Learning how to use these strategies makes it possible for you to meet the needs of individual children. You will be able to choose the most effective strategy in a variety of discipline encounters. 

Positive discipline strategies begin with adult behaviors: good limit setting, clearly communicating limits. They include teaching more appropriate behavior, giving cues for the new behavior, giving choices, and supporting children in their new behavior. Positive guidance and discipline also include changing something about a situation, and ignoring behavior when it is appropriate to do so.

Positive guidance and discipline continue when adults manage typical discipline encounters with positive, helpful strategies: redirection, active listening, I-messages, conflict resolution, and recognizing and dealing with strong emotions.

Finally, helpful adults learn to recognize signs of stress, anxiety, and strong emotion. They try to prevent overstimulation and they teach calming techniques. The core of positive discipline strategies, however, is the last section in this chapter. Helping children save face and preserve their dignity in discipline encounters is the most important and essential element in child guidance.

We will start with limit setting. This strategy includes:

  • Developing reasonable limits that focus on important things
  • Stating limits effectively
  • Helping children accept limits
  • Communicating limits to others and reviewing limits periodically

Develop Reasonable Limits That Focus on Important Things

Adults influence children by stating their expectations for desired behavior and helping children understand that there are boundaries, or limits, on behavior. Authoritative caregivers understand the importance of proper boundaries in relationships in general, and appropriate limits in an adult-child relationship in particular. They figure out and clearly communicate limits that will be most helpful in encouraging children to behave appropriately. They understand what a good limit is and what benefits appropriate limits have for children (Marion, Swim, & Jenner, 2000).

Authoritative adults work with children in developing some, but not all, limits. For example, Mr. Claiborne, the first-grade teacher, led a discussion about classroom limits at the beginning of the school year.

Example.  He started by stating first, “The most important rule in our classroom is that we treat each other and our animals with respect,” as he wrote on a large sheet of paper. He then described what that might mean and elicited the children’s contributions; for example, “The gerbils get scared when they hear loud noises. What would be a good rule about noise around the gerbils?” He printed limits and posted them as a reminder.

His children are much more likely to take ownership of limits because they have helped to develop them.

Highly responsive, authoritative adults set and maintain reasonable, fair, developmentally appropriate limits. Their limits focus on important, not trivial, things. The limits protect children’s and adults’ health and safety and encourage the development of healthy self-control. Their limits also transmit values of dignified, fair, humane treatment of people and animals to children.

Healthy self-control through limits
Self-control develops slowly in children. Reasonable, fair limits can help children achieve internal control gradually because limits clearly communicate appropriate behavior and reasons for that behavior.

Examples.  “Scoot back to your spot on the carpet, Jack. Vinnie can’t see if you sit in front of him.”

Mr. Nellis to second grader Willis: “I see that you’ve finished your story. Please choose the next thing that you need to do now because the other children are also still working.”

Rules protecting physical health
One set of important limits deals with health issues. Disease can spread exceptionally quickly in group settings for children. Design and communicate rules that protect the physical health of both adults and children. Some examples:

  • Thorough hand washing by adults. All adults who work in a classroom or elsewhere should be required to demonstrate that they know proper hand-washing techniques. All adults should also demonstrate the willingness to wash their hands at specific times.
  • Thorough hand washing by children. A checklist would be useful.
  • Proper handling of food.
  • Washing and sanitizing toys and other equipment.
  • Labeling and storing toothbrushes properly.
  • Using tissues when sneezing.
  • Proper toileting and diapering routines, including approved cleanup.

Rules protecting everyone’s safety
Appropriate limits ensure safety. Think about safety on different levels. One level governs the safe use of toys, equipment, and space. Typical limits include “You pour and dump sand in the sand box, but not on the trike path,” or “You must stay inside the fenced area of our playground.”

A child’s inner feeling of safety and security calls for another level of safety rules. Children feel secure when they know that they will not be hurt; therefore, a good environment for children has rules that keep children and adults safe.

Examples.  Mr. Claiborne to Vinnie: “Yes, you are angry, and that’s OK, but I want you to tell Ryan that you are upset. Use words to tell him that you want your book back. Say, ‘I want my book back.’ ”

Mr. Nellis to kindergarten child Louie, who had asked what day it was several times in one morning: “Today is Thursday. You go home with your dad on Thursdays. He always comes to get you right on time.” Louie goes through many transitions (Mom’s house to school, school to baby-sitter, baby-sitter’s to Mom’s house, school to Dad’s house, Dad’s house to Mom’s house). His mother does not prepare him very well for transitions, but his father does a better job. Mr. Nellis does whatever he can to help Louie feel secure.

