The first step in exercising your judgment is to examine your goals for discipline. It is crucial that no discipline approach damage a child’s growth in self-esteem, self-discipline, and moral autonomy.. We attempt to explain how inappropriate forms of discipline counteract progress toward these long-term goals. Rewards, punishment, and other coercive approaches to discipline have become mainstream practices; teachers must understand that these practices work against their long-term goals.

Short-term goals are also important, although meeting them must not conflict with long-term goals. There are certain behaviors that are so disruptive or dangerous that they must be stopped immediately, leaving the teaching aspect of discipline for the next step. If children’s actions put them into danger, it is essential to act quickly and decisively. Talking directly to the children involved is much more productive than yelling directions across a room. An emergency situation may require a warning shout, which will be useful if the teacher’s voice is usually calm and controlled. However, teachers who routinely raise their voices in an effort to control a group will find that a raised voice quickly loses effectiveness.

Finding the Cause of the Problem

If the situation is not an emergency, or after an emergency situation is over, you are free to think about the most appropriate discipline approach for long-term goals. This step requires a search for the cause or causes of the discipline problem. Many times you will find several interactive causes of a problem. This means you need to address several causes in order to provide effective help. Discipline that deals only with the symptoms rather than the causes of behavior problems is doomed to failure; the problem behavior will continue to surface until the reason for that behavior is addressed. Too often teachers respond to the behavior instead of the causes (Flicker & Hoffman, 2002). This problem is well demonstrated in schools with posted sets of rules and the pre-planned punishments for breaking each rule.

The causes of a problem are not always obvious, and it may take serious study and even some trial and error to get at the root of the matter.

Age-Typical Behavior

As you start to search for the cause of a child’s behavior problem, first ask yourself whether the offending behavior may simply be typical of that child’s stage of maturation. Some adults don’t realize, for instance, that a 2-year-old is not being naughty when she wets her pants. These adults might punish the child or try bribing her in efforts to change this behavior, unaware that a 2-year-old who isn’t potty-trained is exhibiting maturationally normal behavior. The child can’t change the behavior until she is older. Your soul-searching may reveal that the “problem” is actually adult intolerance or a misunderstanding of childlike behavior (Landy, 2002). In that case, the cause of the problem is the adult’s attitude, therefore, that attitude, not the child’s behavior, needs to be changed.

Inappropriate Adult Expectations

The next step in finding the cause of a behavior problem involves examining whether or not inappropriate adult expectations may have created the problem. Inappropriate adult expectations may include those that are incompatible with an individual child’s temperament, those that conflict with a family’s culture, those that do not reflect gender differences, and those that are a poor match for children’s maturational levels.

When we reflect on the unique personalities of children in our care, it is clear that we cannot have the same expectations of all. As we become more aware of diverse ways of viewing and responding to experiences, we can better match interactions and expectations to those differences.

Adults create problems when they require young children to sit still and be quiet for more than a few minutes, to wait with nothing to do, or to engage in learning activities designed for older youngsters. The National Association for the Education of Young Children offers guidelines for appropriate programs (Bredekamp, 1997) and curriculum (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1995) that teachers can consult to make sure discipline problems are not being caused by an inappropriate environment.

If you suspect that the environment is causing children to react negatively, the solution is to change the situation rather than try to change the children. This preventive discipline approach saves both teachers and children a lot of trouble. The adult response in the following example demonstrates the value of planning to better meet a child’s needs.

After eating lunch each day, the children in the child-care program are expected to clear off their table setting and sit back down to wait for a teacher to call them to brush their teeth. Sometimes there is no wait time, but sometimes it can be a couple of minutes, depending on how many children have finished eating. Sheri knows this is not an ideal situation, but it seems to be the only way to handle the tooth brushing with 20 children and only two sinks.

The children don’t seem to have a problem with this, with the exception of Sam. Sam sits down for about 10 seconds and then has to get up and move around the room, usually causing a disturbance in the process, or he wanders into the unsupervised kitchen.

