A to Z’s of Early Childhood
The science of child development and learning
D is for Discipline
The Power of Positive Discipline
Young children need guidance to learn which behaviors are appropriate or desired in certain activities, times, or places and which are not. For example, it might be appropriate to run on the playground when playing with friends, but it is not safe to run in the grocery store or a preschool classroom.
The word “discipline” comes from Latin, meaning to teach or guide1. Discipline is often confused with the use of punishment to deal with challenging behavior, but there are positive discipline strategies for reducing challenging behavior and building desired behavior.
What are positive discipline strategies that can be used to prevent challenging behavior and help young children learn when certain behaviors are expected and appropriate and when they are not? When challenging behavior occurs, what positive discipline strategies can you use?
Strategies to Prevent and Respond to Challenging Behavior
Strategies to Prevent Challenging Behavior:
Use the 3 positive discipline strategies below to prevent challenging behavior and as a foundation for addressing challenging behavior when it occurs.
Parents, other caregivers, and practitioners need to decide what behaviors are appropriate or desired in certain activities, times, or places and help young children learn about which behaviors are appropriate or desired during these certain times and situations. Behavior expectations are based on family, school, and community values.
Once expected behaviors are identified, clearly tell children the expectations by saying or showing them what they should do rather than what they should not do. Whenever possible, describe or demonstrate expectations during and in advance of situations.
Young children need to know which of the many behaviors they are doing in a situation are the expected or appropriate ones. When children do an expected or appropriate behavior, provide descriptive praise, positive attention, or positive reinforcement like giving access to a preferred toy, food, or activity. Be immediate, positive, and consistent. This increases the likelihood children will do these behaviors again in the future in similar situations.
Strategies to Respond to Challenging Behavior:
Young children sometimes engage in challenging behavior because they are still learning which behaviors are expected or appropriate and which behaviors are not. Here are 3 positive discipline strategies for responding to challenging behavior when it occurs.
Young children might not always remember behavior expectations, even for things they do often. When children’s behavior is not consistent with expectations in certain situations, use a calm voice to remind them what to do rather than what not to do. This helps them learn what to do so they will be more likely to do the expected behavior next time.
When challenging behavior occurs, try directing children’s attention away from the challenging behavior to a more appropriate behavior. This can be a direction that tells them what to do within the activity. It might also be changing the activity or task or providing a choice about what to do.
It is best to ignore challenging behavior if children are safe. When possible, wait until the challenging behavior is not happening and then give descriptive praise, positive attention, or positive reinforcement when you see positive behavior. This helps children learn they will gain your attention or get things they want when they are using appropriate behaviors. Give positives for small steps towards expected or appropriate behaviors.
What to do When Challenging Behavior Continues and Interferes Significantly With Daily Life
When challenging behavior continues to occur even when the positive discipline strategies described above are used consistently, it may be appropriate to use negative consequences to decrease the challenging behavior. Using negative consequence strategies (what some call punishment) to respond to challenging behavior is often equated to discipline, but these are not good strategies for helping children learn positive behavior. Negative consequences do not teach expected or appropriate behaviors and are often associated with side effects of emotional upset and attempts to avoid or escape the situation or the person who is giving the negative consequences.
A consequence is something that happens immediately after a behavior. When provided consistently, logical negative consequences for challenging behavior help children learn what they will lose or not be able to do as a result of their challenging behavior.
To use this strategy, move the child into a quiet space for a short time (maybe 1-2 minutes) and ignore the challenging behavior until the child has calmed down. Then allow the child to return to the positive environment or situation only if the challenging behavior has stopped. This strategy will only be effective if the child does not want to escape or avoid the environment or situation where the challenging behavior is happening. If the child does want to escape or avoid the environment or situation, removing her or him will actually increase the likelihood that the challenging behavior will occur again in the future in the same environment or situation.
Structure the situation so the behavior cannot occur by removing the child from the situation (e.g., take the child into the house if he or she is running into the street), blocking access (e.g., to a hot stove), or adding barriers (e.g., cover the corners of a table with soft padding if a child is jumping or running in the house). Observe and stop dangerous or threatening behavior immediately. When positive behavior occurs, use positive discipline strategies to teach expected replacement behaviors. Children cannot do a dangerous or threatening behavior at the same time they are doing an expected or appropriate behavior.
