?’ is a question. It allows the child to think, ‘Well, no, I don’t want to right now’ and keep on going. It’s much more effective to be direct. You could perhaps say, ‘Please pick that wrapper up right now’.

    Be clear and specific

    Be clear about what needs to be done and when. ‘Clean up your room!’ might seem clear enough, but it really isn’t. Does it mean putting away the toys, picking up all the clothes off the floor and putting them, folded neatly, away in the drawers, vacuuming the floor, or all of the above? Does the room need to be cleaned up right away, or will sometime later be OK?

    It helps to be specific. For example, ‘Please put the toys away and the clothes in the basket now’.

    Make sure your child can do what you’re asking

    If a child is crying with fright, ordering her to stop is not very helpful – she needs comforting, not controlling. If her room is such an incredible mess that you don’t really know where to start, it’s not fair to order her to clean it all up. Instead, help her break the task down into smaller pieces that she can handle.

    Follow through on instructions

    Don’t yell or threaten. Do follow through. Many parents feel they have no choice but to yell. They might start out quietly enough, but they get louder and louder as their children ignore them. Finally, when they’re furious, the children listen. They seem to think that parents aren’t serious unless they’re yelling. Other parents don’t yell, but they threaten time-out or another consequence over and over and over. Children quickly learn to ignore the first threat – or the first seven!

    The solution to this problem is simple: give an instruction once, and then make certain that your child responds.

    A good way to do this is to:

  • Go over to your child.

  • Get your child’s attention (as described above).

  • State the instruction again.

  • Make it clear that you expect your child to do it right now.

  • Stay with your child until he follows the instruction.

  • What to do? First, try not to feel embarrassed. Remember that any child, with any sense of self, is likely to have a tantrum sometime, somewhere. And parents everywhere are wondering how to cope.

  • ‘Children often start to have a tantrum because they don’t feel heard’, points out Dr Michael Thompson, author of Best friends, worst enemies. ‘They think what they want is for their parents to give in. But often, what they really want is for their parents to stop and listen.’

  • Experts agree that when you listen it’s important to accept, rather than dismiss, your child’s feelings – even if they’re hard to take. ‘We live in an emotion-dismissing culture’, says Dr John Gottman, author of Raising an emotionally intelligent child. ‘But if you build an awareness about your child’s emotions and your own, particularly an awareness of smaller emotions, then it might not be necessary for emotions to escalate.’

  • Let kids express their feelings without judgment 
    It’s natural for kids to sometimes have big feelings. You haven’t done something wrong if your child has an occasional tantrum or blow up. Parents should only worry if a child is chronically, constantly unhappy, or if tantrums are their only repertoire or tool for getting things.
    – Michael Thompson, PhD, author of Best friends, worst enemies

  • Note 
    The information in these articles provides guidance for parents dealing with a child who experiences upsets in the normal course of growing up. If your situation is particularly challenging, and/or you have a child who has chronic tantrums, the suggestions provided here (while helpful) might not be sufficient. Parents who are caring for a child with greater emotional needs or who are dealing with a particularly challenging situation might want to seek specific professional help

    .

Preserving your child’s sense of self-worth

Of course, you could create a harsh system of controls and punishments – like a good little robot, your child would behave perfectly a lot of the time. But what would be the effect on your child’s spirit, on his sense of self-worth, on his personal happiness, or on his feelings toward others?

On the other hand, you can imagine a child whose every whim is indulged, and whose every action, good or bad, is praised. Such a child might have a certain measure of happiness, but most people wouldn’t want to spend much time with her

Strict or casual discipline?

This looms as a big question for many new parents, although most find their own balance in a little while. For a few parents it remains a tricky question, no matter how much experience they’ve had.

Another word used for casual discipline is ‘permissiveness’. This means different things to different people – to some it means an easygoing, casual style of management, but to others it means letting their child do or have anything she wants, which is likely to produce an obnoxious, spoiled, rude child.

