Discipline Secrets from Teachers

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By Stacy Whitman

Ooooooh, toddlers! One moment they’re impossibly cute; the next, completely impossible. And if you think getting one to cooperate, share and be respectful is tough, just imagine dealing with a roomful of them every day. Such is the life of a preschool teacher, whose job (and sanity!) depends on an ability to maintain order, manage conflicts, instill manners and head off tantrums amid a pack of little crazies. 

As a mom of three preschoolers, I’m always looking for ways to get through the day without blowing my top or resorting to bribery. Over the years, I’ve gotten some of my favorite go-to strategies from my kids’ teachers. During pick-ups and drop-offs, I quietly observe, take mental notes and then test their methods at home. And voila! My children are perfect angels and do everything I ask. Okay, maybe it’s not quite that easy, but the teachers’ tactics usually work amazingly well and are likely the reason that I’ve yet to lose my marbles.

To help you better handle your sometimes moody, bossy, defiant and irrational little one, we tapped experienced preschool educators from around the country for their best tricks, then ran them by Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three (a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of young kids), to make sure that they pass muster. Remember: While you can’t change your toddler’s temperament or expect that he’ll suddenly stop acting his age, you can inspire better behavior by altering what you do and say (though it may take some time and lots of reinforcement). Be patient and follow these expert tips—and you’ll be having more fun and fewer standoffs with your toddler in no time.

2–3 years

Quit saying “Stop!” Telling a child what to do can be more effective than telling him what not to do, says Fahi Vazirian, 29-year director of Village Pre-school in Yorba Linda, Calif. Her advice: Give positive directions like “Use a quiet voice” rather than “Stop yelling!” or “Stay on the sidewalk” versus “Don’t run into the street!” Toddlers are more likely to understand what you want when given clear and positive instructions. Plus, they may take the words “No!” “Stop!” and “Don’t!” as a challenge and continue to test their boundaries.

Let him choose. No one likes to be bossed around—especially toddlers, who are struggling to become independent and gain some control over their lives. So rather than issuing orders, offer options (limiting it to two that are both acceptable to you), advises Linley Fraser, who teaches 3- year-olds at The Big Wood School in Ketchum, Idaho. For example, when it’s time to get dressed or hit the bathroom, you can ask, “Do you want to wear your red shirt or green shirt?” or “Would you rather use the big potty or the little potty?” Your little guy will feel like he has a say and should forget all about screaming “Nooooo!”

Get him laughing! If everyday events such as getting into his car seat or putting on PJs have become a battle, try upping the fun factor, suggests Ellen Brady, a preschool teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Lakewood, Wash. Instead of walking to your car (soooo boring!), challenge your child to a race, walk backward or hop like a bunny. Or pretend that your car is a rocket ship and explain that he needs to buckle up and prepare for blastoff. If he refuses to get into his jammies, sing a silly song, do a funny dance or pretend to put his pajamas on yourself—anything to make him giggle. “He’ll be more eager to cooperate if it feels like fun, not a chore,” Brady adds.

Focus on the positive. A pat on the back is more likely to lead to positive behavior than criticism or disapproval. So point out your child’s good deeds at least twice as often as you mention her mistakes, says Julie Christensen, a former preschool director and master teacher at the University of Denver’s Fisher Early Childhood Center in Denver, Colo. Don’t just say, “Good job!” Instead, explain exactly what she did right so she knows to repeat it. You might say, “You worked so hard to finish your project and then you put your paints away. Nice work!” “In general, kids want to please us, but they aren’t always sure what to do,” adds Christensen, who taught preschool for 20 years.

Encourage independence. The more your child is able to do by himself, the happier he—and you!—will be, says Kathy Noone, parent/teacher education coordinator for the Chiaravalle Montessori School in Evanston, Ill. At first, tasks like putting on his own coat and shoes may prove difficult or frustrating and are apt to take longer than if you did them yourself. But with practice, your toddler will develop the coordination and knowhow he needs to succeed. His self-sufficiency won’t just boost his confidence; it’ll also give you extra time to load the dishwasher or brush your teeth. Until he masters a skill, stay close so you can help if necessary—and offer encouragement like “You’re working so hard to get that coat on! It can be hard to get your arms in. Let’s see if we can make this a little easier.” 

Give a heads-up. Shifting gears can be difficult for young children, who thrive on routine and predictability, notes Christensen. So warn your toddler in advance about what is going to happen so he can mentally prepare. Always give a five-minute warning before it’s time to, say, exit a birthday party or leave the park. In the classroom, many teachers use kitchen timers to signal an impending change in activities. Watching the arrow move can help them understand how much time they have left and help them get ready for a switch.

Don’t raise your voice. When the kids in Betsy Henry’s preschool classroom in Littleton, Colo., are getting too noisy or out of control, she doesn’t shout; instead, she lowers her voice to catch their attention. “If I start whispering, they have to stop what they’re doing to listen,” she explains. To keep them quiet and captivated, she’ll continue turning down the volume while saying, “If you can hear my voice now, touch your nose,” then “If you can hear my voice now, touch your knees” and so on.

Learn when to walk away. When your child won’t stop whining and being unreasonable, the best thing you can do is walk away, Brady says. “Don’t give too much attention to negative behavior or it will get worse,” she warns. Tell your little diva, “As soon as you want to use your words, we’ll talk.” Then, give her some space to cool down on her own. Chances are, she’ll lose the rude ’tude fast. Says Brady: “It works for me every time.”

Preschool pros share their best techniques for how to get your tot to behave.

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