Where to Go for Help
If challenging behavior continues and significantly interferes with daily activities, learning, or the children’s interactions with others, ask for help. There are behavior specialists who can help find out why challenging behavior is continuing and provide additional strategies to address challenging behavior at home or at school. You can search a registry of specialists in your area. You can also ask a pediatrician or an early education and care provider what resources are available to help address challenging behaviors that are persistent and intense.
What We Know About Discipline
There are evidence-based ways to provide positive discipline to help children learn behavioral expectations and to prevent or reduce challenging behavior.1,2,3
The American Academy of Pediatrics has a position statement that corporal punishment, yelling at children, and shaming children is not effective in the long-term and can have harmful effects on children’s growth and development.1
Corporal punishment or harsh discipline, such as spanking, has been shown:
- to be associated with increased aggression in preschool children.4
- to have detrimental effects on children’s development and learning.5
- to be minimally effective at eliminating challenging behavior.6
What We Are Doing
The Anita Zucker Center is helping families and practitioners learn to use positive behavior supports and positive discipline strategies.
Articles by Center Faculty and Collaborators
- Teachers’ Use of Effective Instructional Practices to Promote Positive Outcomes for Young Children with Behavior Challenges (Practitioner Article)
- A Classroom-Wide Model for Promoting Social Emotional Development and Addressing Challenging Behavior in Preschool Children (Research Brief)
- Outcomes of the BEST in CLASS Intervention on Teachers’ Use of Effective Practices, Self-Efficacy, and Classroom Quality (Research Article)
- Identifying Common Practice Elements to Improve Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Outcomes of Young Children in Early Childhood Classrooms (Research Article)
- Evaluating the Implementation of the Pyramid Model for Promoting Social-Emotional Competence in Early Childhood Classrooms (Research Article)
- Prevention and Intervention with Young Children’s Challenging Behavior: Perspectives Regarding Current Knowledge (Research Article)
- Reducing Child Problem Behaviors: A Randomized Controlled Trial of BEST in CLASS (Research Article)
- Using Choice and Preference to Promote Improved Behavior
- Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center 15-Minute In-Service Suite: Redirecting Behavior
- Tips for Families-Redirecting Behavior
- What are Children Trying to Tell Us?: Addressing the Function of Their Behavior
- Logical Consequences
- Positive Solutions for Families
- Prevent-Teach-Reinforce for Young Children (Book)
- Prevent-Teach-Reinforce for Families (Book)
- The Power of Positive Parenting (Book)
- American Academy of Pediatrics Position Statement on Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children
- Division for Early Childhood Position Statement on Challenging Behavior and Young Children
- Behavior Analyst Certification Board-Registry
- Sege, R.D., Siegel, B.S., & AAP Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, AAP Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. (2018). Effective discipline to raise healthy children. Pediatrics, 142 (6), e20183112. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-3112
- Dunlap, G., Strain, P. S., Fox, L., Carta, J. J., Conroy, M., Smith, B. J… Sowell, C. (2006). Prevention and intervention with young children’s challenging behavior: Perspectives regarding current knowledge. Behavioral Disorders, 32, 29-45. doi.org/10.1177/019874290603200103
- Powell, D., Dunlap, G., & Fox, L. (2006). Prevention and intervention for the challenging behaviors of toddlers and preschoolers. Infants & Young Children, 19, 25-35.
- Maguire-Jack, K., Gromoske, A. N., & Berger, L. M. (2012). Spanking and child development during the first 5 years of life. Child Development, 83, 1960-1977. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01820.x
- Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Journal of Family Psychology, 30, 453-469. doi: 10.1037/fam0000191
- Holden, G. W., Williamson, P. A., & Holland, G. W. O. (2014). Eavesdropping on the family: A pilot investigation of corporal punishment in the home. Journal of Family Psychology, 28, 401-406. doi: 10.1037/a0036370
Dedicated to supporting the well-being of young children and their families, the Anita Zucker Center has engaged with its partners to launch an ambitious initiative designed to provide accessible and practical information about child development and learning to support parents, caregivers, professionals and policymakers.
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