Early Childhood Development and Child Discipline

If you have ever tried to sit down and reason with a toddler, you know that discipline has to be appropriate for the developmental age of the child 1. Toddlers do not reason well, but they do respond well to a time out. On the other hand, a preschooler has the ability to reason about the effects of his actions. Understanding child development, and how it relates to discipline, will help you make better decisions as you point your little people toward positive behavior choices.

Discipline Strategies for Young Children

Young children are not able to respond to lengthy lectures about their behavior. According to J. Burton Banks, M.D., in the American Family Physician, a peer-reviewed journal from the American Academy of Family Physicians, positive reinforcement is one of the most effective methods with young children 1. Rewarding positive behavior helps breed more positive behavior. When wrong behavior needs to be corrected, extinction, or the elimination of inadvertent positive reinforcement, can work well. Ignoring a whining child or putting a misbehaving preschooler in a short time out are examples of extinction. Verbal reprimands can also be effective, but only if done sparingly and without anger.

Discipline for Older Babies

Developmentally, babies are tuned to explore their world using their five senses. Babies do not understand the cause and effect relationship between their behavior and a resulting action. Because of this, punishments, such as a time out, are not going to be effective. Rather, babies respond well to positive reinforcement. They naturally look for your smiling face and will continue behavior that brings that smile 1. If they are doing something that is dangerous or inappropriate, redirecting their behavior is the best course of action, according to Dr. Banks.

Discipline for Toddlers

Toddlers are a little better able to understand cause and effect. Between the ages of 1 and 3, children still respond to positive reinforcement and redirecting. However, if your child's behavior warrants a negative consequence, a time out can be quite effective at this age. A verbal explanation does little for young toddlers, but older toddlers can understand simple verbal reasons for their behavior. Saying, "You will sit in time out for two minutes because you hit your friend," helps assign a reason to the punishment, and children at this age have a limited ability to understand this.

Discipline for Preschoolers

Preschool children have greater self control capabilities than toddlers and should be expected to behave properly at times, but parents should remember that these kids are still young and will act spontaneously. In the preschool years, simple rules need to be discussed and enforced. Preschoolers do well with simple choices, and giving them a choice can often prevent a behavior problem 1. When problems do arise, a time out is still quite effective. This is also an ideal age to embrace natural consequences for behavior. For instance, if your preschooler spills his milk on purpose, his natural consequence is no more milk for that meal.