Preschooler Discipline: Strategies and Challenges

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

You are watching your 4-year-old playing with their little siblings, pretending that they are the parent and their little sibling is the baby. Tears of happiness well up in your eyes as you savor this special moment. But the moment doesn't last. The next thing you hear is your preschooler's stern voice calling out "No baby! Don't touch the puzzles. Come this way to the castle! You have to come to the castle right now!"

Your younger child is no longer enjoying pretending to be the baby and bursts out in tears. You come to the rescue, and suddenly your 4-year-old starts crying too. Later that night, they wake up hysterical about monsters hiding under the bed and insist on sleeping in your room.

Most of the time, preschoolers tend to be sweet, imaginative, and cooperative. But they are still learning to get along with others, and they may struggle with emotional regulation. Here we will discuss some of the most common preschooler behaviors and discipline strategies that can help you get through to them.

Discipline strategies for preschoolers
Verywell / Emily Roberts

Typical Preschooler Behaviors

Preschoolers are gaining independence, so you may see them taking initiative to do things like prepare a sandwich for themselves or choose an outfit (which may or may not coordinate) and dress themselves.

Don't be surprised if you hear your preschooler singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" in their car seat, while taking a bath, or even while tucked into bed. Along with singing, preschoolers also tend to enjoy drawing, cutting with scissors, and other simple fine motor work.

You might also find that your preschooler engages in some of the following behaviors:

  • Preschoolers may enjoy telling imaginative stories.
  • They may play together cooperatively with their peers.
  • They may have fun with fantasy play.
  • They can follow commands with three steps.

Common Preschool Challenges

Preschoolers' budding independence may clash with worsening separation anxiety, which might look like a child who brushes their own teeth and puts on their own shoes in the morning, but then won't let go of your leg at preschool drop-off. You may see separation anxiety or nighttime fears at this age, even if your child didn't struggle with this at an earlier age. "Often students are reluctant to go to preschool and can become clingy," notes Elizabeth Fraley, M.Ed, the CEO of Kinder Ready Inc, a Los Angeles-based education program.

Kids aged 3 or 4 show more interest in playing together with kids their age, but they still need to practice the social skills that go along with this. Bossiness or conflicts over who gets to go first are common.

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. "Some children have developed self-regulation behaviors by this age, while others need an adult to help soothe them and direct them," says Fraley.

Discipline Strategies That Work

While your plan should be tailored to your child’s temperament, the following discipline strategies are usually most effective for preschoolers.

Notice Good Behavior

You may find yourself telling your child a lot about what they shouldn't do, like not to reach into the person's purse at the table next to you or not to eat rice with their fingers. It's important to also "catch them being good." Noticing and describing positive behaviors encourage preschoolers and give them a picture of what they should be doing.

Noticing desired behaviors works best when it is specific. Rather than saying, “You’re the best kid in the whole world,” say, “I noticed how you brought your dishes to the sink when you were finished eating.” Then, praise them for that behavior.

Offer Choices

Preschoolers pride themselves on being independent "big kids." Letting them feel like they have some control over their lives can go a long way in improving behavior. Some kids, especially kids closer to age 3, will do better with fewer choices—two to three. Older preschoolers may be able to choose from more options, including choosing an outfit from their entire wardrobe or any snack that's healthy enough from the grocery store.

Use Time-Out or Time-In

If your little one gets worked up during a game of banana tag, they may need to take a break from the action before they can rejoin the fun. If they hit a sibling at home, you may need to keep the sibling safe by immediately separating the two of them.

Time out can be an effective discipline strategy because it communicates how serious an infraction was. It also gives kids a chance to calm down so they can be perceptive when you address the behavior with them. In general, kids need about a minute per year old they are for time out to be effective. So, a 3-year-old can sit for three minutes while a 4-year-old may need four minutes.

Create a peaceful time out area in your home. "If your child is having a bad day, give them a space where they can self-regulate and come back to joining family activities," advises Fraley. "The peace place can be filled with calming music, pillows, or books."

Some kids might do better with time-in, an adjusted time-out where you hold and comfort your child to help them regulate.

In time-in, you might go to a quiet, peaceful area and practice strategies like belly breathing. "We should be focusing on modeling appropriate behaviors and providing self-regulatory strategies," explains Sally Macaluso, a special education preschool teacher with more than 10 years of experience working in early childhood education. "Some people may expect young children to know how to do these things innately. But, that's not how it works."

Use a Sticker Chart

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) that they 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.

Use Logical Consequences

Sometimes the best way to respond to a behavior is to simply remove whatever caused it. If your preschooler threw a toy truck at their friend, the truck might go up on the shelf for the rest of the play date. Similarly, if they have an epic meltdown and refuse to go home when it's time to leave the park, you might need to go home right after school the following day and role play leaving the park calmly.

Consequences work best when they are logically related to the offense. Taking a toy away because your child keeps unbuckling his car seat isn't logical, but not being able to bring them along next time you take all your kids out for ice cream because you can't trust them to be safe in the car is.

Don't worry if your child doesn't seem upset "enough" at the consequence. Making kids feel bad doesn't make them learn more. "The reality is that our preschoolers are not misbehaving or acting out to purposely get a rise out of us," explains Macaluso. "The goal of discipline is to teach, not to punish."

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 of 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.

Establish Healthy 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.

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.

Remember to 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.

Provide Alternatives

When your 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 the baby grabs your toy, what could you do instead of pushing him?”

A Word From Verywell

Preschoolers are imaginative and they are learning to get along with other people. They may struggle with testing limits and some are still working on self-control. Teach kids this age exactly what you want them to do, and praise them when they get it right. No matter how naughty they may be at times, they still want to please you.

Discipline strategies work best when they are used in a loving and consistent way. Remember also that your preschool needs their basic needs met: healthy foods, plenty of playtimes, and a solid amount of sleep all go a long way in improving behavior.

Originally written by
Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.
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