Respectful treatment of others with limits
Responsible adults set and maintain limits about fair treatment of everyone in a class. Children have to learn what respectful treatment means; they learn this best from the words and actions of adults. It also means clearly stating the behaviors that we will not tolerate (e.g., degrading or hurting others).

Examples.  “Hold the kitten gently, like this” (teacher demonstrates). “Mitchell’s name is on the list before your name. He goes first.”

As you can see, this includes rules about humane treatment of animals. Humane means kind, caring, and compassionate treatment of animals, something that children must learn.

State Limits Effectively

Authoritative caregivers have a clear, direct, and validating communication style. If a goal in guiding children is to help children, we can best help them understand necessary limits by stating these limits effectively.

Speak naturally, but speak slowly enough that the child hears everything you say; use concrete words and short sentences when stating limits
“Put your puzzle in this first slot of the puzzle rack.” This limit tells a child exactly where the finished puzzle goes. It is more effective than saying, “Put it over there.” Avoid using abstract words or phrases such as “in a little while,” “be a good boy,” or “knock it off.”

Tell a child exactly what to do rather than what not to do, and be as positive as possible
It is more helpful to say, “Use this tissue to clean your nose” rather than “Don’t pick your nose!” We do need to be clear about what children may not do, but it is most helpful to focus on what we want children to do.

Use suggestions whenever possible
Suggestions are persuasive statements. Suggestions describe an acceptable behavior to a child in an appealing way; they do not order a child to do anything. Children cooperate more frequently and willingly when adults use suggestions (Baumrind, 1996).

Example.  Sarah’s mom (in the chapter-opening case study) should have said, “I have an idea, Sarah. Let’s write what we want to buy at the store on this piece of paper and take it with us today.”

Use direct, self-responsible statements when you think it is necessary to make a reasonable request
Authoritative adults do occasionally have to state a very direct request, but their style is highly responsive.

Example.  Mrs. Vargas had given an appropriate warning about cleanup on the playground but Jackie was still zipping around on his trike. “Whoa, there!” said the teacher as she signaled Jackie to stop. “I gave the signal for cleanup and now I want you to park the trike.” Then she put her hand on the handlebars, pointed to the row of trikes parked against the shed, turned Jackie in that direction, and said, “There’s a spot for your trike right next to the yellow trike. Let’s go and fit it in that space.”

This limit is stated directly, firmly, and kindly. This authoritative teacher relies on persuasion, not force. She has acted self-responsibly and the child is very likely to cooperate. Consider how a different, more authoritarian teacher would have stated the limit—by ordering, “Jackie, put that trike away now!” Ordering others around is a power-based way of speaking and it stirs up anger and resistance, not cooperation (Baumrind, 1996).

Give choices whenever possible

Children face so many important choices as they grow up. One of our goals, then, is to help children learn to make wise choices, a skill that we have to teach. A good way to start is by offering manageable choices to children.

Example.  Mrs. Vargas first used a when-then statement to communicate clearly that the limit was that children had to wear paint aprons when painting. She said, “When you put on your paint apron, then you may paint at the easel.”

Then she gave Ralph a choice: “Do you want to wear the green or yellow paint apron?” Alternatively, she could have given a different choice: “Would you like to snap the Velcro pieces together yourself or do you want me to help you?”

Avoid giving a choice when the child really has no choice

For example, avoid saying “Do you want to wear a paint apron?” or “Do you want to go home now?” A logical response from a child to these questions is a yes or no answer because this is a closed type of question. It is unfair and confusing to give a child a choice when she really does not have one. You also set yourself up for an argument with a child who says “No” to such questions, because you then must backtrack and tell her why she really has no choice.

Issue only a few suggestions at a time; avoid giving a chain of limits
It is difficult for children to keep a string of limits or suggestions in their minds. If a child cannot remember a part of your string of limits, chances are good that she will not comply with all of the limits. Children comply more easily with limits when we state them in small chunks, small enough for children to remember. For example, “Use the clothespins to hang your painting.” “Good, it will dry nicely. Now, wash the part of the table where you worked with this sponge.” “OK, nice and clean. Now, wash your hands and hang up your apron.”