Sheri has repeatedly reminded Sam about sitting and waiting his turn. He seems to know what is expected of him but doesn’t seem to be able to do it. Sheri decides that this situation just isn’t appropriate for Sam and makes a plan to accommodate his needs. The chairs need to be stacked to sweep the floor after lunch. This has usually been done by the staff after the kids leave school, but Sheri asks Sam if he would like to help out and be the chair stacker after lunch. Sam jumps at the chance to do this real and important work—and to get to move around and use his muscles instead of trying to sit still. Now Sam is the proud official chair stacker instead of the kid in trouble every day. What a difference this makes to his self-esteem!

The good news is that most solutions to undesirable behaviors can be found by rethinking adult expectations and overall classroom practices (Fox et al., 2003).

Missing Skills

Once you have satisfied yourself that you are accepting children at their maturational level and providing an individually appropriate environment and curriculum, you can go on to look for other causes of discipline problems. Young children have a lot to learn about how to get along, how to deal with their emotions, and how to communicate effectively. If you suspect that lack of skill in any of these areas is causing the problem, a discipline approach that works on needed skills is the solution. Most of us work at developing these skills throughout our lives, so it is to be expected that young children will need help with them.

Adults can demonstrate and assist in desirable modes of self-expression and interacting with others (DeVries, Hildebrandt, & Zan, 2000). Probably the most important and difficult lesson has to do with perspective-taking—understanding other people’s viewpoints. This requires a combination of communication and social skills because people need to be able to express their feelings clearly in order to facilitate an exchange of viewpoints. Teachers can help children find words so that they can share their views and feelings with their peers, thus decreasing egocentricity. Helping children learn how to play with others and make friends goes along with teaching them perspective-taking. Other useful approaches include the use of “I messages” and problem-solving techniques to teach children effective conflict resolution (Gordon, 1989).

Emotion regulation is related to enhanced communication and perspective-taking skills. When children are able to find the words to express their sorrows and frustrations, they have a way of getting support and an acceptable way of letting off steam. When they begin to understand that there may be another side to a situation, they are often comforted. For instance, if children are able to understand that the child who wronged them did so by accident, it often has a calming effect. Similarly, beginning to learn that things don’t always go their way because others also want their own way can help children cope with a disappointment. In addition, most children need specific assistance with learning how to comfort themselves and how to delay gratification. Teaching children social skills, perspective-taking, effective communication, and emotion regulation are important discipline strategies that promote lifelong, harmonious social interaction.

Lack of Understanding

Perhaps the child has the needed skills but has chosen not to use them. Sometimes children behave in unacceptable ways because they don’t understand why they shouldn’t. Perhaps the cause of the problem is a lack of knowledge about how to behave or about the results of certain actions. Young children need assistance in learning about cause-and-effect relationships. They need to learn that their behaviors have certain results or consequences (Brady et al., 2003).

Adults often have trouble allowing children to learn from experience because of the desire to protect them. Although you do need to keep children away from harm, you don’t want to protect them so much that they lose the opportunity to learn. Finding out that you get cold if you don’t dress for the weather or that you get hungry if you don’t eat are valuable educational lessons. They are examples of natural consequences (Dreikurs, 1964). Related consequences are adult-imposed, but they link the behavior to a result that demonstrates why the behavior needs to be changed. Too often, adults expect children to learn from lectures and forget that experience is the best teacher. Natural and related consequences are effective forms of guidance that help children gain knowledge, which in turn guides youngsters in self-regulating their behavior.


Sometimes children have learned the wrong things. These children have learned to get their emotional needs met in counterproductive ways. In this case, the needed discipline approach involves reteaching. Children need to unlearn old ways of getting attention and learn new ones (Curwin & Mendler, 1999). Judicious use of behavior modification techniques guides teachers in ignoring undesirable behaviors and encouraging desirable ones.

Another type of mislearning is a result of undesirable role models. The need to counteract this influence cannot be overstated (Levin, 2003). Sometimes the undesirable role models are older children, family members, or sports heroes. Additionally, educators frequently model power tactics that model a “might makes right” approach (Butchart, 1998).

Whatever the source, positive role models who build trusting relationships with children are desperately needed as the antidote. Teachers must be moral, caring, and socially skilled so they can demonstrate important skills and understandings in word and deed (Watson, 1999). The most effective models “transparently” model desirable behavior by talking to themselves out loud, demonstrating the thought processes behind their actions (Dill, 1998).

