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Guiding Children in Self Discipline Techniques
By Carolyn Tomlin

While shopping with his mother one day, Matt watched as another 5-year-old boy begged for a new toy. When the mother said, "No" he kicked his her. Then, the youngster threw himself down on the floor, crying and screaming. Within a few minutes, his embarrassed mother gave in and purchased the toy. Matt, thought, “Maybe that will work for me, too.” But as soon as he hit the floor modeling the other boy's behavior, his mother pulled him up, walked quickly out to the car and left the store. Needless to say, it didn't work for him.

Seth Scholer, MD, MPH, Vanderbilt Children's Hospital and the Department of Pediatrics, believes that early childhood aggression is one of the strongest predictors of violence later in life. "We need tools to help teach caregivers why and how to manage aggression in the early years," responds Dr. Scholer in a presentation at the American Academy of Pediatrics National meeting in Boston, 2002. Dr. Scholer developed Play Nicely,a program that teaches parents, health professionals, counselors, and child care workers/teachers the basics in aggressive management for children ages 1–7. (www.playnicely.org).

Many areas of self-discipline could be discussed for young children. This article deals with role modeling appropriate behavior for both adults and children, understanding child development and age appropriate behavior, and developing a hypothesis.

Role Modeling Appropriate Behavior in Adults

As parents and teachers, one of the most effective methods of dealing with appropriate behavior would be to model the desired behavior. Verbal and social reinforcement helps children identify specific behaviors. Remember, role modeling can be both negative and positive. And often adults teach lessons children copy through the wrong actions and bad choices. Look at the following examples:


Positive role modeling:

"Coming to our child care center makes me happy!" responded Mrs. Smith as she hugged Stephen when he entered the classroom.


"I'm going to take at least one bite of each food on my plate," said Ms. Francis as she joined the children at lunch.


"Your picture looks just like the flowers outside our window," said Susan's Mom.


Negative role modeling:

"Stop yelling!" cried Mrs. Jones as she raised her voice to its loudest pitch.


"Can't you ever do anything right?" asked Mr. Smith as he quickly wiped up the spilt milk."


"Maria, stop being so shy," said her mom. "You need to play with your friends."


Role Modeling Appropriate Behavior in Children

In addition to using appropriate behavior in adults, children need to see positive behavior in their peers. Avoid over-using the word "good" when speaking of behavior. Listen to yourself. Do you often say? "You're a good girl"; "Eat a good lunch"; or "Your picture is good!" It's confusing to children.


Positive Role Modeling:

Put yourself in the place of the child. How would these statements make you feel?


"Alicia placed all the toys back on the shelf when finished," said Mrs. Peters smiling." She completed this task before starting another."


"Pedro is a good friend," remarked his teacher.” He helped Marco complete the new puzzle."


"Kevin, would you like to ask a friend to help serve the juice and cookies?" asked his teacher. "It's more fun when friends help each other."


Negative Role Modeling:

As caregivers, we must think before we speak. Often the same words can be twisted and turned into a negative phase that lowers a child's self-esteem.

"John, I'm not going to tell you again to stop hitting Sean," said Mr. Roberts as he looked up from the newspaper.

"Roberta's picture is exactly what I want," said her teacher. "Why can't the rest of you children draw as good as Roberta?"

"Marcia never spills the juice when it's her time to pour. Maybe Marcia could teach the rest of the class how to serve snacks."

Whether at home or in a childcare setting, all experiences should make it possible for a child to see themselves as a worthwhile individual. Communication with adults provides opportunities within the environment. Children are social products. The "self" is developing. Thus, the young children's perception of themselves will determine behavior toward the self and others. By identifying appropriate behavior models, parents and teachers set acceptable standards for young children to follow.

Understanding Child Development/Age Appropriate Behavior

Robert Havighurst (1972), has defined "developmental task" as a set of specific challenges"…which arise at or about a certain period in the life of an individual. Successful achievement leads to…happiness and to success with later tasks, while failure leads to unhappiness in the individual, disapproval by the society, and difficulty with later tasks".


