Positive Discipline, Part 2 – Practical Tips to Improve a Child’s Challenging Behaviors
Posted on March 1, 2016 by CHS
Does your child’s behavior frustrate you? Does it feel impossible to teach a child in your care how to behave appropriately?
Children do not think like adults do, so what you perceive as misbehaving may actually be appropriate for your child’s age and developmental stage. Understanding what is normal in each stage of development will help you teach your child and guide him toward improved behavior. By knowing how to communicate and meet his needs, you can prevent or reduce difficult behaviors and make parenting much easier!
Positive Discipline vs. Punishment
In Part 1, we explained that the goal of positive discipline is to teach children safe, socially responsible behavior that promotes self-respect and respect for the feelings and property of others. Positive discipline is not punishment.
Below are some common issues and practical tips for how you can use positive discipline to assist your child and teach them appropriate behavior.
Age-Appropriate Behaviors and Discipline
Infants – Ages 0-11 Months
Scenario: Your baby cries continually, at home and in public. Sometimes, it seems as if there is no way to console her.
Why: Infants cry when under stress or when they have an unmet physical or emotional need.
Tips to Help:
- Attend to your infant when she is crying by picking her up, talking softly to her, and offer a soft comfort item such as a toy or pacifier to help her learn to self-soothe.
- Respond quickly to his cries and make sure he is fed, diaper is changed, and held often to increase his sense of security and trust.
- Create daily routines to establish a sense of consistency, trust, security, and a nurturing environment.
- Provide safe toys, attention, and space to play in order to help your infant receive adequate stimulation, feel loved, and develop her brain.
- When out running errands, feed your child at his regular times to avoid embarrassing outbursts due to hunger (also true for older children).
- Continuous crying may indicate illness, or your baby could be going through the period of PURPLE crying, a normal phase of long-lasting and unexpected crying in healthy babies that can’t be soothed.
Toddlers - Ages 12-24 Months
Scenario: While at the grocery store, your child starts whining “No” to every request you make, bites your hand when you reach to stop him from pulling down canned vegetables, and eventually throws a loud, embarrassing tantrum when you won’t buy him candy.
Why: Toddlers do well with routine and learn through exploring. They are not capable of remembering a long list of rules. They’re learning to be independent, and are unaware that some actions are wrong; they can’t yet appropriately label and express emotions and may act out as a way to communicate.
Tips to Help:
- Keep a consistent routine. If the routine needs to change, give your child plenty of warning with clear expectations. For example: “We need to go to the grocery store this morning. See my list? After we go to the store to get the things on my list, we will come home and play outside.” When you arrive at the store, talk to your child before you leave the car: “See, we are at the store and I have my list. I expect you to sit in the cart while I get the things we need. Do you want to hold the list for me, or shall we bring a book for you to read?” Giving your child advance notice of what will happen and what you expect from him or her can minimize the chance of a tantrum.
- Redirect their behavior by giving them appropriate toys to play with or a child-friendly activity.
- Keep rules short, simple, and direct. You will have to patiently explain rules more than once.
- Avoid overusing “No,” and save it for when you really need it. For example, if a child asks for a cookie too close to lunch time, say, “Yes, you may have a cookie right after we finish lunch.”
- Toddlers need to move and don’t occupy themselves well for long periods of time – avoid taking them to long movies, events, or formal restaurants.
- Set limits and let your child experience logical, immediate consequences. For instance, provide a warning such as “Sand is not for throwing; please keep it in the sandbox. If you throw it again, you will have to leave the sandbox.” If the child throws sand again, tell them they must leave the sandbox and direct them toward an acceptable activity.
- If your child bites to communicate feelings, needs, or to solve a problem with another child, remind your child that biting hurts and provide him/her with something appropriate for biting (carrot or teether) as you say, “This is something you can bite.” Once you have provided the food/object you can ask, “Were you biting because you wanted/felt…? Next time you can ask for help.”
Preschoolers – 3-5-year-olds
Scenario: On a family road trip, your preschooler constantly asks, “Where are we going? Why? When will we get there? What are we doing?” When the excitement wanes, she begins whining, complaining, and eventually hitting her brother when he won’t give her his toy.
Why: Waiting is especially hard for children, and if they get agitated, they may resort to hitting or kicking as a way to release aggression. As children are learning, they ask lots of questions because they see you as a resource.
Tips to Help:
- Try to be patient and answer questions when you can. If it is an inconvenient time for questions, explain that to your child and tell him when it would be appropriate.
- Be prepared when you know you will be in a situation that requires waiting. Have your child bring a backpack with a couple of snacks, a water bottle, a coloring book, a story book, or play games like “I Spy” while you are waiting in lines.
- Don’t confuse children by offering choices that should be yours, such as “Do you want to take a nap?” which offers the child the chance to refuse. Give them an opportunity to be responsible for their behavior by making choices that you approve of, such as, “Nap time is in 5 minutes. Would you like to read a book first, or do you want to play for 5 more minutes? It’s your choice.”
- Preschoolers want the approval of adults and respond well to praise and positive reinforcement – tell them when you appreciate their behavior and let them know when they made a good choice.
- If a child is hitting or kicking, get their attention by using a word your child may not hear as often, such as, “Freeze!” Once the child has stopped, talk to him about what is happening. Offer him an acceptable alternative for releasing pent-up aggression such as running and kicking a ball outside, or pounding play dough.
Scenario: Your child knocks over a lamp while running around the room, breaking it after you told her to stop running in the house. When you ask her what happened, she lies and blames the dog.
Why: School-age children seek the approval of adults and peers, and may stretch the truth for acceptance; they also don’t fully understand the difference between truth and lies, or know that their lying is wrong.
Tips to Help:
- Have simple, consistent, and clear rules. Explain the reasons behind them, and always enforce the stated consequences.
- Some lies are imaginative and attention-seeking, which may be okay to let go. For lies regarding broken rules and avoiding getting in trouble, address the lie but don’t argue with your child about it. Calmly state what you saw or heard, explain the importance of taking responsibility for our actions, and inform them of the consequence. Eventually your child may end up confessing the truth on their own anyway. If he does, tell him you appreciate him taking responsibility for what happened so he will learn that honesty is valued.
- Positively state expectations, such as “Use quiet, indoor voices” rather than “No yelling.”
- When correcting behavior, make sure to also remember to praise good behavior. Praise lets children know which behaviors are appropriate. Be specific with your praise so that the child knows exactly what she did that was appreciated.
- Acknowledge their feelings, especially when you must set a limit on their behavior. How they feel is important!
- Be open to negotiating rules that do not directly affect the health and safety of your child or others, and let your child know that safety rules are non-negotiable. An example of a negotiation would be, “I know it is raining outside and you really want to play ball. Playing ball inside is not safe because it could hurt someone or break glass, but we can throw sponges or socks back and forth. Which would work best?”
Helpful Tips for Any Age:
- Always model the type of behavior and language you desire from your child. Children watch and learn from your example.
- Don’t compare your child to another. Every child develops and matures differently.
- Consider your child’s unique personality and temperament when setting expectations.
- Establish reasonable consequences and follow through when expectations are not met. If you do this consistently, your child will eventually understand his behavior limits.
- Make sure that anyone who helps you take care of your child has the same expectations you do for guidance. This includes your spouse, extended family, and child care provider.
If you feel that you have tried everything to help your child without success, then talk to your pediatrician about your concerns.