Allow enough time for the child to process information and complete a task before issuing another suggestion (Schaffer & Crook, 1980); repeat a limit if necessary, but do it effectively
Suppose that a child ignores your request. Frustrating? Yes, but do not take it personally. Avoid getting angry and remember that your job is to help this child accept a simple limit. You will be most effective if you

  • manage your emotions well and repeat the limit calmly and with good will.
  • call the child’s name again.
  • pick up the item, and matter-of-factly hand the item to the child.
  • repeat the request.
  • avoid simply restating the limit in a snappish, peeved way because your irritation will show and will likely bring out anger and stubbornness from the child; then you will have a full-blown argument on your hands.

Help Children Accept Limits

Authoritative caregivers and teachers help children willingly accept good limits. They do several things to set the stage so that children will accept legitimate boundaries on behavior. Here are some practical ways to get you started on helping children willingly accept limits.

Researchers demonstrated many years ago how important it is to set the stage so that children can accept a limit (Schaffer & Crook, 1980; Stayton, Hogan, & Ainsworth, 1971). Adults who effectively help children accept limits believe that children are naturally compliant (Haswell, Hock, & Wenar, 1981). Authoritative adults tune in to a situation, help children focus on the task at hand, and give good cues.

Tune in to the situation

Observe what the child is doing before stating a limit.
Be responsive and take into account what a child is doing because her activity is important to her. If Moua is putting together her favorite puzzle when the cleanup signal is first given, she will very likely try to finish her work before putting things away.

Give children a reasonable amount of time to complete their work.
Consider cleanup in a classroom. Before officially beginning to clean up, announce cleanup quietly to the whole group, to small groups, or to individuals, and then allow the children a bit of time to finish up their work.

Decrease distance between you and a child.  Avoid calling out limits from across the room. Decrease horizontal distance by walking toward a child. Decrease vertical distance by bending or stooping so that you can talk directly to a child.

Get a child’s attention, politely.
Touch a child on the arm or say her name quietly. Using nonthreatening verbal or nonverbal cues and appropriate physical contact 1 is essential with toddlers and is highly recommended with preschoolers, especially those who have not learned to live with reasonable boundaries and limits at home.

1. A note on appropriate physical contact: This is a source of comfort to a young child and is a part of the style of sensitive, supportive, encouraging adults. Appropriate physical contact reassures a child, is never imposed on a child, and is given in response to the child’s needs. With recent concern about child abuse in schools, it is prudent for school personnel to be clear about the policy of appropriate physical contact between staff and children. This policy must also be clearly communicated to and discussed with parents.

Help children focus on the task at hand and give cues
Direct a child’s visual attention to a specific object or task.  “Here’s one of the puzzles that you worked on, Moua,” you say as you show her the puzzle you are holding and then point to the puzzle table. This is orientation compliance; its purpose is to orient the child properly (direct her attention toward something) before stating a limit or making a request.

Have the child make contact with a specific object.
For example, place a puzzle with which a child has worked in her hands and say, “Please hold the puzzle while we walk over to the puzzle table.” This is contact compliance; its purpose is to help the child tune in to the task at hand before she is asked to do anything specific.

Make your specific request (ask for task compliance).  A child is much more likely to comply with your request when you have properly oriented her. It is much easier for a child to accept the cleanup limit when she is at the puzzle table holding the puzzle rather than when she is sitting in another area listening to a story when you announce cleanup.

Give reasons for rules and limits
Children accept limits much more readily when they understand the rationale behind them (Baumrind, 1996). Three practical suggestions will help you use reasons well: give short, simple, concrete reasons, decide when to state the limit, and decide whether you need to restate the limit.

Give short, simple, concrete reasons along with a limit, and decide when to state the reasons. Example.
“Put the lid on the paint cups” (the limit). “It will keep the paint fresh” (the reason).

State reasons for limits either before or after stating the limit, or after a child complies with the limit.

Examples.  State the rationale before you give the limit: “We need tables cleared of toys before we can have snack” (the reason). “Put each puzzle back in the rack” (the limit). Some children tend to argue less about a rule if they hear the reason first and the limit second.

State the rationale after you state the limit: “I want you to put the puzzles away” (the limit). “Then the table is clear for snack” (the reason).

State the rationale after the child accepts the limit: “The puzzle table is clear! Now we can eat snack at that table.”

Decide whether you need to repeat the rationale if you restate the limit.  Repeating the rationale is a good idea when you want to emphasize the reason for the limit, perhaps when children are first learning a limit.

