Discipline in Child Care Programs and Classrooms

Sharing is caring!


Try to remember…We are here to meet the children’s needs–not for them to meet ours!!!

Once we understand that discipline has nothing to do with ‘punishment’ and it’s all about helping children learn appropriate behavior–and the various ways to do it–we’re on our way!

The word discipline means ‘to teach’; disciples learn.
With discipline, our goal should be to help children become responsible and take ownership of their actions and behavior. It’s helpful to remember that it’s a lot easier to be good when we feel good!

This page was written primarily for child care programs–but but can help all working or raising children…


1. State clear messages to  children if you want them to do something specifically. “Those toys belong there,” is unclear–a clear message would be “Those toys belong on the bottom shelf, next to the blocks.”

2. Give children choices, but only when you want them to make a choice. Many times we ask children a question even though they really have no choice. “Do you want to clean up now”? Is a good example of a statement that seems like the children have a choice-they have to clean up, because mom has arrived, or it’s a transition time.

3. Don’t add the word “O.K”, or let your voice go up at the end of the statement. Again, this sounds like a question that gives the child choice. It also takes away the authority of your statement.

4. Make comments sound sincere. “You were really good today, is vague and may sound insincere. “I really liked the way you picked up the Legos and put them in the close, is specific and sounds sincere-it tells the child what you are thinking.


1. Only enforce legitimate rules–rules that deal with safety, property, and rights. Make sure there are valid reasons for the rules the children are expected to follow. If there is not a good reason for a rule-don’t have it. Refrain from saying “NO” unless there is a good reason to say “No”.  Always give children the answer to their “why”.

2Use a peace wall— where rules, steps of conflict resolution, and community and self-esteem building posters are placed. Make sure the children know the rules—review them as needed. Remember to acclimate all new children. When needed take the children to the rules that need to be addressed.

3. Have a consistent routine so the children will know what is expected of them. Consistency gives children a feeling of control. Let the children know what will happen, ‘when, during, before, after, and when there will be a change to the schedule or routine’.

4. Use natural and logical consequences when possible. Do not put a consequence in place that does not make sense, or is not related to the behavior.

A NATURAL CONSEQUENCE  itself is sufficient.

  • If anything beyond understanding is spoken, it is punishment.
  • If children don’t eat their snack, and later come to you saying they are hungry, just say, “It is uncomfortable being hungry-soon you’ll have dinner at home.

If you say, “I KNEW you’d be hungry!” as well as, “How many times do I have to tell you to eat!?”– It’s no longer a natural consequence but a punishment. They know they didn’t eat–and that it’s uncomfortable–maybe next time they’ll eat.

Logical consequences make sense, and in some way are related to the behavior. Examples:

  • Children drop beads they are stringing; they pick them up.
  • A child tears up someone’s paper craft; the child repairs it or helps make a new one.
  • Someone stays at the computer 15 minutes too long; they lose 15 minutes.
  • Paper on the floor–it is cleaned up.
  • Child behaves inappropriately at the craft table or in the gym; after a warning, he/she leaves the area until they remember to follow the rule.
  • Children run down the hall; they turn around, go back and walk.
  • Spills drink; wipes it up.

Again, only apply the logical consequence. If any words are spoken such as, “How many times have I told you to be careful?!”  It is no longer a logical consequence, but a punishment.


Children remember more of what we do, than what we say. Eighty per cent of children’s behavior is learned through observation of adult behavior (Albert Bandur-Social Learning Theory)

1. Follow the children’s rules-model appropriate behavior in speech.
The following examples have actually been overheard at afterschool sites– Refrain from comments such as:

  • I needed to get drunk to get my ears pierced.
  • I snuck into the movies, without paying.
  • I need a cigarette (or drink).
  • Say to a co-worker that a certain staff person (or parent) “drives me nuts”.
  • Gossip about anyone! You’d be amazed at what the children hear when we think they’re not listening…

2. Model appropriate behavior in action.

  • If the rule is “we use inside voices,”then use an inside voice.
  • If then rule is “we eat and drink seated at a table”-then be sure not to walk around with your coffee cup or drink.
  • With the rule being “we cover the table for messy projects”, be sure you cover the table.

3. Be aware of your tone of voice and body language, when talking to children and staff. It is never appropriate to yell, use sarcasm, or belittle them. If you feel yourself getting angry, tell them you need a time out, and will talk to them when you have cooled down.

If you have lost your temper, tell the child you are sorry. You were angry, but it wasn’t o.k. for you to talk to them like that. (For adults and children alike, it is o.k. to be angry, but handle it appropriately)

4. As a staff, be consistent to program/school philosophy and discipline methods. Be supportive of each other, otherwise the children do not have definite boundaries to work within. Lack of consistency often reflects arguing, tattle tales and name-calling.

