• Silvana Barbisan Hoti

3 Ways to Understand and Deal with Preschoolers' Behaviors

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

Parents around the world research for answers, on how to deal with their children’s challenging behaviors, often called misbehaviors.

We all wish to find a manual for parents, but babies do not come with manuals. So, let’s make some reflections together on ways to make this process a little bit better.

1. Have in mind the stage of development of your child when managing your expectations

The stage of development or developmental milestones says a lot about what is happening in the child’s brain and what to expect depending of the age of a child. (as you can see on the CDC Milestones) Based on CDC, “Children reach milestones in how they play, learn, speak, behave, and move (like crawling, walking, or jumping).”

But every child is different. Every child learns different. So, every child will reach the milestones differently.

The guidelines are for us to check for red flags on the child’s development and to look for more information with the child’s pediatrician.

When we are talking about how children behave and how to teach them, it is important to understand these stages of development. This way, we do not make the mistake of expecting what the child cannot understand and deliver. For instance, we cannot expect children to deal with frustration the same way that adults do it or get upset with them because they argue too much…

You can say “I have taught my son twenty times to do not fight with his brother” and “Something is wrong” you would say. Yes, something is wrong. Our expectation is wrong. At 4-years old, we need to teach about feelings in general – children first need to understand what frustration is, how it looks and how that makes them feel physically and emotionally. Only after this, children will be able to learn strategies on what to do when they are frustrated. They also can learn that their behavior can impact somebody else’s feelings and their relationship with them.

These are social-emotional skills that need to be taught. Children will not grasp them by themselves. Children will process and develop them over the next school years.

So, children learn how to manage their emotions in different pace. Do not rush them. Allow your child to make mistakes. Always be mindful of their stage of development before you set your expectation.

2. Have in mind that every behavior is a teachable moment.

If in face of a challenge behavior:

When your child is having a difficult time managing a strong emotion, our first goal as a parent, is to make them physically calm down.

Children will respond better, if we wait for them to deescalate first. If you decide to talk during the outburst, your child will not process what you are saying.

Is important at this moment, to allow the child to take the time to deescalate from the strong emotion and let him/her use different ways to calm down. The physical emotional can be rage, hitting, biting, crying, yelling, running, use of bad language, destroying property, with accelerated heart bit, sweating, fast breathing…

You can create a cozy corner in your home to provide the tools and strategies your child needs to calm down and come back to a calm state. Examples of useful items are soft pillows, sensory toys (playdough, sand, soft stuffed animal, fidget toy…), poster with feelings pictures and name, mindfulness jar, breathing techniques, counting materials, paper and crayons, emotional books, puzzles or a special toy. You can also add a poster with the picture of these strategies for fast visualization.

After the child is calm, we can listen to him/her in a respectful way. Ask what happened that made him/her feel that way, and what was his/her reaction.

It is important at this time to assure the child that all feelings are ok, but what is not ok is to express those feelings in a strong way and hurt somebody or destroy property.

At this time, we can empower the child to find different ways to deal with this problem next time, for instance to use the words to express how he/she is feeling or ask for help. If repairing is needed, ask your child to say, “I am sorry” and properly apologize the person involved. Later you will have to explain how the other person may had felt…and the reason why we need to apologize when we make a bad choice.

If in face of a good behavior:

Catch them in a good behavior and give effective compliments.

When a child makes a good choice is the best time to use effective compliments to provide positive reinforcement and increase the likelihood of a child repeating that good behavior.

Usually people think about praises like “Amazing”, “Good job”, “Give me Five”, “Awesome” … These are good words, but mean less if not shown what part of the behavior was a good job, amazing, or awesome.

On the other hand, effective compliments have a specific praise. It shows to the child what you appreciate about his behavior. For instance, your son was playing in the park with his ball, when a boy came and took his ball. Your son, instead of been upset like usually he would be, asked the boy if he wanted to play with him and be his friend. You may say, “That was very thoughtful of you, to share the ball with the that boy. After all, it is good to play ball with someone else. It is more fun, isn’t it? Good job. I am proud of you.”

That was a complete and effective way to catch that boy in a good moment and reinforced the strategy that he is already using. Increasing the probability of the child behaving the same way next time.

So, as you can see, you can make any interaction between you and your child be an opportunity for growth, or a teachable moment. It can be in a challenging behavior, with a time to teach a new strategy, or when you are catching them in a good moment and praise effectively to reinforce the specific behavior.

This way, children increase the self-esteem and self-confidence, important micro-skills needed for school and life. They also will improve the relationship with you, as a parent.

3. Model what you want them to learn.

Children will more likely follow what you do, rather than what you say. Parents are the examples for children on how to behave in different situations. So, pay attention to your reactions. Try to be a good role model for what you expect from them.

Every parent is a role model to a child. It is like one says, “Parents are the child’s first teachers.” It may take time, but children will internalize the way parents react in different situations. In the future, children will collect that information from past learned reactions/behaviors. Be aware, they will catch the good and bad examples. The way you manage your frustration or strong emotions in front of your child will most probably be the way your child will manage his/her frustration and strong emotions as well.

Although we do not have a manual for parents, these reflections can be a start of a way that parents can customize their parenting style with the best fit for them and their child.

Let’s Make Every Interaction Count

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