Example.  Mrs. Vargas said before going out to the playground on the second day of school, “Tell me our safety rule about how many children are allowed on the sliding board at one time.” “That’s right, only one at a time so that nobody gets hurt.” She also showed a picture of one child on the slide.

Be aware, however, that some children might try to distract you from carrying through with a limit by playing the “why game” (i.e., repeatedly asking, “Why?”). Ignoring their “Why?” is one of the most helpful things you can do for them. You can also say, “I think you’re having fun asking me why and I’ll tell you why one more time and then the game is over” (Seefeldt, 1993).

Communicate Limits to Others; Review Limits Periodically

Communicate classroom limits to every person who works in your classroom
It is important that everyone who works in your classroom, however short the time, understands and uses the same limits. This includes, but is not limited to, parents, other volunteers, specialists, the principal or director, children from upper grades, college students in a practicum, and persons invited to do a presentation. Some children are confused when adults in the same classroom use different limits. Other children quickly figure out that the adults are inconsistent and use the inconsistency to their advantage.

Example.  Mrs. Vargas forgot to tell a new volunteer about some of the classroom rules. The volunteer told two boys that they could just leave the blocks out and that she would put them away. The classroom rule is that children put away things that they have used.

Communicate classroom limits by posting the list on a large poster board in a conspicuous place. Point out the list when the person first comes to the classroom. Alternatively, have a number of copies of a handout titled “Classroom Limits” ready to give to anyone who works in the room. Talk with all classroom workers and visitors about how important it is for all adults to use the same limits. Demonstrate limits when necessary, as with proper hand washing.

Communicate information on limits to parents

Bring parents into the guidance circle. You can make classroom limits even more effective by telling parents about the limits. First, this highlights limits for parents and reassures them. Second, communicating effectively with parents tells them that you think they are worthy of your time. This will help you develop a good working partnership with parents. Third, talking with parents about limits might help some parents ask questions about limit setting at home.

Parents like the topic of how to set and maintain reasonable limits when it is offered as a parent education topic. Communicate information to parents about setting limits in a variety of ways: with handouts, newsletter write-ups, appropriate articles, formal parent meetings, and videos/DVDs either used in meetings or borrowed by parents. See the “Working with Parents” feature and the list of Web sites at the end of this chapter. You will find many handouts and other free or inexpensive material about guidance and discipline to use with parents.

Teach Helpful or Appropriate Behavior

Help children construct knowledge about self-control by teaching them about helpful behaviors. The goal is to facilitate their understanding of knowledge and skills that will help them the most. Children must learn so many behaviors that they do not know automatically. Here are just a few examples:

  • How to ask for something
  • How to listen when others talk, not interrupting them
  • How to join a play or work group
  • How to put things away when they complete a project
  • Skills for participating in a group, such as where and how to sit, how to listen, how to offer an idea, and how to get the teacher’s attention
  • Mealtime manners, such as passing things and waiting their turn

Plan lessons on teaching the skills. Choose from your large collection of teaching strategies and incorporate them into your regular teaching plan. Teach individuals, small groups, or large groups. Use songs, stories, finger plays, flannelboards, demonstrations, films, videos, guest speakers, or other methods.

Example.  At the beginning of the school year, Mrs. Vargas observed that several of the children did not understand the concept of passing things. For instance, the children seemed confused about how to pass baskets with snacks, and did not know how to pass pitchers with juice or milk. Here are two examples of the lessons through which she taught the children how to pass things.

Lesson #1: Large group. Mrs. Vargas held a basket filled with colored squares of paper. She said, “I’m going to take one of these squares from the basket. Then I’m going to pass the basket to Nellie” (who sat next to the teacher). Nellie takes the basket. “Now, Nellie will take one square out of the basket and pass the basket to Ralph. Ralph takes a square and passes it to Justine.” After all the children had a chance to pass the basket, Mrs. Vargas showed them a basket used at snack time. She said, “We will pass baskets like this one when we eat snack.”

Lesson #2: Snack time. “Here’s the basket that we will pass! I’ll start today.” Mrs. Vargas softly chanted as she took a cracker and then passed the basket,

“Mrs. Vargas takes a cracker and passes them to Jordan.

Jordan takes a cracker and passes them to Chelsea.

Chelsea takes a cracker and passes them to Ralph.”

They continued singing until every child had passed the basket.