But parents who aren’t afraid to be firm when it’s needed can get good results with either moderate strictness or moderate casualness. The real issue is what spirit you put into managing your child, and what attitude is instilled in the child as a result.

Strictness

Expecting reasonable behaviour from children means parents need to be kind, moderately strict, flexible, and have consistent expectations.

Strictness is fine as long as the parents are basically kind, and as long as the children are growing up happy and friendly. But strictness is harmful when parents are overbearing, harsh, and chronically disapproving or when they make no allowances for a child’s age and individuality. This kind of severity can produce children who are either meek and colourless or mean-spirited.

Parents who have an easygoing style of management can also raise children who are considerate and cooperative. Such parents might be satisfied with casual manners as long as the child’s attitude is friendly. They might happen not to be particularly strict – for instance, about promptness or neatness. The key is that they’re not afraid to be firm about the matters that are important to them.

Permissiveness – angry parents, unhappy kids

When parents get unhappy results from too much permissiveness, it’s not so much because they demand too little, even though this is part of it. It’s more because they’re timid or guilty about what they ask, or because they’re unconsciously letting the child rule the roost.

If parents are too hesitant in asking for reasonable behaviour – because they’ve misunderstood theories of self-expression, because they’re self-sacrificing by nature, or because they’re afraid of making their children dislike them – they can’t help resenting the bad behaviour that comes instead. They keep getting angry underneath without really knowing what to do about it.

This bothers their children too. It can make them feel guilty and scared, but can also make them meaner and all the more demanding. For example, if a toddler gets a taste for staying up late and the parents are afraid to let him, the child might turn into a disagreeable tyrant who keeps his parents awake for hours – and his parents would start to dislike him for his tyranny.

If parents can learn to be firm and consistent in their expectations, it’s amazing how fast the children will sweeten upand the parents will, too.

Parents can’t feel right towards their children in the long run unless they can make them behave reasonably. Children can’t be happy unless they’re behaving reasonably.

Firm but friendly discipline

A child needs to feel that her mother and father, however agreeable, have their own rights. They know how to be firm and won’t let the child be unreasonable or rude. She likes them better that way. Their firmness trains her from the beginning to get along reasonably with other people.

Spoiled children aren’t happy creatures, even in their own homes. And when they get out into the world, whether it’s at age two or four or six, they’re in for a rude shock. They find that nobody is willing to bow down to them. They learn, in fact, that everybody dislikes them for their selfishness. Either they must go through life being unpopular, or they must learn the hard way how to be agreeable.

Conscientious parents often let a child take advantage of them for a while – until their patience is exhausted – and then turn on the child crossly. But neither of these stages is really necessary.

If parents have a healthy self-respect, they can stand up for themselves while they are still feeling friendly. For instance, if your daughter insists that you continue to play a game after you’re exhausted, don’t be afraid to say cheerfully but definitely, ‘I’m all tired out. I’m going to read a book now, and you can read your book, too’.

Or maybe a child is refusing to get out of the wagon or tricycle of another child who has to take it home now. Try to interest him in something else, but don’t feel that you must go on being sweetly reasonable forever. Lift him out of the wagon or tricycle even if he yells for a minute.

 

Why use systematic ignoring?

Every day, all day, your child is learning how to attract your attention. You might as well use your attention to help your child develop appropriate behaviour. That is, behaviour you believe is important for her to learn and is consistent with your values as a family. It costs nothing, and involves relatively little effort on your part.

But be prepared – behaviour that is ignored often gets worse before it gets better. You should consider this when deciding whether to use systematic ignoring as a behaviour tool.

How to use systematic ignoring

Here are some tips for successfully using systematic ignoring.

  • When you ignore, it is important to completely ignore. Do not look at your child or say anything while the behaviour is occurring. Subtle glances, smiles or even frowns can be rewarding. Saying, ‘I am ignoring you!’ is no longer ignoring. Where it’s safe and practical, walk away from your child while he is behaving badly.

