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Back to basics
Guiding preschoolers


Between the ages of 3 and 6, children begin to develop the ability to regulate their own behaviors. This is the starting point of self-discipline, the ability to consider an action and determine whether it is one that is socially and emotionally appropriate. In contrast to infants and toddlers, preschoolers have increasing self-awareness as autonomous or independent thinkers and actors. Often this independence invites behavioral missteps—actions that can interfere with the health and safety of the child, other people, or the environment.


Use positive guidance
Practice these strategies when behavioral missteps occur.
Give more attention to positive, acceptable behaviors and less to the missteps or negative behaviors. Catch—and acknowledge—children doing the right thing.
Listen reflectively. Give children your full attention and respond not only to words but also to body language in the conversation.
Treat missteps as learning opportunities. Make sure materials and equipment are appropriate to the skills and interests of the children.
Set clear limits. Make sure rules are short, deliberate, consistent, and enforceable.
Identify underlying causes of behavioral missteps.
Explain the reasons behind classroom rules. Use clear, specific, and understandable language to make sure the children understand what you expect.
Use natural and logical consequences for behavioral missteps.


Natural consequences happen without intervention. For example, a child’s attempt to pour milk from a heavy pitcher into a light plastic cup often results in spills. Tweak the environment by offering children small pitchers of milk, showing how to hold the pitcher with two hands, and encouraging the assistance of another child to steady the cup. Similarly, moving too quickly across a wet floor will likely result in slips and falls. Rather than giving reprimands and admonishments, help children associate the danger with its natural consequence—and build strategies to minimize dangers.

Logical consequences are put in place by adults to help children associate their behavioral missteps with an unpleasant or undesirable intervention. For example, when Jenny deliberately paints the table instead of her paper, her teacher describes the misstep and directs Jenny to the sponge so that she can scrub the table clean. Logical consequences are related to the misstep, reasonable, respectful, and immediate.

In the scenario above, it would be ineffective to bar Jenny from the art center for a month (unreasonable), shame her at circle time (disrespectful), have her put the blocks away properly (unrelated), or have Jenny clean the table two days later (not immediate). Logical consequences must give children positive opportunities to fix what they have damaged; lecturing ruins this lesson. A logical consequence is ineffective when it’s a veiled form of punishment and reprimand.


Rethink time out
While time away from the group is often a teacher’s first response to a child’s behavioral missteps, it is neither a natural nor a logical consequence. It doesn’t work to help a child associate a misbehavior with one that’s socially acceptable. Hitting another child, for example, may send Nico to the time-out chair but it doesn’t help him recognize or choose an alternative behavior.

If you use time out—removing a child from an overwhelming situation—be mindful of these guidelines:
Avoid using time away with children younger than 3 years. They don’t yet have the skills to associate the behavioral misstep with this consequence.
Make sure there is an adult with the child during the time away—to soothe, talk, regain composure, and plan alternative behaviors.
Recognize that time out is ineffective if it’s used as a punishment (“Enough! Go to time out) or a threat (“If you do that again, you’re going to time out”).

Experienced teachers rely on effective guidance strategies to help support the emotional and social development of children. Remember, the goal of guidance is to help children take responsibility for their own behaviors—immediately and in the future.