Observe a child or a group to ascertain the skill that you need to teach. Consider using checklists, anecdotal records, or rating scales to assess the needs and abilities of your students (Marion, 2004). Use observation to assess a child’s understanding after you have taught a skill. Mrs. Vargas observed during large group when she introduced the concept that every child except Calvin seemed to understand the meaning of “passing a basket.” By the end of snack time, however, Calvin, too, seemed to understand the concept because he passed the basket quickly when it was his turn.

Set Up Practice Sessions and Give “On-the-Spot” Guidance

Give children a chance to practice what you show or tell them, as Mrs. Vargas did when they practiced passing baskets. Mr. Nellis had observed that Willis did not wait his turn for the computer stations in the K–2 classroom. Consequently, he had taught Willis the steps in getting a turn (putting his name on the list if necessary, checking the list and waiting, and working somewhere else until his name was next). He knew how important it is for children to practice what they have learned and so planned a simple practice session for Willis about waiting for a turn.

Mr. Nellis started the practice session (Mr. Nellis worked with Willis individually) by saying, “Let’s practice waiting for a turn at the computer, Willis. You already know the main things that you have to do. Please tell me the first thing.”

I have to put my name on the list.
Mr. Nellis:
That’s right. Write your name now on this list. (Willis prints his name at the bottom of the list.) Good. Now, check to see how many children are ahead of you.
Sandi and Michael. That’s two.
Mr. Nellis:
Right again! You won’t have to wait very long at all. What would you like to do while you wait?
. . . work on my math.

The next day, Mr. Nellis introduced a new math game to use at the computer and Willis was eager to get a turn. Mr. Nellis gave “on-the-spot” guidance to Willis. He quietly reminded him about how to get a turn and used this real-life situation as another practice session. Willis did very well. He had learned the steps, had practiced them with the teacher individually, and finally had practiced them in the classroom.

Give Signals or Cues for Appropriate Behavior

Children might not remember to do things, in spite of learning how. Cues are hints or suggestions that remind children about a limit in a low-key way. The signals or cues can be verbal, nonverbal, pictorial, or written (for older children). Good cues are developmentally appropriate; they are age- and individually appropriate for a variety of children—typically developing children, children with disabilities, and a child who is learning English.

Example.  At the end of group time Mrs. Vargas verbally reminded the children to wash their hands for snack time. The group sang the action song and then she sent them to the bathroom (the song was the cue or reminder).

Example.  Shortly after that, she showed one of the pictures of a child washing her hands to the group. “Where can we hang this picture so that it reminds us to always wash our hands after going into the bathroom?” (The picture is the cue.)

Example.  The teachers at Oaklawn School (Thompson, Vargas, Claiborne, Nellis, Lee, and others) have many children in their classes who are learning English. The teachers have found that picture cues help these children understand limits and deal with transitions. At transition from work and play time to large group, for instance, Mr. Claiborne showed each child two picture cues, one of a child playing and the other of the child in a circle with other children. At the same time, the teacher described moving from play to large group. (The pictures are cues.)

Encourage Children’s Efforts to Accept Limits and to Be Cooperative or Helpful

Children need more than limits—they also need encouragement for their efforts to accept limits and to behave in a prosocial way, cooperatively or helpfully. There are many ways to encourage children’s efforts.

Promote new behavior that is “self-encouraging”
Think of ways to set things up so that a child will find a new behavior so attractive that he will eagerly comply.

Example.  Larry did not wipe his paint smock when he painted. Mrs. Vargas made a new job for the job chart and assigned that job to Larry for 2 days. The new job entailed being the person who ran the paint smock wash. This person wore a special hat and smock, was in charge of checking all the smocks to make sure they were clean, and was responsible for the new sponge and bucket.

Example.  Mr. Nellis wanted his children to place leftover art paper in a container when they finished a project. He glued a cutout of a hippopotamus head onto a basket and showed the basket plus hippo to the class. His class immediately named the hippo “Harvey,” and Mr. Nellis asked the children to feed their leftover papers to Harvey.

Observe children to determine whether they have learned what they need to learn and whether they have accepted a limit
Mr. Claiborne wanted all children to use a tissue when sneezing and wiping their noses. He taught them how to use the tissue with a demonstration and a song about using tissues. Then he developed a checklist to help him determine who had learned the techniques. He observed the children using a tissue and checked off names when they demonstrated proper technique. He also observed to determine whether children used a tissue at appropriate times.

Recognize and encourage a child’s efforts
Children need support. Recognizing and acknowledging their efforts demonstrates our support and appreciation. Recognize an individual child’s efforts or the effort of the entire group.