5. Know child development!
Understand the general stages of the mixed ages, as well as being aware of each child’s individuality.

According to Dr. Becky Bailey:

  • Children see things in black and white–not shades of gray. They are literal. Being “Fair” is all important!
  • Children do not incorporate the contraction “don’t” into their cognitive development, until they are six or seven years old. When you say, “don’t jump on the couch”, they hear, “jump on the couch”! Tell the child what you want him to do-instead of what you don’t want him to do. “We sit on the couch” is an example. Also, children hear the last words that are said. Don’t sit on the couch—is heard as, “Sit on the couch.
  • Children do not think in words until they are six or seven. He will not be able to think what he has done–if this cognitive process has not been added to his development.
  • Understand what to expect of motor coordination in the mixed ages. Don’t fault a child for not throwing/kicking within a designated area, if he does not have the gross motor ability.
  • It may take 2000 repetitions, for a child to hear something, before it is cognitively developed. Keep reminding the children of the rules. According to Dr. William Glass, adults only remember 20% of what they’ve heard. How can we expect a child to remember with one or two comments?


1. When possible, try to ignore attention-seeking behaviors of whining, tattling, and tantrums, as long as no one is getting hurt, and all is safe.
When possible, give attention to appropriate behavior, by noticing, commenting and spending some one-on-one time with the child. Some unwanted behaviors might dissipate if we can ignore them long enough.
Incidents with verbal/physical abuse should never be ignored.

2. At times you will have a passive child. If the child is not looking for attention and doesn’t know how to be assertive when others are being physically/ verbally abusive, give him the words and help him build assertiveness skills.

When Tommy is upset that someone took his toy, ask if he liked what happened. (If he answers with a strong “NO!”–brainstorm with him to solve the problem.
If he says, “no” in a very quiet, passive voice, rehearse with him in saying, “I feel angry when you take my toys. Stop.” If you don’t rehearse exact words-the child will become confused during the confrontation.
You then go with Tommy to the other child. Tommy tells the other child, “I feel angry when you take my toys. Stop”
Staff person says, “Tommy has told you he feels angry when you take his toys, and to stop.” “I’m here to make sure it doesn’t happen again’.

3. Give  children a warning before transition time is put in place. Let the children know before they will need to stop playing or at other transitions.

4. Do not assume the challenging child is always the instigator/culprit-and the good child is the innocent one! Investigate.
Find out what happened previous to what you saw-and before that.
Keep judgmental comments to yourself.

5. If you see a child doing something, do not ask if it happened. (A child hitting another child). Many times if backed into a corner a child will lie. If you saw a child do something-tell him you saw what happened.

6. Don’t ask children “WHY” they did something. Most of the time they don’t know why.

  • The child giving you a reason validates the behavior. He gave you a reason-so this makes it O.K.
  • Asking “why” may tell the child you don’t have a clue!
  • Whatever the problem — implement appropriate behavioral management. Use redirection, natural or logical consequences, conflict resolution, the peace wall, removal from the area, or talking about the behavior.

7. Don’t ever MAKE children say they are sorry. At that point the child will most likely not be sorry.
Yes, we do want them to say, “I’m sorry” but on their own.
It would not be a good trait to carry into adulthood, where all a person needs to do is say, “WelL, I SAID I was SORRY!” and everything is resolved.

  • We should model and use appropriate words by first telling the aggressed child “we are sorry”.
  • What you do after investigating is to have the injured party tell the other child how he/she feels.
  • If the aggressor takes ownership, responsibility, and discusses alternative behavior, nothing more is needed. If you need to talk to the aggressive child-send the other child away. (Privacy)
  • If the aggressor does not take responsibility nor discuss it, then the parent should be involved and/ or a behavior notice step taken —whichever is indicated.

8. If you are having problems of aggression with children, discuss how they will handle their behavior, prior to entering the problem play area. Do this until it is no longer needed.

9. Stay away from power struggles. Remember it takes two people to argue.
Stay calm and in control. We operate from the brain cortex when in control–when angry, this shifts to the limbic, where it is difficult to stay calm. Tell the children it is O.K. to be angry, and then help them find appropriate ways to cope with their frustrations.

10. It is not necessary to inform parents of every infraction. If the child has taken ownership/responsibility for minor problems–it has been resolved.

  • If you involve the parents after children have taken responsibility, you are telling the children you do not trust them.
  • If you need to talk with the parent for a more serious behavior challenge, explain to the child that you trust him/her and they are not in trouble with you. However, because it is serious, the two of you will talk to the parent together.

11. If you do need to talk to a parent, have the child present, and if possible have the child present the behavior issue.
If not present, children may think you are talking against them, behind their backs, or they may be concerned with parental anger issues.

12. When a child comes to you with a problem, do not automatically tell him what to do. It is our goal to empower the child and guide them towards self-discipline.

13. Learn Steps of Conflict Resolution.  An easy method to remember is ABCD.
Ask. Brainstorm. Choose. Do it!

  • When generating ideas—have three to choose from. If all involved are not happy with the choice– continue.

You have not solved the problem until all parties are satisfied. Example:

  • First, make a warning statement to the child.
  • Next, repeat the rule and clearly state the consequence that will result if the rule continues to be broken. “Tommy, I’m concerned that you’re throwing the ball too hard. Someone is going to get hurt. Either throw more gently, or you will have to leave, and find something else to do.”
  • If difficulty continues, calmly tell the child to leave the area, and find something else to do; however, he is welcome back when he knows he can remember to ______! “Tommy, you’re still throwing the ball too hard. It looks like you’re having a hard time   remembering to be gentle. Go into the other room and find something else to do. When you know you can remember to throw it lighter, you’re welcome back to the gym.”
  • If he continues to behave inappropriately when/if he returns, he will have to leave the area for the day.
  • If the child does not cooperate, the behavior must be discussed with the parent (with the child present). If this is an ongoing disruptive pattern, a written behavior notice is indicated.

TIPS, IDEAS, Things to think about…


At the beginning of the school year introduce rules. For the first rule have…  ‘Enter the room with a smile!’ Discuss how important it is to spread joy and it starts with them. Take pictures of  students smiling. Select different students weekly that are smiling and display them in an area of the hall. Do not tell them who will be selected as “Students of Joy!” for the week. Include classroom behavior for the month and smile before displaying their picture. You may also have other students take pictures if you have a digital camera.” (Source:  Nell Clark, Computer Teacher  at teachnology.com )

Something to think about…BEHAVIOR LABELING
By Dixie Fletcher

If an adult is reinforced for behaving appropriately we call it recognition.
If a child is reinforced for behaving appropriately we call it bribery.

If an adult laughs we call it socializing.
If a child laughs we call it misbehaving.

If an adult writes in a book we call it doodling.
If a child writes in a book we call it destroying property.

If an adult sticks to something we call it perseverance.
Of a child sticks to something we call it stubbornness.

If an adult seeks help we call it consulting.
If a child seeks help we call it whining.

If an adult is not paying attention we call it preoccupation.
Of a child is not paying attention we call it distractibility.

If an adult forgets something we call it absent mindedness.
If a child forgets something we call it attention deficit.

If an adult tells his side of a story we call it clarification.
If a child tells his side of a story we call it talking back.

If an adult raise his voice in anger we call it maintaining control.
If a chiild raises his voice in anger we call it a temper tantrum.
If an adult hits a child we call it discipline.
If a child hits a child we call it fighting.

If an adult behaves in an unusual way we call him unique.
If a child behaves in an unusual way we call him in for a

For other poems, stories, quotes, click here…

THE TALKING STONE or Stick (Use with Pre-K and up!) 
Often during circle or group time, many children want to talk at once. One way to help children learn how to take turns is to use a visual clue. Teachers/caregivers might try using a “talking stick” or “talking stone”. This is a tradition with some Native Americans. Hold your ‘stick’ or ‘stone’ while you speak and then pass it on when it’s time for another person to talk.

You can use a colorful rock or decorate your stick in a special way. This technique helps young children learn to respect the speaker and to wait and listen. Continue with this idea and soon the children will be reminding each other.

This version is adapted from preschoolrainbow.org; however, I used this method for 20 years when having group meetings with youth. I also made a “Talking Mouth” out of a rolled up pair of white socks and in the past used a stone and feather. It works!!! Until recently, I didn’t know that it has Native American origin. It was something that I just thought of… 30 plus years ago! (Barb)


The first few days of school and after-school care– should be spent getting acclimated to each other, learning class/ program rules, routines, and centers.

Activities should not be too long or too complicated until behavior management has been established. This doesn’t mean you should not plan activities. In fact, ‘overplan’ to make sure there is enough material and things to do.

Also, make sure everything is prepared so you don’t waste valuable time and lose children’s attention. The first few weeks of school tend to be the hardest for both students and teachers, but remember that with time and practice a routine will be established!


Sharing is caring!

Leave a Comment