“The true meaning of discipline is to learn or teach.”1
Now Is the Right Time!
Three- and four-year-olds are aware that they are their own individual person, and they can do some things without the assistance of an adult. They also are experiencing many feelings and are learning to understand how to express them.
Children ages three to four are seeking more independence and will naturally test limits and break rules. This is a normal part of their development and necessary for their learning.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can choose to be purposeful and deliberate in the ways you provide guidance and discipline. Guidance and discipline for skill building can help your child actively develop self-awareness — “the ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior.”2 Self-awareness is a fundamental ingredient of self-management — “the ability to manage thoughts, feelings and actions, control impulses, persist toward goals, and manage stress.”2 These skills grow your child’s sense of responsibility all the while improving your relationship.
Some parents and those in a parenting role feel that if they do not impose punishments, their child will not understand that their behavior was inappropriate. In fact, when a child is punished, they often feel scared, humiliated, and hurt. This overwhelming sense of fear or hurt impacts their relationship with you and does not teach them the appropriate behavior. Your child is likely to miss the lesson you want to emphasize entirely and feel unsafe.
Three- and four-year-olds are also beginning to empathize with others — to view thoughts and feelings from another person’s perspective. Empathy is also an essential ingredient of self-management. Children need to learn that their actions have an impact on others around them. This is developed over time and requires a lot of practice.
Research confirms that when young children learn to understand their feelings, they are better able to manage their behavior, problem solve, and focus their attention.3 This directly impacts their school readiness and ability to follow rules. Children need the guidance and support of caring adults to learn these skills.
Guidance and discipline for skill building is challenging for many parents.4 Approaching guidance and discipline for skill building as teachable moments to grow your child’s skills can be transformational in your understanding of discipline and can enrich your relationship with your child. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters.
Why Guidance and Discipline for Skill Building?
When your three-year-old is crying angrily in frustration and envy over their sister’s new toys or your four-year-old is refusing to go to bed, these situations are opportunities to provide guidance and discipline for skill building.
Today, in the short term, guidance and discipline for skill building can create
- a growing understanding of rules and expectations;
- a greater understanding in you of the connection between your child’s feelings and their behaviors;
- a sense of confidence that you can help your child regain calm and focus;
- trust in yourself that you have the competence to manage your intense feelings; and
- opportunities for connection and enjoyment as you work together to care for each other.
Tomorrow, in the long term, guidance and discipline for skill building helps your child
- build skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making;
- learn independence and self-sufficiency; and
- build assertive communication to express needs and boundaries, critical for keeping them safe.
This five-step process helps you guide and discipline to build skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not upset, too tired, or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
“Too many children who have problems with behavior also have problems with accurately labeling their feelings.”5
Children’s behaviors are often influenced by their feelings. Feelings are spontaneous reactions to people, places, and experiences.6,7 Feelings are not right or wrong, but what your child does with the feeling may be appropriate or inappropriate.
You can help your child start understanding their feelings by asking open-ended questions. In gaining input:
- You can transform an unsafe or inappropriate behavior into a teachable moment by uncovering your child’s feelings.
- You can better understand why your child is behaving in a certain way.
- You can begin to teach your child how to understand their own feelings, which will help them manage their own behaviors.
- You can grow their self-control, social awareness, and problem-solving skills.
Before you can get input from your child to understand (and help them understand) what they are feeling, you both need to be calm. Your child will not learn from the situation if you or they are upset.
- Ask yourself if your child is hungry or tired. You could offer a snack or transition to a nap.
- Check on how you are feeling. If you are angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed, take a “parenting time out” and take several deep breaths (it really does help) or sit quietly for a few minutes.
- If basic needs like hunger or tiredness are not issues for your child, then take additional steps to help them calm down. This might involve offering a hug, helping them take deep breaths, or holding a blanket or stuffed animal.
Three- and four-year-olds are learning to understand their feelings. They are also just beginning to understand other people’s feelings and how their own actions affect others. They will need your support in figuring all this out. When both you and your child are calm, reflect on your child’s feelings so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself:
- “Does my child have an unmet need?” They might need someone to listen or give them attention, some alone time, or some help so they can be successful at something they are trying to do.
- You can ask them about how they are feeling.
- “I noticed your face got really red and your forehead got all scrunched up. So, when you threw the toy, were you feeling frustrated?”
- “I saw you dropped your popsicle on the ground. I wonder if you are feeling sad?”