Examples.  Two days after introducing Harvey the hippo, Mr. Nellis said to his class at opening group time, “Harvey appreciates getting your leftover art paper and he thanks you.”

The principal visited Mr. Claiborne’s room to read a story for the class. The children had just cleaned up after their morning work period and they sat on the floor for the story time. Mr. Claiborne introduced the principal. He showed a large photo of the entire class with the label “We are good helpers!” He said to the principal, “We have lots of children in this class and we are all good helpers.” He then noted how every child had helped during cleanup.

Change Something About a Context or Setting

Behavior communicates. Behavior does not occur in a vacuum—it happens in a context or setting. The context of a behavior has an effect on that behavior. With these statements in mind, consider reframing or rethinking the concept of a discipline encounter by asking a question. “What can I do about this context, this situation that will help this child be safe or help her choose a different behavior more helpful to the child?” For example, “Do I want to keep telling these two children to stop arguing over the blocks, or can I change something to help them accept the idea of cooperating?”

Three major ways to change a situation to be helpful and to prevent or stop potentially dangerous or inappropriate behavior include

  • changing the physical environment and time schedule,
  • increasing options, or
  • decreasing options.

Change the physical environment and time schedule if necessary
Guide children effectively by managing the environment well.   You can easily change something about a situation by evaluating how you have structured the physical environment. You can then decide that a slight change might be very helpful to children.

Example.  When Mrs. Vargas was a first-year teacher she was surprised to find that the children ran, not walked, from the dramatic play area to the block area. Her principal observed one morning and said that the classroom had a zoom area in it—a tunnel-like space that just invited running. The teacher changed something about the situation by rearranging the room to eliminate the zoom area. The running stopped.

Example.  Mr. Nellis’s student teacher found that his opening large-group time was almost unpleasant because of all the talking and squirming. Mr. Nellis, during the evaluation of group time, asked the student teacher to reflect on how long the lesson had been. The student teacher discovered that the group time was too long and made a simple adjustment. The adjusted schedule resulted in a much shorter, much more productive, and more peaceful group activity.

Increase options available to a child
Authoritative adults closely supervise and monitor activities. They recognize when children need more options from which to choose. They realize that children might be stuck on a nonproductive course of action and require additional information or choices. Here are three practical ways to increase options for children.

Prevent predictable problems.
Prevent problems whenever possible. Authoritative, responsive caregivers understand that young children have a difficult time controlling themselves. They know that it is their responsibility to observe the group for signs that adult intervention is necessary. One way to do this is to identify the times in a group’s schedule when things could go wrong and prevent these problems.

Mrs. Vargas knew that transitions are often stressful for children. Consequently, she made sure that there were as few transitions as possible in the schedule. In spite of this, she had observed and identified two times when transitions were difficult for several of the children. One problem transition was from nap to waking activities. The other troublesome transition was from large group to outside play. She reflected on the transitions and tried to make them as appropriate as possible.

Examples.  Transition from nap to waking activities: Some children awoke from their naps before the others but still had to be quiet. Instead of just asking them to sit quietly, she prevented the potential problem by gathering a special group of toys and books for quiet play and then brought out these materials only after the nap. The children chose one of these activities.

Transition from large group to outside play: The teacher cut out and laminated simple squares of different-colored construction paper, and kept them in a basket in the large-group area. At the end of the activity, each child took one square from the basket. She then sent the five children with blue squares to put on coats, and continued with the other colors. This simple method helped children focus on the transition and seemed to decrease anxiety about it.

Introduce new ideas to children engaged in an activity.  Our goal is to let play sessions unfold and not to dominate play. Occasionally, however, children benefit from getting ideas from adults. Offer a new idea when it would extend the play or help children get beyond an argument. Sometimes children will use the idea, and sometimes they will not.

Example.  Mrs. Vargas noticed that some of the children had worked cooperatively on building a train from large blocks for about 10 minutes. When she heard an argument about who would be the driver of the train, she said, “Here is that book about trains. Look here [points to passengers]. We do need a conductor but we need passengers, too. The conductor helps passengers find a seat on the train.” Ralph immediately shouted, “I want to be the passenger!”

Introduce new materials into an activity.  Assess the situation and decide whether new materials would be helpful. Then decide how to present the new materials to the children. One way is to add the new item, simply and quietly, without comment. Another way is to introduce the new materials to work sessions as needed.

