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Gentle Discipline for Preschoolers

Last week I wrote about what preschoolers are like, and I described some changes that kids will show as they grow from toddlers into preschoolers.  The preschool years can be very challenging, especially if you decided to take a less punitive or more attachment-based approach to parenting when your child was a newborn.  Toddlers and preschoolers need to see that you are an “alpha,” a person who is strong and in charge, but at the same time it’s important to be compassionate, empathetic and sensitive to a child’s feelings and needs as well.  Finding the balance takes some trial and error in practice, but here are some ideas that can help you find that sweet spot a little sooner.

preschool girl using a dipnet at a pond

1. Preschoolers need adult help

Yes, they seem big and capable.  Yes, they know what you’re saying and understand what you mean.  But that doesn’t mean they are able or should be expected to obey immediately without some adult guidance, especially if you’re helping them develop some new habits or your child is very distracted and excited.  If you child is jumping on the bed and you’ve asked them to stop, step in and physically lift them from the bed and guide them out of the room if they don’t stop when you ask them.  The trick to this is to be gentle and firm, and to help them get started with a safe activity right away.  If the sight of your child being openly defiant makes you see red and erupt in rage, that’s a sign that you need to attend to your own ability to manage your emotions.  Look to meditation, counselling or possible food intolerances for help developing a calm approach.

2. Expect a mess

Little people learning to do things by themselves make a tremendous mess along the way.  Having strategies and rules in place can help contain or minimize the mess, such as “soil stays in the garden,” or “bubbles stay in the sink,” but there will probably be times when you will all want to bend the rules in the name of fun and learning.  The best way to deal with the mess is by cleaning it up, as soon as you can.  Teach your kids to clean up one toy before another one comes out and you’ll be miles ahead of the game.  We’re still working on that one in our house.

sandy legs

3. Make ritual and routine work in your favour

The more you keep regular “anchors” in your day, such as meals at regular times, the more you can hang important tasks on either side of those meals and let the routine dictate when things are done.  You don’t have to schedule the day down to the half-hour, but having a regular, predictable flow of events with enough time to transition from one event into another makes the day go much more smoothly.

4. Avoid overscheduling

Three and four year olds are still well ensconced in the world of magic, make-believe and wonder, even though some may be learning skills like counting and identifying letters.  Don’t let these early skills dupe you into thinking that your three or four year old is ready for a highly structured, academically focused preschool.  Early childhood is a time for play-based learning, in the home and in the real world as much as possible.  If your child does attend preschool, make sure you plan to have some quiet downtime at home afterwards.  Rushing from one structured, highly social activity to another is a recipe for an overstimulated, overtired kid.  And that makes it so much harder for a child to behave well.

playing in the forest

5. Remember the cuddles

Whether you’ve had a smooth day or a challenging one, a little kid still needs lots of cuddles, snuggles and one-on-one attention.  If you’ve got a newborn too, make sure you work some time to be alone with your older child into your daily routine.  It’s normal and healthy for preschoolers to test the boundaries of what they are capable of and what they’re allowed to do, so don’t take it too personally if you’ve had a difficult day.  Parents need to be cuddled and listened to also, so make sure you get support from the other adults in your life.

The preschool years can be some of the most magical, so try to step back and imagine yourself as a parent with an empty nest 15 or 20 years down the line.  This child will be in this stage of development for a relatively short time, so don’t wish it away while grudgingly picking up blocks.  Take charge of setting limits in a firm but gentle way, create healthy routines and offer lots of hugs.  Before you know it your child will be losing teeth, writing letters to grandma and doing math problems, and the preschool years will be behind you.

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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Rachael May 14, 2012, 8:08 pm

    How easily I fall prey to the overscheduling, which is in part because we don’t have a back yard or a car. Even in an outing with just one goal, it’s easy to wander far from home and then get exhausted in the voyage back.
    Rachael´s last blog post ..It’s My Birthday! I’m One Hundred Years Old!

  • michelle May 23, 2012, 1:28 pm

    It is really easy to take on too much without realizing it! Even with a car I need to watch out for the “one more thing” syndrome.

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