- At bedtime, they seem to be stalling by asking for another drink or a snack, you could ask, “Are you feeling scared?”
- You can also ask them about how they think others might be feeling.
- “Your sister cried when you took the toy. How might she be feeling?”
- “When your friend didn’t get to take their turn, how do you think they were feeling?”
- “When you said that to me, how do you think that made me feel?”
Avoid letting the question turn into an accusation. Remember to stay calm and that the goal of the question is to help the child uncover feelings.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
The fundamental purpose of guidance and discipline for skill building is to grow new skills and behaviors to replace inappropriate ones. Learning new skills and behaviors requires modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Learning how to understand your own feelings and behaviors when your child behaves inappropriately is a great way to start. It will help you understand what they are learning to do. You might ask yourself:
- “Do I get angry when they do a certain behavior?”
- “How do I respond to my anger?”
- “How do I want my child to respond when they feel angry?”
Learning about your child’s developmental milestones can help you have reasonable expectations for your child. Here are some examples:
- 3-4-year-olds are aware of their separateness from others. This awareness can lead to testing boundaries as they attempt to assert themselves and exert control.
- 3-4-year-olds are interested in demonstrating their independence though they are still learning everyday skills like putting on shoes or fastening a coat. This can lead to frustrations as they are not fully capable of acting independently.
- 3-4-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
- 3-4-year-olds are able to show a wider range of emotions.
- 3-4-year-olds can carry a conversation offering two to three sentences and are developing an emotional vocabulary. They are learning to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes time to develop.
- 3-4-year-olds may still struggle with asserting their needs or communicating when upset and may still throw a tantrum to express their anger or frustration.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.4
It can be easy for parents or those in a parenting role to immediately address the underlying feelings with a simple “No” or other short answer. For example,
- When a child is excited, instead of saying, “Calm down,” shift to “Let’s go outside and run.”
- When a child is angry, instead of saying, “You shouldn’t be mad,” shift to “I see you are angry; let’s try taking deep breaths.”
- When a child is frustrated, instead of saying, “Here, let me do it,” shift to “This can be hard. Do you want some help?”
- Teach your child positive behaviors. Each time your child acts inappropriately, ask yourself what positive behavior you need to teach and practice that can replace the inappropriate behavior.
- Play the “feel better” game. At a calm time, ask “What helps you feel better when you’re sad, mad, or hurt?” Share ideas like taking deep breaths, getting a drink of water, taking a walk, or asking for a hug.
- Teach positive ways to ask for attention. It’s easy to get into a habit of pointing out what children are not doing right. When children are behaving inappropriately to get attention, they have not yet learned how to get attention in positive ways. Consider how your child can seek your attention in acceptable ways. Then, actively teach these kinds of attention-getting behaviors. Would you like your child to say a polite “Excuse me” when they need you and you’re engaged in a conversation? If so, practice as a family. Do a dry run so that all are comfortable and then reinforce that positive behavior to create more of the same.
- Model assertive communication through I-messages. Here’s an example: “I feel (insert feeling word) when you (name the words or actions that upset you) because (state the impact).” Here’s an example: “I feel sad when you won’t share your toys with others because it hurts their feelings.” This helps you take responsibility for your feelings while avoiding blaming language like “You did…” (which closes down the mind and ears of the other). It helps communicate the problem constructively.
- Begin to teach your child to repair harm. A critical step in teaching children about managing anger is learning how to repair harm when they’ve caused it. Harm could be physical like breaking something or emotional like hurting someone’s feelings. Mistakes are a critical aspect of their social learning. We all have our moments when we hurt another. But, it’s that next step that matters in repairing the relationship. A 3-4-year-old will not be able to repair harm on their own, but you can help them by checking in with someone they may have harmed and asking if they are OK.
- End the day with love. When children behave inappropriately during the day, they often end the day feeling badly about themselves. Children tie your love to their behavior. If you act proud of them, they feel loved. If you are disappointed or mad at them, they feel unloved. Be sure that you spend one-on-one time with your child if they have had rough patches that day. This teaches them that they are loved no matter what choices they make. It encourages them to practice new ways of behaving.
- Work on your family feelings vocabulary. Three-year-olds are only beginning to learn about feelings. Notice and name feelings each chance a family member is showing an expression to offer plenty of practice. Ask, don’t tell. “Dad, you look sad. Is that right?” Being able to identify emotions is the first step in successfully managing emotions.