Examples.  Mrs. Vargas gave red or blue tickets and small suitcases to the train “passengers.” She also gave the conductor a hat and a hole puncher with which to punch one hole in each passenger’s ticket. Another time, she brought out plastic farm animals and placed them near the children working on building a farm. A final example took place at the playdough table. After children had worked with dough for one day, she brought out new rolling pins, taught them the term rolling pin, and asked them how they might use the new item with playdough.

Decrease options available to a child
Occasionally, the problem is not that children need new ideas or materials but that they need fewer options. Too many choices can easily overwhelm children, especially impulsive children. Guide children effectively by limiting choices or changing activities.

Limit choices.  Making wise choices is a skill that develops over time. Helpful adults teach young children how to make choices from only a few alternatives.

Example.  Mr. Claiborne knew that Pae (pronounced “pay”) had great difficulty zeroing in on one activity. He helped Pae focus attention and he limited his choices by asking, “You said yesterday that you wanted to write a story about your kitten and you wanted to make labels for your leaf collection. Which of those two things would you like to do first today?”

Example.  A few of Mrs. Vargas’s preschool children had trouble making choices during work periods. She helped them by narrowing the number of choices for them. She made a simple card for each center that was available. Each card had a picture on it signaling that center’s purpose (Figure 4.5)  When Justine arrived at school, Mrs. Vargas showed her the cards and said, “Start with three cards, Justine. Then you will know what you want to do this morning.” Justine carried the three cards and worked in those centers.

Change activities.  Authoritative caregivers understand that a variety of things might affect children’s attention or behavior. They are skillful enough and have enough confidence in their ability to modify plans or to abandon a plan if necessary.

Examples.  Mr. Claiborne had just gathered the entire group for story time when the roaring noise started. The earthmovers had come onto the school grounds to start digging the swimming pool. There goes group time, he thought, but remained calm. To the children he said, “Let’s walk outside and stand out of the way so that we can watch for a little while. Then I’m going to tell you the story of an earthmover !’ ”

Ignore Behavior (Only When It Is Appropriate to Do So)

Ignoring behavior:  no longer paying attention to a specific action. The ignore strategy is appropriate for some behaviors but completely inappropriate for others. Ignoring certain things, when it is appropriate to do so, decreases the number of times that a teacher will see or hear the actions. This occurs because the adult stops giving attention for a behavior to which the adult has mistakenly paid too much attention. The main idea here is for the adult to change what she herself does, reminding herself to stop paying attention to the child’s behavior

Do Not Ignore These Behaviors
I usually like to state things as positively as possible. However, in this section I will use the phrase “Do not ignore . . .” several times for emphasis. Some behaviors are clearly dangerous, destructive, or hurtful. Do not ignore them because doing so might well place someone in danger. I will also describe a better way to approach the situation.

Do not ignore children when they treat someone rudely, embarrass someone, are intrusive, are disrespectful, or cause an undue disturbance.  Young children do some of these things because they might not yet know a better way of behaving, and some older children may act this way because they have not learned to treat others with respect. With younger children, state guidelines and teach the better way. Avoid ignoring inappropriate behavior. Older children must learn from adults to value politeness, to respect boundaries, and to adhere to limits that convey these values.

Example.  Nellie charged right up to the computer station and sat down just as Ralph was about to take his turn. Mrs. Vargas said quietly to her, “You are really eager to work at the computer, but it’s Ralph’s turn right now. Let’s put your name on the list. You’ll get your turn soon!”

Example.  Jordan said to a volunteer who told him that it was time to get ready for lunch, “You can’t tell me what to do. You’re not the teacher.” Mrs. Vargas took Jordan aside and said, “Jordan, you were disrespectful to our visitor. It was his job to remind everybody about washing hands before lunch.”

Do not ignore a child who endangers anyone, including himself.  Authoritative adults do not hesitate to forbid certain classes of behavior, including dangerous, aggressive behaviors or behaviors that degrade others. Ignoring dangerous, destructive behavior leads children to believe that the environment is unresponsive to them (Baumrind, 1996). Ignoring aggressive, destructive, or ego-damaging behavior (toward animals as well as people) gives unspoken approval. The aggression will likely increase, which leads other children to think that adults will not protect them from aggressive outbursts.

Do not ignore a child who damages or destroys property.  Again, ignoring such destructive or potentially destructive behavior conveys adult approval. Instead, give children a clear, direct, nonblaming message of disapproval for destructive behavior.

