7 Positive Ways to Discipline Children in Foster Care

Little boy sitting with folded arms on the couch in time-out

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Abuse, neglect, and trauma can lead to a variety of emotional and behavioral issues for children living in foster care. As a result, foster parents need to give careful consideration to the type of discipline they employ.

Many children in foster care have been exposed to domestic violence, physical abuse, or emotional abuse prior to being placed in foster care. To help them feel safe and secure in their foster homes, most regulating agencies prohibit foster parents from using corporal punishment. 

Children in foster care need the positive discipline that teaches them new skills. Many of them lack problem-solving skills, healthy coping skills, and emotion regulation skills—all of which can lead to misbehavior. So, create a behavior plan that will help your foster child learn the skills they need to reach their greatest potential.

Discipline Techniques

Here are a few general discipline techniques that can be effective for children in foster care.

Ignore Mild Misbehavior

It’s important to choose your battles wisely. Focus on the most problematic behaviors first and be willing to ignore less serious behaviors—like interrupting or a lack of table manners—until you've got the big ones under control.

Provide plenty of positive attention.

Spend one-on-one time together each day to build trust, which is an essential component of any healthy relationship. Have fun together and you’ll likely prevent a lot of attention-seeking behaviors.

Praise Good Behavior

Praise is a powerful tool that can reinforce good behavior. Catch your child being good and point out the specific behavior you appreciate.

Whether they are playing quietly with blocks, using good manners, or following directions nicely, praising their efforts will give them an incentive to continue. Pointing out good behavior also helps them understand your expectations better.

Use Grandma’s Rule of Discipline

Grandma’s rule of discipline gives children in foster care a sense of control, which is critical for kids who have little control over most aspects of their lives.

Grandma’s rule of discipline involves framing things as an incentive rather than pointing out the negative consequence.

Rather than say, "No TV until you put your toys away," say, “When you finish putting your blocks away, you can watch TV.” That slight difference in the way you word your statement will show your child they have control over how and when they earn privileges.

It's also important to offer a couple of simple choices. Ask, "Do you want peas or carrots with chicken?" or "Do you want to do your math homework or clean your room first?" Allowing kids to assert themselves in simple, healthy ways can help them feel like they have some say in their life.

Redirect Attention

Use a younger child’s short attention span to your advantage. If they are banging their blocks together loudly and you want them to stop, invite them to help you put the dishes away.

Similarly, if they are yelling because you said they can't go to the park, remind them of something you’re planning to do tomorrow. Redirection can avoid a lot of power struggles.

Offer Rewards

Reward systems can be very effective with children in foster care. A young child may do well with a sticker chart and an older child could benefit from a token economy system.

Invest time in learning what type of rewards will motivate your child.

And make sure your child sees it as a reward plan, not a punitive plan that causes them to lose privileges.

Use Time-Outs

When it's done correctly, time-out removes positive reinforcement and gives a child a short break from an environment that may be overstimulating. Knowing how to step away when you're feeling overwhelmed is a skill that children can use throughout their lives, even into adulthood.

Use time-out sparingly with foster children, however. Many of these children come from environments where they were neglected, ignored, or hurt. Time-out may be seen as another pushing-away behavior. Instead, consider time-in and teaching self-soothing in order to help the child regulate with you nearby.

Remove Privileges

Taking away privileges can also serve as an effective teaching tool. It’s important to learn about what types of privileges will be most effective with your child. While taking away TV time may work for some kids, removing a specific toy may be most effective for others.

Working With Your Foster Child's Team

When specific behavior problems arise, work with your foster child’s guardian, case manager, therapist, and other caretakers to identify the best strategies for intervention. 

Consistency is often the key to helping children in foster care learn the skills they need to manage their behavior.

The treatment team will also be able to help you identify a plan that will specifically address a foster child's mental health and behavioral needs. Children who have been abused or neglected are at a much higher risk of developing issues that will affect their behavior, such as disinhibited social engagement disorder. Children in foster care require a discipline plan tailored to their specific needs.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Spielfogel JE, Leathers SJ, Christian E, McMeel LS. Parent management training, relationships with agency staff, and child mental health: Urban foster parents' perspectivesChild Youth Serv Rev. 2011;33(11):2366-2374. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2011.08.008

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. What’s the best way to discipline my child?.

  3. Scott HK, Cogburn M. Behavior modification. In: StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. Positive reinforcement through rewards.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. How to give a time-out.

  6. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington D.C.: 2013.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.