Understanding preschool behaviour

By: Christine Langlois

Author: Canadian Living


Understanding preschool behaviour

By: Christine Langlois

Behaving appropriately
As your child moves through her third year, she has better verbal skills to say what she wants and express how she feels, which should reduce her frustration so that she doesn't resort to tantrums to communicate. But the improved verbal skills may seem like a mixed blessing to a parent on the receiving end of the communication. A preschooler with a better memory and stronger verbal skills is persistent about what she wants, whether it's a snack right after lunch, a treat at the grocery-store checkout, or a visit with her new friend down the street even if it's 6:30 in the morning.

Distracting her won't work as well now and, although you've told her No, you may find her quite adept at arguing her point of view over and over, in an annoying high-pitched voice. When she starts to whine or wheedle this way, tell her that you won't listen until you hear her "big girl" voice, then tune her out. When she talks to you in a normal voice again, give her lots of attention. If you find that she often whines, consider whether she is getting enough sleep -- when children are tired, they're often more whiny.

A growing conscience
Because your child's imagination is such a powerful force within him, he will sometimes mix fantasy with reality and tell wild stories. You might become concerned that your child is "lying," but a preschooler can't yet understand what "truth" is. That will come between his sixth and eighth birthdays. Don't punish your child or try to make him feel guilty for telling stories. But do explain the difference between his version and reality. Let him know that sometimes telling stories hurts people and that it is always better to tell the truth.

By the time your preschooler is four, he'll begin to be interested in pleasing you -- which will no doubt please you! This is the beginning of a developing conscience. Your child will start to understand how his behaviour affects what others feel about him. He learns about being a friend and about what happens when he does something that makes another person feel happy or feel hurt. And if you displease him, you might hear, "I'm not your friend anymore!" You may also become more conscious of being a role model for your child. As he grapples with how to treat his new friends, how to decide what is the truth, or how he should behave when he's angry, he'll watch you closely for pointers.

As your child becomes more interested in what you think, your praise becomes a stronger tool for moulding her behaviour. But you still need to set limits and enforce rules with consistency. The mechanics of how you discipline your child will evolve as she grows -- the rules will change and the consequences of breaking them will change. But the goal of your discipline won't change: you want to teach your child your values and morals.

It's good to remember what you're trying to achieve when you discipline your child. You're not trying to teach him to follow orders, to do whatever he's told as soon as he's told. Instead, you're teaching your child to take responsibility for his behaviour, to care for and respect others, to manage his anger, to develop self-discipline, to embrace life and all its opportunities. That kind of teaching is going to take a long time -- about another 10 or 15 years, on average.

Page 1 of 3

Setting limits
Some parents find it difficult to discipline their children. They don't want their kids to be angry with them or to be unhappy. If they believe that their children need every opportunity for self-expression, the parents may not want to limit their behaviour in any way. In some families, both parents are so busy that discipline, which takes time and consistency to be effective, gets lost in the rush.

But for their healthy development, kids need their mother and father to embrace this responsibility, to set rules, boundaries and standards of conduct. If you treat your children like your peers, granting them the same freedoms and choices you have as adults, not only will they feel insecure in the face of so many choices, but they may also eventually lose respect for you. Firm and consistent parental guidance is important to children, and kids welcome it, although they may not always acknowledge it. Even though your children appear to resent your refusal to let them do particular things, they will be more anxious if you don't set limits.

Redirection and consequences
With their improved memory and ability to make links, preschoolers benefit from the consistent application of clear consequences to forbidden actions. If your preschooler draws on the wall with her coloured crayons, you may first redirect her by giving her a sheet of paper on which she can draw. Then you give her an explanation. You tell her that, in your family, you don't draw pictures on walls; you draw pictures on paper and then put the paper pictures on the walls. If she does it again, don't nag or lecture. Just give her the explanation again and take away the crayons.

It's so tempting to nag: "I told you not to do that. Look at the mess. Now how are we going to get that off? Why would you do that, anyway?" But first of all, you're wasting your breath because she's not ready to understand what you say -- What mess? It's my work! Why would you want to remove it? -- and second, you may actually make the situation worse. Some experts consider that lecturing a three-year-old is counterproductive.

Page 2 of 3

Praise and approval
Your most powerful motivator for good behaviour is approval. Instead of catching your child doing something wrong, catch her doing something right. Let her know you approve of something she did. It will increase her self-esteem. If, the day after Amy has drawn on the wall with crayons, she gets out a sheet of paper to draw another picture, be unstinting with your praise: "That's really wonderful, Amy. I really like that you drew your picture on paper. It's really grown-up of you to know that you should use your crayons on paper. Where should we hang this picture so everyone can see it?"

The practice of taking time out is one way of removing your child from the scene of inappropriate behaviour. It lets her calm down and think about what has just happened. The Canadian Paediatric Society suggests that the best way to make time-outs effective includes:

• Picking the right place. There should be no built-in rewards, like toys or a television, in the time-out place.

• Keeping the time-out short. It should be three minutes for a three-year-old, four minutes for a four-year-old and five-minutes for a five-year-old. Time-outs should last no more than five minutes. Use your kitchen timer.

• Explaining the connection between the behaviour and the time-out.

• Not using the time-out to preach or lecture.

Here's how it works. Your four-year-old slaps his just-crawling baby brother for grabbing at his truck. First you comfort the baby (the victim should always get your positive attention first). Then you tell your four-year-old that, in your family, hitting is wrong and, if you do hit someone, you need to calm down in a time-out and think of other things to do in the situation. Then you set the kitchen timer and you send him off to sit in a chair (or wherever you've chosen as the time-out place). When the timer rings, he's free. Don't demand that he give you a list of other things he should have done. Let the situation go, and move on.

Concordia University developmental psychologist Nina Howe suggests a different way, so that the adult is the one who takes the time-out. "Sometimes when they are just driving me nuts and I think I'm going to lose it, I've said to my kids, 'I'm taking a time-out. It's a time for me to go and quieten down and back off a little bit.' That usually puts them into shock. They think, 'Oh, oh. This must be serious.' I go away, and then I can come back and talk about what's happened with them."

Page 3 of 3

Share X

Understanding preschool behaviour