ERIC Identifier: ED327271
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood
Education Urbana IL.
Positive Discipline. ERIC Digest.
How do young children learn self-control, self-help, ways to get along
with others, and family and school procedures? Such learning occurs when
parents and teachers of infants, toddlers, or preschoolers are continuously
involved in setting limits, encouraging desired behaviors, and making decisions
about managing children.
When making these decisions, caregivers often ask themselves these questions:
Am I disciplining in a way that hurts or helps this child's self-esteem?
Will my discipline help the child develop self-control? This digest suggests
methods and language that can be used in handling common situations involving
METHODS OF DISCIPLINE THAT PROMOTE SELF-WORTH
1. Show that you recognize and accept the reason the child is doing
what, in your judgment, is the wrong thing:
"You want to play with the truck but..."
"You want me to stay with you but..."
This validates the legitimacy of the child's desires and illustrates
that you are an understanding person. It also is honest from the outset:
The adult is wiser, in charge, not afraid to be the leader, and occasionally
has priorities other than those of the child.
2. State the "but":
"You want to play with the truck, but Jerisa is using it right now."
"You want me to stay with you, but right now I need to (go out, help
Jill, serve lunch, etc.)."
This lets the child know that others have needs, too. It teaches perspective
taking, and may lead the child to develop the ability to put himself in
other people's shoes. It will also gain you the child's respect, for it
shows you are fair. And it will make the child feel safe; you are able
to keep him safe.
3. Offer a solution:
"Soon you can play with the truck."
One-year-olds can begin to understand "just a minute" and will wait
patiently if we always follow through 60 seconds later. Two- and three-year-olds
can learn to understand, "I'll tell you when it's your turn," if we always
follow through within two or three minutes. This helps children learn how
to delay gratification but does not thwart their short-term understanding
4. Often, it's helpful to say something indicating your confidence in
the child's ability and willingness to learn:
"When you get older I know you will (whatever it is you expect)."
"Next time you can (restate what is expected in a positive manner)."
This affirms your faith in the child, lets her know that you assume
she has the capacity to grow and mature, and transmits your belief in her
5. In some situations, after firmly stating what is not to be done,
you can demonstrate how we do it, or a better way:
"We don't hit. Pat my face gently." (Gently stroke).
"Puzzle pieces are not for throwing. Let's put them in their places
together." (Offer help).
This sets firm limits, yet helps the child feel that you two are a team,
6. Toddlers are not easy to distract, but frequently they can be redirected
to something that is similar but OK. Carry or lead the child by the hand,
"That's the gerbil's paper. Here's your paper."
"Peter needs that toy. Here's a toy for you."
This endorses the child's right to choose what she will do, yet begins
to teach that others have rights, too.
7. Avoid accusation. Even with babies, communicate in respectful tones
and words. This prevents a lowering of the child's self-image and promotes
his tendency to cooperate.
8. For every no, offer two acceptable choices:
"No! Rosie cannot bite Esther. Rosie can bite the rubber duck or the
"No, Jackie. That book is for teachers. You can have this book or this
This encourages the child's independence and emerging decision-making
skills, but sets boundaries. Children should never be allowed to hurt each
other. It's bad for the self-image of the one who hurts and the one who
9. If children have enough language, help them express their feelings,
including anger, and their wishes. Help them think about alternatives and
solutions to problems. Adults should never fear children's anger:
"You're mad at me because you're so tired. It's hard to feel loving
when you need to sleep. When you wake up, I think you'll feel more friendly."
"You feel angry because I won't let you have candy. I will let you choose
a banana or an apple. Which do you want?"
This encourages characteristics we want to see emerge in children, such
as awareness of feelings and reasonable assertiveness, and gives children
tools for solving problems without unpleasant scenes.
10. Establish firm limits and standards as needed. Until a child is
1 1/2 or almost 2 years old, adults are completely responsible for his
safety and comfort, and for creating the conditions that encourage good
behavior. After this age, while adults are still responsible for the child's
safety, they increasingly, though extremely gradually, begin to transfer
responsibility for behaving acceptably to the child. They start expecting
the child to become aware of others' feelings. They begin to expect the
child to think simple cause/effect thoughts (provided the child is guided
quietly through the thinking process). This is teaching the rudiments of
11. To avoid confusion when talking to very young children, give clear,
simple directions in a firm, friendly voice. This will ensure that children
are not overwhelmed with a blizzard of words and refuse to comply as a
12. Remember that the job of a toddler, and to some extent the job of
all young children, is to taste, touch, smell, squeeze, tote, poke, pour,
sort, explore, and test. At times toddlers are greedy, at times grandiose.
They do not share well; they need time to experience ownership before they
are expected to share. They need to assert themselves ("No," "I can't,"
"I won't," and "Do it myself"). They need to separate to a degree from
their parents, that is, to individuate. One way they do this is to say
no and not to do what is asked; another is to do what is not wanted.
If adults understand children in this age range, they will create circumstances
and develop attitudes that permit and promote development. Self discipline
is better learned through guidance than through punishment. It's better
learned through a "We are a team, I am the leader, it's my job to help
you grow up" approach than through a "me against you" approach.
CREATING A POSITIVE CLIMATE PROMOTES SELF-DISCIPLINE
Creating a positive climate for the very young involves
*spending lots of leisurely time with an infant or child;
*sharing important activities and meaningful play;
*listening and answering as an equal, not as an instructor (for example,
using labeling words when a toddler points inquiringly toward something,
or discussing whatever topic the 2-year-old is trying to tell you about);
*complimenting the child's efforts: "William is feeding himself!" "Juana
is putting on her shoe!" (even if what you are seeing is only clumsy stabs
in the right direction); and
*smiling, touching, caressing, kissing, cuddling, holding, rocking,
HARMFUL, NEGATIVE DISCIPLINARY METHODS
Criticizing, discouraging, creating obstacles and barriers, blaming,
shaming, using sarcastic or cruel humor, or using physical punishment are
some negative disciplinary methods used with young children. Often saying,
"Stop that!" "Don't do it that way!" or "You never..." is harmful to children's
self-esteem. Such discipline techniques as removal from the group, or isolation
in a time-out chair or a corner, may have negative consequences for the
Any adult might occasionally do any of these things. Doing any or all
of them more than once in a while means that a negative approach to discipline
has become a habit and urgently needs to be altered before the child experiences
low self-esteem as a permanent part of her personality.
GOOD APPROACHES TO DISCIPLINE
*increase a child's self-esteem,
*allow her to feel valued,
*encourage her to feel cooperative,
*enable her to learn gradually the many skills involved in taking some
responsibility for what happens to her,
*motivate her to change her strategy rather than to blame others,
*help her to take initiative, relate successfully to others, and solve
This digest was adopted from an article that appeared in the November,
1988 issue of Young Children (pages 24-9).
FOR MORE INFORMATION
"Ideas That Work with Young Children: Avoiding Me Against You Discipline."
Young Children (November, 1988): 24-9.