Saying No: The Science Behind Discipline in Early Childhood

discipline in early childhood

When your kids act out or put themselves in danger, resist the urge to say “no” and try some research-backed discipline tactics instead.

Both parents and early childhood educators have one important mission in common: teaching good behavior in their kids. Discipline done well makes life easier for the adults, but more importantly, it teaches kids to respect rules, boundaries, and authority figures. Discipline in early childhood is crucial to develop social, emotional, and behavioral skills that kids will need for the rest of their lives. Plus, in the short-term, good behavior will reduce the risk of expulsion from early education programs.

But which disciplinary techniques will actually encourage good behavior? Fortunately, trial and error isn’t the only way to solve this age-old problem. Researchers have been studying discipline in early childhood education for decades, and certain methods continue to be the best solutions. While every child is unique, we encourage you to consider the following disciplinary techniques instead of just saying “no” to bad behaviors in your daycare or classroom.

Try to Compromise

Many toddlers and preschoolers will actually try to reason or “negotiate” with their parents or teachers when they don’t want to follow a rule or obey a command. For these kids, compromise is often an effective strategy, according to researchers at Oklahoma State University. In fact, even defiant and aggressive toddlers respond most quickly to compromise, but they may show worse behaviors if you try this tactic too often.

If you have an “easy-to-manage” toddler, they usually try to rationalize with you but don’t actively run away or resist. They might argue about sharing a toy with another child, for example, or taking a nap on time. In response to their resistance, try offering a slight alternative, such as playing with a different toy or finishing the rest of their puzzle before naptime. Presenting alternatives will create a pattern of compromise, rather than conflict, between you and the child. No matter how “unreasonable” a child’s behavior may seem, they learn better judgement skills once they learn to respond to good reason.

Limit Your Punishments

Young children who respond well to compromise may not need the threat of punishment. However, sometimes the threat of negative consequences is necessary for “hard-to-manage” kids. When used the right way, occasional punishment is actually an important element of long-term discipline in early childhood education. The key word is “occasional”, because it only works well in moderation. Threatening or implementing punishment should only make up one-sixth (or less) of your discipline time.

Punishment should be infrequent, but it should also be immediate, with no postponements or empty threats to weaken your disciplinary strategy. If a child has a long-term pattern of bad behavior, respond to each new “crime” immediately instead of postponing your response. The Canadian Pediatric Society encourages parents and teachers to stay consistent and controlled, and use punishment as an opportunity to establish respect and teach healthy self-control.

Instead of spanking a child or lashing out at them in anger (which would be completely counterproductive), keep the punishment proportional to the bad behavior. Try time-outs, logical and natural consequences, and taking away toys or privileges, which reinforces the limits and consequences of good and bad behavior, rather than blurring the lines. Keep these rules and limits consistent so the children always know where you stand on bad behaviors.

Reinforce Good Behavior

You should not limit yourself to reacting to cases of bad behavior; good behavior deserves a reaction, too. When your kids follow your efforts to compromise, learn from their punishment, or change past bad behavior, you should praise them for growing from their mistakes. Positive reinforcement, however, needs to be very specific. Just saying, “Good job,” when a child follows the rules is too vague. Instead, praise a behavior that is out of the ordinary. For example, if a chatty child stays completely quiet during story time and you don’t have to discipline them like you usually do, tell them you are proud of them for behaving as you asked.

At Naptime Academy, we know that young children thrive and grow when adults know how to relate and respond to them. Our goal as educators is to promote research-backed discipline in early childhood education, and to help parents and other family members learn better, healthier strategies for managing bad behaviors.

Sign up for one of our online courses to learn more effective discipline strategies in early childhood. You can watch a single course or sign up for a year subscription to earn your state-required training hours. For more information, contact Naptime Academy at 866-377-6824.