3 Respectful Discipline Strategies for Toddlers and Preschoolers
Updated: Jul 21
Let's talk about discipline.
If you are a parent of a toddler or preschooler, you've probably had some questions about discipline like:
How can I get my child to listen to me without yelling?
What can I do instead of spanking, which I use mainly because I don't know what else to do and I'm at the end of my rope?
How do I know which limits to set, which behaviors to set limits around, and which just to let go of?
How do I discipline a kid who won't stay in time out and doesn't actually seem to learn from time out?
Our vibrant Facebook community, Parents First, is full of parents like you who have asked these questions, so we brought Holly Klaasen, a fantastic parenting consultant from the Fussy Baby Site, directly to our parenting group to share great strategies on discipline and answer questions!
But first, a word on the word discipline.
For some reason, most of us have this idea that discipline means a child getting into trouble or parents being really strict, firm, and serious with their children. This couldn't be further from the truth. Discipline does not mean punishing a child, hoping somehow they'll learn right from wrong. Actually, the root of the word discipline means to teach. Discipline is all about teaching children boundaries by setting limits in a way that they will respond to positively and then helping them reach those limits.
Disciplining a child is teaching them limits.
Effective discipline is particular to each parent and child, but here are some great strategies to help you get started!
1. Create a Yes Space
First, create a yes space. A yes space is an area where your child will spend the most time and have free reign.
To start creating your yes space, remove anything potentially dangerous or that you do not want your child to have access to.
Children do not develop impulse control until at least age 4, sometimes later. That means that it doesn't really matter how many times you say no—you can't fully trust that the child will remember. If they really want to do something, they will. If you don't want your child to have access to something, it goes away. Locks on all cupboards, chairs put away in another room, nothing dangerous like bookshelves to climb, nothing breakable—a yes space removes the temptation.
Once your space is clear of temptations, it's time to fill it with learning tools. Children, especially younger toddlers, learn by experiencing the world and their environment through their senses. They'll want to touch everything, throw stuff, push, climb and taste things. This is totally age-appropriate and how they learn! Add things to your yes space that will help your child learn and get out their energy. Things like toddler trampolines, even cushions they can jump on, a Pikler triangle, ball pits, or simple obstacle courses made with items you have around the house that you allow your child to have access to are great ways to fill your yes space with safe ways to explore, get out energy, and start learning limits.
Redirection may seem like a simple discipline strategy, but it is by far the most important.
There are three crucial steps to redirection:
Name the feeling you think your child is feeling.
State your limit.
For example, your child bites you. Instead of time out or moving away, acknowledge there are probably some big feelings behind this behavior. Say: "I can see you're really frustrated right now (step 1), but I can't let you bite (step 2). Let's go sit on the couch and cool off a bit (step 3)."
If your child keeps jumping off the couch, you can say, "I can see you have a lot of energy but, it's not safe to jump off the couch. Here - let's put some cushions on the floor for you to jump on."
Redirecting in this way allows you to validate their feelings while setting a firm limit and then moving their focus off the thing they wanted to do.
When it comes to things that can hurt another person, especially with preschoolers, like hitting, biting, and throwing, it's a good idea to talk to your child later once they've calmed down a little bit and explain better ways to deal with those feelings. For example, you can role-play to help your child understand how their behavior affected the other person and then have the child draw an apology picture. Those are things we can teach without yelling, spanking, or punishing.
Many parents get stuck on the last part of redirection and want to address the behavior right away. Remember, in the vortex of frustration, your child is so wrapped up in their feelings they can't hear what you're saying at that moment, even if you remain calm and gentle. Your child's heart is pounding; they're feeling angry—they're not even going to hear you. To get through to your child, match their energy level with your own energy in a positive way. Rather than being very calm and quiet, muster up an upbeat, enthusiastic voice and then try to redirect them. For example, say, "Hey, we got those new coloring books and crayons! Let's go into the other room and choose one to color! Which color do you like?" Use an upbeat tone to make it sound really desirable. Ramp up your energy to match theirs, and they'll be much more likely to hear you.
3. 10/2 Time
The third strategy is a proactive discipline strategy Holly calls 10/2 Time.
Children need their attention cup filled. If they don't get their attention needs met, they're going to ask for it in less than ideal ways. Rather than waiting for them to misbehave, spend focused time with them upfront. An effective way to do this without taking a lot of time is using the 10/2 strategy. Spend ten minutes with your child twice a day.
It's true, you are with your children all day, and we do our best to pay attention to them, but there are other things we have to be busy with, and our children feel that. So this proactive discipline strategy is about giving your child 100% of your physical and emotional attention for ten minutes at a time.
Approach your child and say, "I have the next ten minutes just for you. I'm going to do whatever you want to do." Then you have to do it. It's not always easy, especially if playing pretend, a board game, or however your child wants to spend the time isn't something you like to do. Let them be the ones in control. Make sure you are 100% physically and emotionally present during these ten minutes.
Do this right before a challenging time. For instance, if bedtime is tricky, try scheduling your ten minutes before the bedtime routine. If you have a friend coming over or an important phone call to make, spend your ten minutes with your child before you need them to give you a break.
Try it! Most parents say they can get a great chunk of well-behaved time after spending those ten minutes with their child.
Have more questions on disciplining your toddler or preschooler? Watch Holly answer some of our group members' questions and join the Parents First community on Facebook, where we learn together and support each other through our parenting journey!