Guiding Young Children: 21 Strategies
By Amy Sussna Klein

Competencies for Guidance Article

The Child Development Associates (CDA) competency that can be used for this article is:

  • To support social and emotional development and to provide positive guidance.

For more information on the CDA competency requirements, contact the Council for Early Childhood Recognition at (800) 424-4310.


This article helps meet the following Certified Childcare Professionals (CCP) professional ability areas:

  • The ability to enhance children’s social and emotional development.

For more information on the CCP certification, contact the National Child Care Association at (800) 543-7161.

Think about the overall goals you have for the children in your care. What qualities or characteristics would you like to see in these children next year? What about 10 years from now? We can support children’s growth and their character development of positive characteristics by providing a strong foundation through guidance. This article will focus on how guidance (positive discipline) supports children and facilitates long-term success, while punishment (negative discipline) is hurtful and can have long-lasting effects. Twenty-one strategies to make guidance of young children successful will be highlighted. In addition, this article questions the use of rewards, stickers, and time out as important practices in guiding young children.


The Definition of Guidance

Guidance is positive discipline. The word “discipline” comes from the Latin root discipulus, meaning pupil (American Heritage Dictionary, 1992). Simply put, guidance teaches. Children learn by what we say and the way we act. Guidance involves setting clear, consistent limits that have reasons and striving to foster self-esteem and independence. Guidance is NOT, however, letting a child “go free.” The adults that never set limits are the ones that are not taken seriously.


Setting Age-Appropriate Limits

Age-appropriate limits involve matching a child’s developmental age (chronologically a child may be seven, but because of special needs, for instance, be developmentally four) to the structure, activities, and expectations that are provided. In order to clarify what is age appropriate, here are three examples of limits that are NOT age appropriate: 1) Expecting a young toddler who is learning to use a spoon to be perfectly neat; 2) Expecting a three-year-old to sit quietly at group time for an hour; 3) Expecting an infant to never cry when she is hungry.


Limits and Reasons

Giving children reasons for the limits you set is part of teaching. Even infants and toddlers who are too young to understand the words you use will still understand the tone or rhythm of the words. The tone or rhythm will convey to the child that the adult is concerned for her and not merely angry. Stating reasons also helps adults make sure there is a basis for the limits they set, which helps to eliminate unrealistic limits. It is important that limits are purposeful; too many limits may hinder the development of a child’s sense of independence and competence.


The Benefits of Guidance

Most children want to please adults. However, sometimes children are confused about what is expected. When limits are consistent, children know what is expected (rather than guessing what they are supposed to do), and over time it makes meeting expectations automatic. The more automatic behavior is for the child, the less adult intervention is necessary. Therefore, consistency diminishes power struggles, increases the child’s independence, and fosters the following six qualities: 

·         Safety. Too much freedom is like too much water for a plant – the roots can rot! Children need to know that adults are watching out for them and ensuring their safety.  

·         Trust. Children learn to trust limits and consequences because, when there are no surprises, they know what to expect.

·         Self-Regulation. When limits are random children doubt they can influence their future (Curwin & Medler, 1988); when limits are consistent children learn to self-regulate.

·         Competence. As children become more independent they feel a wonderful sense of competence.

·         Reflection. Guidance helps children make wise choices (Fields & Boesser, 1998), but making wise choices does not mean the child does whatever she wants. Rather, the child needs to be reflective about responsibilities. For example, a child can think about how a friend might feel if she took all the crayons.

·         Respect. Rather than feeling resentment toward the person setting limits, children learn to respect the person guiding them.


The Definition of Punishment

Punishment is the opposite of guidance and can be problematic and abusive, both physically and verbally. For example, punishment often involves:

·         Physically hurting the child (such as hitting or pulling her arm);

·         Showing the child how negative behavior feels (for example, hair pulling or biting);

·         Humiliating the child (such as using group pressure);

·         Never relenting (e.g., harping on old misbehaviors that cannot be undone); and

·         Withdrawing affection from the child (Miller, 1996). 

The expectations for punishment are rarely clear; they can be unrealistic, and they can often be harmful, hurtful, and arbitrary. In addition, punishment:

·         Stifles relationship building. The child often resents or avoids the adult who punishes her. This may lead to more punishment because the avoidance on behalf of the child angers the adult.

