Discipline in the Younger Child


We try to create an environment that is supportive and respectful of the child’s needs.  We use different methods of discipline for different situations. Children will not be subjected to discipline that is severe, humiliating or frightening. Discipline will not be associated with food, rest or toileting. Spanking or any other form of corporal punishment is prohibited. Our goal is to help each child develop a strong sense of self-discipline and self-esteem.



Discipline in the Younger Child

As a Preschool Teacher, one of the most frequent questions I am asked is, “How do you handle discipline in your classroom?” I have never found a short answer because I think the most important aspect of discipline is to understand the underlying cause of what are commonly referred to as “discipline problems.” This comes through a grasp of normal child development.


Children go through phases during the first seven-year cycle-phases that can be challenging. They generally come around the ages of 2, 4, and 6. These are times when, through their actions, children make strong statements of their own separate identity. A two-year-old is in some way separating herself from her mother when she yells “No!” and stamps her feet. She is saying, “I am an individual here! I am different from you!” A four-year-old separates himself from his peers by declarations such as, “I am older than you!” or “I am stronger than you are.” And a six-year-old declares her independence from her teacher by making a plan to play a trick and then actually keeping it a secret from the teacher.    


A closer look at the four-year-olds reveals that they tend to define themselves in comparison with others. They are very aware of who is older, younger, smaller, taller, etc. They are interested in physical strength and how much of it they have. Sometimes their games can get very rough as they experiment with how much impact they can have on the world around them. A lot of their play involves relationships, and they want to know how much they can influence and control others. “How much power do I have?” seems to be their burning question. In essence, they are searching for their own boundaries. Children learn by doing. I have never found it possible to short-cut their learning process by explaining things in advance. In other words, they aren’t going to learn about a boundary until they bump into it (or on a rare occasion until they watch someone else bump into it).


I think there is a huge difference between a “discipline problem” and a child who is experimenting with a boundary. A discipline problem implies that a child has done something bad. If children are testing limits, their specific behaviors might be unacceptable but the underlying process may be good and healthy. How can we support a child’s process and still make it known that certain behaviors are unacceptable? For me, the best way to do this is to be really clear within myself-clear about where the child in his or her own development and clear about my own expectations for the child. I do expect all children in my classroom to sit and eat snack together, for example. I know that almost every child will challenge that sometime during the year. At those times it is important for me to be firm that, “Yes, this is my expectation,” but this should be without any anger inside myself that can come if I fail to understand how important this process is for the child. If I get angry, the child reacts to my anger and the process gets confused. It’s no simple challenge of a rule. On the other hand, since the child is really in search of a boundary, if I fail to enforce my rule, he or she will keep pushing until a boundary is found somewhere. It is much simpler to state my boundary clearly and stick to it.


Rarely have I seen confrontation avoided by giving in. Children will continue to push until they find the border of tolerance. There will be a brief challenge at the border just to make sure that it is a firm boundary, and then the child can relax. They are much more secure within clear boundaries. If I can see the behavior as an attempt to find and test their own limits, I can help them build strength and a sense of trust in the adults around them.


Children learn also through repletion, and so it is important to be consistent and ready to do the same thing over and over again. As the child matures, the way I insist that my expectations be met changes. With a four-year-old, stating the expectation clearly in broad terms like, “We all sit and eat snack together,” is usually enough. On rare occasions there needs to be consequences if the child doesn’t comply. Again, these are stated in broad general terms, “Children who can’t join the snack table can’t join playtime either.” The need for this is rare. But a six-year-old will often need things to be direct and personal, with clear consequences, if they don’t comply.


Another important aspect of discipline in the classroom is a balanced, predictable schedule. Younger children especially need lots of “breathing out” time when they can play their own games. These unstructured times, when the boundaries are looser, balance the times that are more focused, when more is required of the child.


Once these normal stages of development are understood, it is easier to identify behavior in a child that indicates a specific problem or need, such as a hearing problems, sickness or difficulty adjusting to a life situation. In these cases, it is not enough to be consistent and firm. Some extra work is needed to get to the root cause of the problem.


In my classroom, if the children can first and foremost experience my love and respect for them as developing individuals – if they know that I have clear expectations of them that they can meet – and if they know that their experimentation will not be held against them, then I have a good “discipline policy.”

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