- Create a calm down space. During playtime or time without pressure, design a “safe base” or place where your child decides they would like to go when they are upset to feel better. Maybe their calm down space is a beanbag chair, a blanket, or special carpet in the family room. Then, think through together what items you might place there to help them calm down. The only way this space serves as a tool for parents to promote their children’s self-management skills is if they allow a child to self-select the calm down space. You can and should practice using it and gently remind them of it when they are upset. “Would your calm down space help you feel better?” you might ask. But if that space is ever used as a punishment or a directive – “Go to your calm down space!” – the control lies in the parents and no longer in the child, and the opportunity for skill building is lost.
Create a ritual of sharing words of love and care at bedtime. Consider that ending the day reflecting on how much you appreciate one another could just be the best way to send your child off to sleep.
Play feelings guessing games with the family. At a meal, share facial expressions showing a range of emotions and guess what they are.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively completing the task together, or trying out a task with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is necessary for children to learn new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child performs the new action.
- Accept feelings. If you are going to help your child manage their biggest feelings, it is important to acknowledge and accept their feelings – even ones you don’t like. When your child is upset, consider your response. Instead of focusing on their actions or the problem, focus on their feelings FIRST. You could say, “Are you upset? Would your blanket help you feel better? What can you do to help yourself feel better?” Then, focus on teaching and practicing better behavior.
- Use “Show me…” statements. When a child learns a new skill, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say: “Show me how you can ask for attention” or “Show me how you can share your toys with your friend.” This practice will prepare your child to use the new skill when they require your attention.
- Offer two real choices. Particularly for a child who is seeking independence, offering them a choice, even if small like “Do you want to play outside or inside?” or “Do you want an apple or a banana for a snack?” can return a sense of control to their lives. It also offers valuable practice in responsible decision making.
- As your child is exerting effort to seek independence, ask them for help. Engage your child side by side in taking action together to make things better. For example, they could help you fold some laundry or dust.
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple way to assist your child anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get in plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!8
- Blowing Out Birthday Candles Breathing. You can pretend you are blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Just the image in your head of a birthday cake brings about happy thoughts. And in order to blow out a number of small flames, you have to take in deep breaths.
- Teddy Bear Belly Breathing. Balance a teddy bear on your child’s tummy and give it a ride with the rising and falling of their breath. This would be ideal to practice during your bedtime routine when you are lying down and wanting to calm down for the evening.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your child has caused harm, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through to repair it. They may need to hold your hand through that process, and that’s okay! They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
- Include reflections on the day in your bedtime routine. You might ask, “What did you like about today?” or “What were you most proud of?” or “What are you looking forward to tomorrow?” You should answer the questions as well. Children may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day, yet grateful thoughts are a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child some new strategies. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You are going to preschool today. Do you remember what you can do if you feel angry or sad?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present new opportunities and challenges and along with them, stress, frustrations, and anger.
- Encourage friendships. Playmates can be an invaluable source of joy and support for your child.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should follow soon after an inappropriate behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process and avoiding harm.
- First, get your own emotions in check. This is good modeling, and when your emotions are in check, you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. For example, if your child does not pick up their toys after you asked them to and gave them some time, take some deep breaths and avoid getting angry yourself.
- Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2 about this behavior. Following the same example, ask your child if they remember what they need to do when it is time to clean up their toys.
- Third, apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment. For example, you might take away their privilege to play with those toys because they did not take appropriate steps to put them away. Remember, the goal is not to punish the child, but rather to have a logical consequence like “I can’t play with a toy if I don’t clean up when asked.”
Use reminders and choices. Give your child a five-minute reminder before an activity will end. “In five minutes, it is time to clean up.” Use choices to increase their sense of independence. “You can clean up your toys now, or I can put them away for the rest of the day. Which do you want?” If your child doesn’t choose, you choose. Think about your tone of voice and be aware of how you can soften it when you speak to your child. A logical consequence should not be a threat or a punishment.
Learning new behaviors to replace inappropriate behaviors takes time. Your 3-4-year-old will likely not do it right the first time (or even second or third!). That’s OK. What’s important is that you approach guidance and discipline for skill building by understanding feelings, teaching new behaviors, and practicing all the while maintaining a healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your child. Your healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your child is what is most important.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your child manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior you want to see more of. For example, “You shared your toy — love seeing that!” or “You picked up your toys when it was time — I am super proud of you!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying “If you are good in the store, you get to pick out a toy at the checkout” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were a big helper in the store today. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child is using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed when you got angry, you told me about it, and we took some deep breaths together. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.