According to Havighurst each task is a combination of biological, psychological, and cultural factors that blends individuals' needs with the demands of their particular society. The preschool child is expected to master cognitive task in preparation for the transition to middle childhood. These include:


1.       Learning to form simple concepts of social and physical reality. Closely associated with the cognitive development of Jean Piaget, this task enables young children to discover regularities in the environment, to classify people and objects using names and categories. Such as what makes animals alike? What makes them different? What similarities to rocks and shells possess?


2.       Learning to distinguish right and wrong and developing a conscience. In early childhood, children learn the concepts of good and bad and begin to understand values. Such as telling the truth; being honest; and showing responsibility.


3.       Learning to talk. During the toddler stage, children learn the fundamentals of speech. One task of early childhood is to refine speech patterns, expand and build vocabulary, and develop a style of communication with others. Parents and caregivers that understand what is expected behavior of each stage of development will provide experiences that help the child become successful and increase self-esteem.


Develop a Hypothesis

According to Judy Wood, Ph.D., (www.judywood.com) and creator of the SAALE MODEL: A Systematic Approach for Adapting the Learning Environment, a hypothesis is a logical guess based on information collected and analyzed. Dr. Wood suggests that to change behavior, focus on the following:


1.       Determine the desired behavior. What would you like to see happen instead of the problem behavior? What are your behavior expectations of this student?


2.       Desired maintained consequences. What effect does the child's desired behavior have on the environment or him/herself? What can be done when the problem behaviors occur? What consequences and/or disciplinary actions will be used if behavior continues or escalates? What are the safety issues? How are we to address these issues?


3.       Develop an intervention to teach alternative behaviors. Is the behavior linked to a specific skill? Make changes to the environment that eliminates the possibility of the problem behavior. Provide classroom support for appropriate behavior.


Using Literature to Help with Self-Discipline

Did you know that between 4,000 and 5,000 books (Data from Children's Book Council) from picture books to young adult novels are published annually in the United States? Many focus on behavior and helping children develop self-esteem. As you read books to children, discuss how characters in the book lose their temper, make bad choices and choose unhealthy habits. Use this opportunity to make children aware of ways they can make better choices in daily activities.

The use of fables is limited, as young children do not understand the lesson in behavior. Yet, some of Aesop's Fables are never forgotten. Children should know the fables because they occupy a permanent place in our thinking and our speech. They also contain the distilled wisdom of the ages in memorable form.

"Grasshopper and the Ant,"

"The Lion and the Mouse"

"The Hare and the Tortoise."


Fairy Tales are magic stories that have entranced children for ages. In addition to the humor, nonsense and poetic beauty, they provide moral truths that are important for children to know.


Goldilocks and the Three Bears

The Little Red Hen

The Story of the Three Little Pigs


The Gingerbread Boy

Tale of Peter Rabbit


Modern Day Stories

Today, authors of children's literature deal with issues of our modern world. Yet, some things never change. Children continue to feel insecure, unloved and afraid. These factors often lead to behavior problems and a lack of self-discipline. Some helpful books include:


Mother, Mother, I Want Another by Maria Polushkin

The Very Quiet Cricket by Eric Carle

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss

Gregory, the Terrible Eater by Mitchell Sharmat

Sometimes I Get Angry by Jane Werner Watson

And My Mean Old Mother Will be Sorry by Martha G. Alexander



Parents and caregivers need an endless supply of understanding and energy to help children develop self-control. Yet, one of the highest goals of adults is to help children develop a respect for themselves and other individuals. As children internalize this respect, they will become responsible for their own behavior.

Carolyn Ross Tomlin, Jackson, TN writes on issues that promote educational values.


Havighurst, R.J. (1972). Developmental Task and Education, 3rded. New York: David McKay Co.

Scholer, S. (2002). Play Nicely. Nashville: Vanderbilt University.

Wood, J. (2001). The SALLE Model for Reaching the Hard to Teach. Judy Wood: Midlothian, VA.