·         Does not Teach Self-Control. Without learning self-control, children may stop their “bad behavior” only while someone is punishing them, which does not typically suppress unacceptable behavior in the long run. The child will then “act up” when she does not think the punisher is watching.

·         Diminishes Self-Esteem and Fosters Disrespect. Different types of punishment, such as ridiculing, elicit feelings of irresponsibility and worthlessness in children (Purkey, 1978). In addition, children who are treated disrespectfully often act “in kind” and become resentful of the adults inflicting the punishment (Purkey, 1978). 

·         Models Aggression. Through punishment, children learn that behaviors such as hitting and yelling are acceptable ways to resolve conflict. 

·         Hinders Trust. Severe punishment may limit children’s ability to trust and form positive relationships.


Miller (1996, p. 216) gives a nice summation that is useful in distinguishing between punishment and guidance.


Punishment                             Guidance

Lowers Self-Esteem             Builds Self-Esteem

Humiliates                                 Strengthens

Degrades                                  Respects

Hurts (physically or emotionally)     Heals

Angers                                      Gives Hope

Frustrates                            Models Coping Skills

Thwarts Efforts                        Enables Efforts

Embarrasses                          Gives confidence

Discourages                              Encourages

Belittles                               Enhances Self-Image

Socially Isolates                     Facilitates Trust

Emotionally Abandons          Gives Emotional Support Twenty-One Strategies for Guidance




1. Know the child. Watching, listening, and learning about a child’s temperament, interests, and learning styles often demystifies behavior and helps adults guide the child. Adults working with young children are extremely busy, but will nonetheless find it invaluable to take the time to learn and remember the uniqueness of each child.  This enables adults to greatly enhance the guidance they provide by respecting, responding, and building a relationship with each child.   

2. Be honest. Sometimes adults “tweak the truth” to expedite issues. For example, an adult may tell a child that a toy is broken just to keep the child from playing with the toy. Another example, that is often tempting for well-meaning parents, is sneaking out the door because it seems easier than letting the child see that you are leaving.  These “quick fixes” will most likely make guidance and trust harder in the long run.   

3. Be Kind and “Save Face.” Young toddlers get embarrassed when they think they have done something wrong. The adult should be discreet and gentle, yet firm and consistent, when guiding young children. The goal is to make sure children know they are being guided not reprimanded. Therefore, messages sent by the adult should be empathetic (e.g., “I know you want to continue playing, but it’s clean-up time. You can play with the toys tomorrow”). Messages should also be purposeful for the individual and community (e.g., “I want to make sure you are safe, so please walk”). When accidents and mistakes happen, as they inevitably will, it is helpful to convey messages such as “these things happen” to the child. 

4. Making Verbal and Nonverbal Messages Agree. Have you ever had someone use a sugary voice to tell you “no way?” Wasn’t it annoying and frustrating to be given this type of incongruent message! How can adults ensure that their nonverbal messages are congruent with the verbal guidance they are seeking to give children? It is important to be aware that your tone and body language fit your words. 

5. Show Respect. Showing the child respect will help her know she is being guided not punished. The following three tactics will help: 1) Move to the child, instead of calling over to her; 2) Squat or kneel to her level; and 3) Look kindly into her eyes.

6. Redirect. When an issue arises, it is sometimes beneficial to avoid a struggle with the child by directing his attention elsewhere. This strategy is very successful with toddlers. For example, sharing is an abstract, difficult concept for young children to understand. So, when Sarah pulls the toy dog away from Charles, it is helpful to remind her, “Charles has the dog, here’s one for you.” If there is not another stuffed animal around, the teacher or parent may take Sarah’s hand and say, “Charles has the dog right now, let’s find something special just for you.” 

7. Use Humor. Most children respond to adults’ joy. How can you tap into this joy to help guide children? It is not appropriate to laugh at a child, however, it is appropriate to laugh at a situation with a child. For example, if a toddler starts using peanut butter as a hand moisturizer, the adult may smile at the connection the child is making. In this case, it is important to remind the child that if she wants to rub something on her hands, she should use lotion, not peanut butter.  