Unmet Emotional Needs

If you are sure that a child knows better and is capable of behaving better, but is still acting out, you need to look deeper for the cause. Sometimes undesirable behavior is motivated by children striving to feel okay in spite of experiences that have left them with emotional deficits (Landy, 2002). Strong survival instincts motivate these youngsters to try to get their needs met, and they frequently act out in extremely disruptive ways that show misguided efforts toward “wholeness.” Other youngsters with emotional deficits give up and retreat into their shells. The latter may be easier to deal with but are ultimately an even greater cause for your concern and attention.

If unmet needs are the cause of the problem, a truly effective discipline approach must involve attempts to help children get those needs met. These attempts might be made in conjunction with other approaches that will make the symptoms more manageable, such as related consequences. It is important to keep the cause of the problem in mind, however, and continue to work on helping the child get his or her needs met.

Serious Problems

Teachers frequently find that a child in their care has unmet needs or other problems that they cannot adequately address by themselves. These problems, although manifested in undesirable behaviors, may not actually be guidance or discipline issues. Rather than being addressed through teaching, they may need to be dealt with by medical practitioners or social workers. In some cases, the child’s entire family must be helped in order to benefit the child. There is a limit to what can be expected of teachers and caregivers, and they must insist on outside expertise to help children with severe behavior problems.

Family Communication and Complexity of Causes

Typically several different causes are interacting with one another when a child is acting out. Teachers often need information from the child’s home in order to get a clear picture of the possible causes. The following example shows how a teacher and a mother worked together, sharing information about the child to figure out why she had a hard day at school.

Corrie had a terrible, awful, no-good day at preschool. She screamed and cried and clung to her mom at school. Her mother explained that she couldn’t stay with her because she had to take Corrie’s baby sister home for her nap, but Corrie continued to cry and insisted that her mother stay with her. After mother finally did leave, Corrie followed the teacher around and wouldn’t engage in play with the other children.

Dennis talked to Corrie’s mother on the phone that evening in an effort to figure out the cause of her daughter’s problem and keep her from having more such bad days. They took into consideration maturational factors: that Corrie was too young to understand other people’s needs, so she naturally didn’t respond to the explanation of what her mother needed to do. They also acknowledged that preschool-age children still have a long way to go in learning to control their emotions and express them appropriately. Young children can’t distinguish between a momentary frustration and a true tragedy; therefore, they tend to respond in the extreme to all upsetting events.

Corrie’s teacher and parents had previously discussed her innate temperament: emotionally sensitive and also slow to adapt to change. Because she is more than typically emotionally sensitive, Corrie experiences her feelings deeply, making emotion regulation even more difficult for her. When she gets upset, she has great difficulty getting over it. Corrie’s other identified temperament challenge, difficulty in adapting to change, means that disruptions in her schedule upset her. Therefore, it is very significant that this was Corrie’s first day back at school after a 2-week family vacation.

As Dennis and Corrie’s mother talk, the mother acknowledges that Corrie was pretty tired after their trip and notes that she had been sick most of the time they were gone. In fact, given the day’s problems, Corrie’s mother now worries that Corrie may still not be feeling well.

Whereas she had previously been frustrated with Corrie, the mother now realizes that Corrie’s distressing behavior was probably inevitable, given the combination of factors. The horrible, no-good day was a result of normal maturation limitations interacting with Corrie’s individual temperament and compounded by unmet physical needs.

Rather than a list, a set of concentric circles might be a better way of analyzing some behavior problems. We could start with the behavior itself shown as a tiny circle in the center, and then make surrounding circles that show the context in which the behavior occurred. This way of analyzing a behavior problem may be helpful in connecting multiple, interwoven causes.

The next larger circle can be used to show any unmet physical or emotional needs involved. For instance, is the child tired, hungry, or ill? Could the child be worried, sad, or fearful?

Another larger circle around that one could show the related maturational limitations. Typically, you would expect that young children would not be good at perspective-taking, emotion regulation, or any type of logical thinking.

The next circle could be used to show the child’s unique characteristics such as temperament and cultural influences. A final, outside circle might look at related learning: What missing skills might be involved? Does the child need help understanding why the behavior is inappropriate? Has the child learned inappropriate behavior due to poor role models and/or reinforcement of misbehavior?