Preschooler Discipline: Strategies and Challenges

Behavioral problems and effective solutions for your 3, 4, and 5-year-olds

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Disciplining a preschooler requires a combination of art and science. It also requires some serious agility. What worked last week may no longer be effective. 

Patience and consistency can be key to addressing behavior problems for your 3, 4, or 5-year-old. At the same time, you might need to use a little trial and error at times to see what discipline strategies are going to work best for your family. 

Typical Preschooler Behavior

A preschooler’s budding development means your child will want to be independent. This quest for autonomy can present new parenting challenges in terms of behavior and discipline needs. And, your child might enjoy experimenting with new behaviors just to see how you'll respond. 

The transition into preschool may cause your child to experience separation anxiety. Or, he may have fears about interacting with other children and teachers.

Children ​at this age may also be experimenting with pushing boundaries and limits and may show defiance. They may feel frustrated about not being able to do what they want to do because their motor skills are not as refined yet. These frustrations and anxieties can often lead to behavior problems such as defiance, back talkdawdling, and more.

Preschoolers have a basic understanding of right from wrong. They can follow simple rules and often aim to please adults. However, they don’t understand adult logic, so they sometimes struggle to make healthy choices.

Although they should be developing improved impulse control, your child will still need a lot of work in this area. They might yell, say mean things or exhibit outbursts. They often test rules and limits but should start developing a better understanding of the direct consequences of their behavior.

Common Challenges

Lying is a common challenge in preschoolers. Sometimes, their stories are an attempt to get out of trouble and at other times, they’re simply using their imaginations to tell far-fetched stories.  

Whining is another common issue during the preschool years. Preschoolers often think if you say no the first time, begging and whining will force you to change your mind. But note, if they’re successful at annoying you into submission once, they’ll be convinced they can do it again.

In many homes, baby talk is near the top of the list of annoying preschool behaviors. But, reverting to baby talk can be a normal part of preschool development. Sometimes, preschoolers use it to gain attention. Other times, they regress due to stress or anxiety. For example, a child may begin to use baby talk right before he enters kindergarten because he’s nervous about the transition.

Although preschoolers often want to be helpful, they also like to assert their independence. It’s common for them to say, “No!” when you tell them to do something just to see how you'll react.

Most preschoolers have gained a little mastery over temper tantrums but still haven’t gained enough impulse control to prevent the occasional aggressive behavior. Hitting, kicking, and biting may still be a problem.

Discipline Strategies That Work

An effective discipline should include negative consequences that deter misbehavior from being repeated and positive consequences that motivate your child to keep up the good work. While your plan should be tailored to your child’s temperament, the following discipline strategies are usually most effective for preschoolers.

  • Praise good behavior: Provide lots of praise and encouragement to promote good behavior. Just make sure your praise is genuine. Rather than saying, “You’re the best boy in the whole world,” say, “Thank you for putting your dish in the sink when I asked you to.”
  • Place your child in time-out: Use an automatic time-out for major rule violations, like aggression. And, use it for those times when your child doesn’t heed a warning such as, “If you don’t pick up your toys right now, then you’re going to need to go to time-out.” Younger preschoolers may require a time-out room while most 5-year-olds can tolerate serving time-out in a chair or other quiet area.
  • Take away privileges: If your preschooler refuses to go to time-out or the offense isn’t worthy of a few minutes away from the action, try removing those privileges.  Take away a favorite toy, game, or TV privileges for the rest of the day.
  • Create a reward system: If your child is struggling with a specific behavior, like staying in their own bed all night, create a sticker chart. Then, tell them once they earn a certain amount of stickers (like three or five), he can get a bigger reward, like picking a special movie to watch. Reward systems can slowly be phased out after your child has learned the skills they need to meet their goals.

    Preventing Future Problems

    When it comes to disciplining a preschooler, prevention can be the best strategy. Stay one step ahead by being mindful of situations that are likely to be difficult for your child. 

    Most preschoolers struggle to manage their behavior when they're hungry, overtired, or overwhelmed. So pack snacks, allow for plenty of rest, and plan outings for when your child is likely to be at their best.

    Establish a daily routine so your child knows what is expected of them throughout the day. Preschoolers do best when they have plenty of structure.

    Create clear rules and limits as well. Explain your expectations before entering new situations (such as how to behave in the library), and warn your child about the consequences for breaking the rules.

    Many of the behavior problems preschoolers exhibit result from their struggles managing their emotions—especially anger. Teach your preschooler simple anger management skills. For example, blow bubbles with your child as a way to teach them to take deep, calming breaths and teach them to use “bubble breaths” when they feel mad.

    Establish house rules about aggressive behavior. Teach your child that it is okay to feel angry but not okay to hurt anyone or destroy property.

    Communication Tips

    While your preschooler has a better understanding of language skills, it’s important to keep your communication brief and effective. Skip the lengthy lectures and establish good communication habits with your child now. Here are several effective ways to communicate with your preschooler:

    • Keep it short and sweet. You don't need to get into a lengthy discussion about why a behavior is unacceptable. With young children, it's best to keep things simple and specific.
    • Establish healthy communication practices. Create strategies that will help you and your child talk about behavior problems and solutions. For example, you can have a special place in the house where you and your child address important subjects. You could also make it a house rule that conflicts and problems are discussed after a cool-off period when solutions can be better addressed in a calm manner.
    • Offer limited choices. Offering unlimited choices, like asking, “What would you like for dinner?” can lead to conflict when a child lacks the skills needed to make good choices. Offer two good choices to pick from, such as “Would you rather clean your room before or after dinner?” Either choice is a good answer as long as it gets done.
    • Talk about alternatives. When you’re child misbehaves, teach them alternative ways to get their needs met. If they throw a toy when angry, talk about other strategies that could have helped them address those feelings. Rather than simply punishing your child for misbehaving, help them make better choices in the future. Ask questions such as, “If your brother grabs your toy, what could you do instead of pushing him?”
    • Give effective instructions.  Giving good directions increases the chances your child will listen. Place a hand on your child’s shoulder or gain eye contact before you attempt to give directions. After you give instructions (one step at a time), ask your child to repeat back what you said to ensure they understand.
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