8. Allow Natural Consequences. A natural consequence is when an action happens and the natural outcome is what guides the child. For example, if a child breaks all her crayons she will have to make do with broken crayons. It is important to make sure the outcome is safe and does not impact the child’s needs. For instance, if a child is learning to use a toilet and soils her pants, it would be punitive to make her stay in dirty clothing.  

9. Logical Consequences. As mentioned above, sometimes it is not appropriate to let natural consequences serve as the guide. It might be beneficial to think of a logical consequence. For example, a four-year-old continuously takes out the blocks and leaves them all over the floor. A logical consequence might be that the child is not allowed to play in the block area during the next activity time. 

10. I-Messages. There are three parts to an I-message: 1) Define the behavior in a non-blaming manner; 2) State the tangible effect of the behavior; and 3) Clarify how the behavior makes you feel (Gordon, 1977). Gordon (1977) found that when children did not feel attacked, and realized what the adult was feeling they stopped the negative behavior.  

11. Work with the Children. Older preschoolers and school-age children can be active participants in rule setting: 1) Children may discuss the reasons for the rules; 2) Children may describe the behaviors covered (e.g., we walk in the classroom so no one gets hurts by bumping into the furniture); and 3) Older children may help with the decision making for the rules (Evertson, Emmer, Clements, and Worsham, 1994). The benefits of brainstorming with children are multiple: It builds community, encourages ownership, increases responsibility, helps them understand the reasons behind the rules, and encourages them to solve problems. 

12. Establish “One-Way” Communication. One-way communication occurs when someone informs another person of something (Sussna Klein & Miller, 2002). A teacher informing a child of appropriate behavior is an example of one-way communication. Two key components to clearer one-way communication are keep the message short and avoid overusing the word “no.” When children hear long, lengthy commands they often “tune out.” In addition the word “no” is so overused that it is rarely effective. Instead of “no running,” for example, the child hears “running.” Thus, the expectation is more clear when the desired behavior is accentuated. So instead of saying “no running” say “walk.”

13. Be an Active Listener. Active listening supports the congruency of verbal and nonverbal messages and builds two-way communication. Two-way communication occurs when there are interactions between children and adults (Sussna Klein & Miller, 2002).  According to Gordon (1977) active listening is exactly what it implies – listening actively – and involves really tuning into what the other person is saying in a nonjudgmental manner and giving supportive (yet neutral) feedback (such as nodding your head or repeating what they have said) to encourage the person to keep communicating. If children can express what they are feeling, adults have clues to guide their behavior.   

14. Turn Chores into Games. Activities, such as clean-up, can invite misbehavior. Instead of saying, “You need to clean-up before we go outside,” use your imagination. Four examples of turning chores into games are:

  • Listen to the sound that bristle blocks make when you put them into the basket.
  • Are you going to put away the square or round blocks? 
  • You’re in charge of driving the trucks back to the parking spaces in the box over there.
  •  Please put the doll babies down for their nap.  

15. Evaluate Your Environment. Look at your room set-up. Are spaces clearly delineated? Is there too much open space, which may invite running? Or, is there not enough space for children to move around without bumping into each other? There are five factors according to Beatty (1999) for creating a physical environment that promotes guidance: 1) Arrange areas for children to access and use with ease; 2) Provide enough materials for the children; 3) Give children adequate amount of time with materials and activities; 4) Set up ways for children to self-regulate (e.g., hooks for nametags that will limit the number of children in an area); and 5) Provide a model for the children (e.g., try and treat children like you would visiting a friend and helping her clean – don’t just barge into their areas). 

16. Give Choices. Giving choices will help solve conflicts. This only works, however, when you keep in mind that too many choices are confusing. The younger the child, the fewer the options he can handle. Instead of asking a three-year-old, “What do you want for breakfast?” you may ask, “Do you want eggs or cereal?” In addition, it is important to make sure the choices you provide are ones you can live with. For instance, if you ask, “What do you want for breakfast?” and the child says, “A blueberry muffin” (which, of course, is not available), you have not really provided the child with a viable choice. Making choices is one of the best ways for a child to develop a sense of autonomy (Crosser, 2003). Furthermore, toddlers are told there are so many things they may not do (e.g., because of safety issues) that having opportunities to make a choice gives these young children a chance to be independent and helps their need to have a feeling of control (Crosser, 2003). 

