Virginia Tech® home

Guiding the Behavior of Young Children



Authors as Published

Peggy O. Harrelson, Extension Specialist, Child Development, Virginia State University

Guiding the behavior of young children involves establishing mutual respect and expecting cooperation. Effective discipline is positive and child focused. It encourages self-control and appropriate behavior. Through effective discipline, children can learn to make positive choices, learn problem-solving skills, and learn values of respect and responsibility.

There are several common-sense strategies for effectively guiding the behavior of young children.

Always Focus on the Behavior

It is not children that we want to change. Rather, it is the inappropriate behavior that we want to change. We want to support appropriate behavior. Calling attention to inappropriate behavior lets the child know that the actions are not acceptable, but that the child is still loved. Do not forget to also focus on appropriate behavior. Praise and reinforcement let children know which behaviors are appropriate and acceptable.

Have a Clear Set of Rules and Routines

Rules that are fair and consistently enforced, along with familiar routines, help children know what to expect and to understand their limits. Children should be told, in words they understand, the reasons for each rule.

Be Consistent

Be clear in stating the expectations and consequences of children’s behavior. Set guidelines and limits and stick to them.

Concentrate on Shaping Positive Behavior

Let the child know that you expect positive behavior. Use positive communication with children to help them solve problems. Use gentle reminders about expectations for the child’s behavior.

Structure the Environment To Support Appropriate Behavior

Children are naturally curious. Adults need to “child proof” the environment to allow children to explore without “getting into trouble.” Consistent routines also help children know what is expected of them.

Allow Children To Make Acceptable Choices

Give children the responsibility for their behavior whenever possible. Allow the child to make acceptable choices by offering only choices you can live with.

Allow Children To Experience Logical Consequences

Remind children of limits and consequences in positive ways. When misbehavior occurs, deal with the behavior quickly in a firm, assertive manner. Use time-out as a last resort to help the child regain control of his behavior.

Observe Children and Anticipate Problems

Supervise children carefully. Head off inappropriate behavior by redirecting the child to another activity or area.

Ignore Misbehavior When Appropriate

Try to focus the child’s attention elsewhere. Do not give the child any feedback. However, be sure to give attention to positive behavior.

Interrupt or Stop Behavior That Is Harmful or Unfair

Use assertive intervention to stop harmful behavior. This may include physically removing the child from the situation, when needed, to protect a child or the environment.

Treat Children With “Unconditional Positive Regard”

Children deserve love and respect, even when they misbehave. Controlling behavior is a learning process for children. Adults can teach children appropriate behavior by calling attention to positive behavior, rewarding children with hugs and kisses, and setting and enforcing clear consistent limits. Let children know we do not approve of inappropriate behavior, but we always approve of and love them.

How Do You Guide Children’s Behavior?

1. Keep a one-day record of the positive behavior guidance strategies you use. How many of these are you using?

  • Explain the rule and the reason.
  • Allow children appropriate choices regarding their behavior.
  • Be firm and consistent.
  • Allow children to experience the logical consequences of their actions.
  • Ignore some behaviors.
  • Praise children for appropriate behavior.
  • Hug your children.

2. How many times during the day do you:

  • Give in to inappropriate behavior?
  • Use time-out?
  • Not follow through with stated consequences?

3. Pick one positive discipline technique that you do not currently use and try it for several weeks with a child. Keep notes on how it works for you and the child.

If You Want To Know More

Cherry, C. Parents, Please Don’t Sit On Your Kids. Belmont, CA: David S. Lake, Pub., 1985.

Cline, F. and Fay, J. Parenting With Love And Logic. Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1990.

Crary, E. Without Spanking or Spoiling, 2nd ed. Seattle: Parenting Press, Inc., 1993.

Dinkmeyer, D., McKay, G., and Dinkmeyer, J. Parenting Young Children. Circle Pines, MN: AGS, 1989.

Essa, E. A Practical Guide to Solving Preschool Behavior Problems, 2nd ed. Albany: Delmar Press, 1990.

Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, reprint, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.

Virginia Cooperative Extension is a partnership of Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local governments. Its programs and employment are open to all, regardless of age, color, disability, sex (including pregnancy), gender, gender identity, gender expression, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, military status, or any other basis protected by law

Publication Date

February 27, 2019

Other resources in:

Other resources by:

Other resources from: