Follow the Rules: Dealing with Discipline and Shaping Behavior

Overcome behavioral issues by having clear rules and consequences

One of the most difficult challenges of caring for children is maintaining a structured, appropriate environment while allowing and encouraging independence and room for personal growth.

Young children have a complicated relationship with rules and have difficulty prioritizing acceptable behavior over their personal desires. They are also constantly testing the world around them – physically, intellectually, and socially. Establishing a clear set of guidelines and consequences regarding behavior and discipline can create a safe and nurturing environment while helping children understand that actions have consequences.

Making and breaking the rules

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to discipline, so a skilled child care provider needs to be armed with an arsenal of ideas to encourage positive behavior. All children are different, and this is particularly true when dealing with a range of developmental stages. Try the following to find the best fit for the children in your care.

Keep rules simple: Make sure rules are clearly stated and easy to understand. Have a group discussion about the rules. Keep rules broad to cover a range of behaviors, such as, “Be kind to each other,” or, “Take care of our toys.” Repeat the rules out loud as a regular part of your routine.

Use positive language: Make an effort to say “do” instead of “don’t” and always include a please and thank you. Keep sentences short with a focus on good behavior versus bad. For example, “Slow down and walk,” instead of, “Stop running,” may produce better results. Also, keep your requests as general as possible when you can; “We use our quiet voice inside” may produce a better result than, “You need to stop shouting.”

Implement behavior-based consequences: Allow children the opportunity to correct their misbehavior by being a part of the solution. If a child spills a drink while running, ask them to help you clean it up. Even if they’re too young to get the job done, it’s a good way to introduce cause and effect.

Encourage good behavior: Young children love attention and will go to great lengths to get it, including misbehaving. Catch children when they’re following the rules or doing something nice and praise them generously for it. Point out good behavior to others when you witness it. Creating a connection between positive attention and positive behavior can have lasting results.

Model respect: Children respond well when you talk to them, instead of at them. If the behavior is a problem, pull the child aside to discuss it quietly and privately. Don’t use shame or embarrassment as a punishment. Instead, get down on his or her level, make eye contact, and explain the rules and what they could have done differently, in a calm and patient voice. Try not to lecture them; listen to what they have to say and respond.

Behavioral problems are frustrating; particularly when you’re dealing with several children, along with a range of personalities and potential conflicts. An optimal learning environment involves the creation of a safe place to explore and experiment, with clearly defined boundaries and a skilled caregiver ready to guide behavior.

The Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.

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