17. Make Clear Statements. While it is good to offer choices, when feasible, it is also important not to imply there is a choice when one really does not exist. Asking Emily, who is busily playing with her new wagon, “Would you like to come inside?” will not be as effective as saying, “Emily, it’s time to come inside.” Putting “OK” at the end of what you say is one way unintentional questions are asked. Consider what a child hears when a teacher says, “We are going to get our coats now,” versus, “We’re going to get our coats, OK?” 

18. Minimize Adult-Imposed Transitions. A transition is the time between changing activities. There are two types of transitions that occur: child transitions and adult transitions. Child transitions are those in which the child decides to change activities. During free-play, Lindsay decides to go from the writing table to the block area. Adult transitions are those imposed by the adult. For example, telling the children that free-play is done and they need to clean up. The adult transitions are the ones that are often difficult for children. It is helpful for teachers to count up all the adult transitions in the school day and try to reduce the amount of these transiable amount of children and cut down the wait time. For example, “Will all the children wearing purple join me?” Another strategy is to use wait time (it cannot always be avoided) as a fun learning time. Toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children all enjoy playing “I spy something….” You as the teacher can “tweak it” so that it fits the age level of your children.


The Problems with Praise, Time Out, and Stickers

Praise, time out, and stickers are not listed above because they are often intrusive, overused, and ineffective. Many people immediately think of time out, stickers, and praise when they think of guidance (or discipline). Kohn (1993) stresses how, for safety, a young child may need one of these practices (e.g., a toddler who is about to run into the street).            

As Kohn (1993) states, these practices involve a “do this so you get that” mentality. These practices are objectionable because they are controlling. Kohn declares that we need to work with children to solve problems rather than imposing rules on them. The twenty-one strategies listed earlier are methods designed to do precisely that and represent a respectful approach to dealing with children. Kohn (1993) also notes that these practices are counterproductive since control breeds more control. Children that are used to being controlled do not have a chance to learn to control themselves.



The quest for adults is to be firm, fair, and friendly. Knowing the children you are working with (e.g., their temperaments) and what developmental practices make sense helps you guide and teach children. There are many methods that may be employed to positively guide young children. Many of the strategies described in this article are intended to help children “reclaim” their classrooms. Children are not objects that adults act on, but members of the community that deserve respect.           

Praise, stickers, and time out do not help the children reclaim their classroom.  Instead when these methods are overused the adult is the power figure and the children are subordinates. These methods rely on the adult giving or taking away. Thus, stickers, praise, and time out, in moderation, are fine. But, when used as the sole means of guiding children, do not help them learn to act appropriately in an intrinsic manner.           

A key way to achieving this “firm, fair, and friendly quest” is for adults to keep reminding themselves of the longevity factor. The guidance we give children now will influence their actions in the future. Our guidance builds a fundamental foundation that will help children develop a strong, healthy self-esteem and independence.


Amy Sussna Klein, Ed.D., is President of ASK Education Consulting. She can be reached by email at



Beaty, J.J. (1999). Prosocial guidance for the preschool child. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. 

Crosser, S. (2003). Would you like an apple or a banana? Why offering toddler choices is important. Earlychildhood NEWS, 15(3), 16-21. 

Curwin, R. & Mendler, A. (1988). Discipline with dignity. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 

Evertson, C.M., Emmer, E.T., Clements, B.S., & Worsham, M.E. (1994). Classroom management for elementary teachers.  Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. 

Fields, M.V. & Boesser, C. (1998). Constructive guidance and discipline. Columbus, OH: Merrill. 

Gordon, T. (1977). T.E.T. Teacher effectiveness training. New York: David McKay Company, Inc. 

Kohn, A. (1993).  Punished by rewards. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.  

Miller, D.F. (1996). Positive child guidance. Boston, MA: Delmar.

Purkey, W.W. (1978). Inviting school success. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Sussna Klein, A.G. and Miller, M. (March/April 2002). Supporting parent and teacher partnerships. Earlychildhood NEWS.