  • Start ignoring when the behaviour starts. Stop ignoring when the behaviour has been stopped for a while.

  • If ignoring a behaviour is going to be difficult for you, plan some ways of distracting yourself, or keeping yourself busy while you ignore. Some simple exercises to help you feel in control and stay calm might also help.

  • Systematically pay attention to the behaviour you want to see instead of the behaviour you are ignoring. This makes systematic ignoring far more effective.

    Should I tell my child that I am going to ignore the behaviour? 
    When you ignore your child’s behaviour, you send a signal that you will not respond while she continues to behave in a particular way. For example, ‘I will not answer you while you continue to speak like that’. This might be appropriate in some circumstances.

    For minor behaviours, you might choose not to say anything at all. Another option is to explain to your child once that you will not respond when he behaves in a particular way. Then ignore the behaviour from then on whenever it happens, without saying anything further.

    You just need to weigh up the usefulness of telling your child which behaviour is being ignored (so she understands) with the possibility that even that level of attention might be rewarding.

    Before you use systematic ignoring

     

    Ignoring is not always the best option for dealing with behaviour you wish to discourage. Before deciding to ignore behaviour, ask yourself:

  • Is this behaviour rewarded by your attention? This is something you need to be fairly sure of before you start. If the behaviour is being rewarded by someone else’s attention – for example, siblings or friends – it won’t make any difference if you ignore it.

  • Should you ignore the behaviour? Some behaviours might be rewarded by your attention, but you might not be able or willing to ignore them. Behaviour that is dangerous to your child or that hurts others or damages property cannot be ignored (for example, biting, hitting, pulling on the curtains, throwing things). Sometimes behaviour might be simply too disruptive or loud to ignore.

  • Can you ignore the behaviour if it gets worse? Say you start ignoring the behaviour, but your resolve breaks and you pay attention when it gets worse. You run the risk of rewarding the worse behaviour. This makes it more likely to occur at this worse level when it occurs again. If you feel that you cannot  ignore the behaviour if it gets worse, it’s better not to try in the first place.

  • Can you ignore the behaviour wherever it occurs? If you ignore the behaviour in one place but not another, you just get more of the behaviour in the place you don’t want it.

  • Can you ignore the behaviour whenever it occurs? This is crucial. If you ignore sometimes and not at other times, you run the risk of making the behaviour even harder to change. When a reward is valuable but unpredictable, humans tend to try harder and more persistently to get it. Occasionally rewarding your child’s behaviour strengthens the behaviour even more than if the behaviour is rewarded every time it occurs.

  • Will other people ignore the behaviour? If you have managed to successfully ignore a behaviour, but your partner, friend or relative suddenly comes in and pays attention, your good work will be undone. Get agreement in your household about what behaviour you will ignore. Sometimes others will find it difficult to understand your use of systematic ignoring and might not be able to do it. It’s better not to use ignoring in these settings.

    Temper tantrums, stomping, making silly noises, whining, arguing, swearing – these are all behaviours that you might ignore. What you eventually choose to ignore will depend greatly on the behaviour itself (minor problem behaviours) and your own frustration tolerance. Nevertheless, systematic ignoring is a great tool to have in your parenting tool box.

    What happens when you ignore a behaviour?

    It usually gets worse before it gets better.

    Consider the following example. A man has a faulty television. He taps the box and the picture comes good. A little later the picture flickers and disappears again. He taps the box again, but this time the picture does not return. What does he do? He taps again, and again, perhaps getting harder and more persistent, until eventually he stops when the television is clearly not going to work again. We tend to stick with our previously successful behaviour, just persisting for harder or longer until we give up and look for another way of handling the situation.

    Like the man’s behaviour toward the television, a child’s behaviour that has become well established tends to become more frequent and intense when the reward is removed. Tantrums can get louder and longer, and whining more persistent, if the attention that was once rewarding it is suddenly removed.

Leatitia voges 31.03.2015 0 441


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