Example.  Mr. Nellis said to a first grade girl who had grabbed the end of a large collage on the wall and pulled, ripping it in half, “Lucy, it is recess time. You will be helping me fix the collage that you’ve damaged before you can go to recess.”

Guidelines for using the ignore strategy

It is safe to ignore some behaviors, usually behaviors that are not hurtful, not destructive, not disrespectful, and not dangerous. In fact, it is a good idea to ignore behaviors such as

  • whining or arguing about limits.
  • any other effort to distract you from following through on a limit.
  • efforts to pull you into an argument.
  • a child’s efforts to try to make you angry.

Adults who use the ignore strategy successfully follow these guidelines:

Tell the child that you will ignore a specific, targeted behavior whenever it occurs.
Mrs. Vargas decided to use the ignore strategy when Nellie argued about limits. The teacher knows that telling Nellie about the strategy will make things easier. So, she politely but clearly told Nellie that she would stop paying attention to her when Nellie argued about a limit, “Nellie, I’ve made a mistake and paid attention to you when you argue about some things. I’m not going to pay attention to you when you argue with me. I won’t look at you, and I won’t talk to you when you argue.”

Realize that it takes time to effectively use the ignore strategy.
The difficulty is that adults usually give a lot of attention to the very behaviors for which their attention has caused problems for the child. When an adult decides to use the ignore strategy, a child who has received so much attention for unhelpful behavior (such as arguing or whining) will be surprised and is likely to increase the intensity of the arguing or whining. Essentially, her behavior says, “Look here, you’ve always argued back when I argue. Now you’re ignoring me. Looks to me like I have to argue more loudly. Maybe that will get your attention!”

Example.  Later that afternoon, Nellie, in her high-pitched voice, argued with Mrs. Vargas about cleaning up the paints. Mrs. Vargas followed through with her plan to stop giving attention to the arguing. Nellie was surprised, although the teacher had explained the procedure. The teacher had paid attention to Nellie’s arguing in the past, giving her what she wanted.

Nellie did not stop after the teacher ignored her arguing only one time. Like most children whose irritating behavior is ignored for the first time, she tried even harder to recapture the teacher’s attention by arguing even more insistently. Her teacher was prepared for the “bigger and better” arguments. She knew that she would have to carry out the procedure at least one or two more times before Nellie finally realized that her teacher really had resolved to stop paying attention to her arguing.

Decide to ignore the behavior completely, to give no attention.
This is difficult because the adult has decided to change her own customary behavior. In order to help herself stop paying attention to and encouraging the arguing, the teacher wrote the following list of reminders:

“Resist the urge to mutter to myself under my breath.”
“Resist the urge to make eye contact.”
“Resist the urge to communicate with this child, either with words or gestures.”

Teach and encourage more acceptable behavior.  Go beyond ignoring a behavior to teaching children some other, more appropriate behavior. Mr. Claiborne ignored Vinnie’s whining but also remembered to teach Vinnie how to ask for things in a normal voice. Mr. Claiborne modeled the “normal” voice.

Redirect Children’s Behavior—Divert and Distract the Youngest Children

Diverting and distracting:  a form of redirection in which an adult immediately does something to distract a child from the forbidden or dangerous activity. The adult then immediately gets the very young child involved in a different activity.

Authoritative, responsible caregivers perform most of an infant’s or young toddler’s ego functions. For example, they remember things for the child and keep them safe because an infant’s or young toddler’s concept of danger is just emerging. Authoritative adults accept responsibility for stopping very young children from doing something by setting limits that discourage certain behaviors, but they do so in a helpful way.

Diverting and distracting the youngest children accomplishes both of these tasks. An adult can be most helpful by immediately doing something to distract the child from the forbidden activity and steering her toward a different activity.

Example.  Mary, 16 months old, walked over to the bowl of cat food, picked up a piece, and started to place it in her mouth. Her father said, “Put the cat food back in the bowl, Mary” (a short, clear, specific limit). Then he picked up Mary and said, “You know, I think it’s time for us to take a walk!”

Redirect Children’s Behavior—Make Substitutions with Older Children

Substitution:  a form of redirection; an adult shows a child how to perform an activity or type of activity in a more acceptable and perhaps safer way. Substitution is an excellent strategy to use with children who are at least older toddlers or young preschoolers. Substitution is a good strategy to use with older children because it acknowledges the child’s desire to plan and engage in a specific activity.