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Home > ABA/Behavior Therapy > Discipline


The Basics of Discipline

Managing the behavior of children is normally a challenge and can be especially frustrating when children have problems with stress or frustration. The information below presents the basics of discipline for children. Not all techniques work all of the time.

When using new behavior management techniques, it is important to ensure that you have a good relationship with the child and then to make sure that you use techniques long enough to determine if they will be of benefit. Generally, this means a two to four week trial of any new technique before giving up.

It is often beneficial to consult with other parents, teachers, or developmental psychologist regarding discipline.


Whenever possible, be consistent with requirements for behavior. Be clear in your mind on what you will allow. Try to reach agreements with other caretakers as to what will be allowed and what types of discipline to use. At home and at school, keep rules simple and to try not to use too many rules. State rules in a positive way. Appropriate rules for a preschool classroom may include "play nicely and don’t hurt others," and "listen to the teacher and follow directions."


Decide in advance on the outcome for the rules. Develop both positive and negative consequences and use the positive consequences as often as you use the negative consequences. Be very clear with the children about these consequences and try to use them often. More information on consequences will follow.


Enforce the rules and consequences as consistently as possible. Children will learn the quickest when the consequences follow the behavior every time the behavior happens. Usually children must experience a number of both positive and negative outcomes before learning, so keep trying. Also be sure to note the paragraph below on staying calm with children. This may be the biggest challenge for us as parents.


Use positive outcomes as often as possible. Try to "catch the child being good." Use praise as frequently as possible. Use physical contact as praise (e.g., a pat on the back or a hug). Draw attention to the effort children devote to a task and praise the effort as well as the product. Encourage young children to repeat positive praise, such as "when I try hard I do good."


The most common reason children misbehave is that they feel the adult does not like them. The most important behavioral intervention is to make sure that you have a good relationship with the child. Spend some time at fun activities with the child. Draw attention to their strengths and successes. Use self-esteem activities to help develop a positive relationship.


Children often misbehave to get attention (for example, by calling out repeatedly when the teacher is leading a group or mother is on the phone). Often these behaviors stop or decrease if no one seems to notice. It is generally helpful to ignore minor misbehaviors that do not seem dangerous to the child. At school, teachers are often successful in ignoring children who call out or make noises. Ignoring is also helpful for behaviors such as using bad words or tattling.


Consider a variety of consequences for misbehavior. Try to use consequences that help the child learn from mistakes rather than simply using consequences that hurt the child for misbehaving.


If the child misbehaves in a situation he or she enjoys, then you can remove them from this situation until they choose to behave. For example, teachers will often have a child sit down on the side of the playground if they don’t behave appropriately. This clearly helps the child make the connection between the behavior and the consequence. This also sets the basis for developing a sense of responsibility.


Sometimes a favorite activity can be used as a positive consequence. Be very clear about what the child must do to earn this positive consequence. Often a privilege or favorite activity can be removed as a punishment (e.g., "You room isn’t clean, so we can’t go to the movie.") However, if you tell the child in advance, it is appropriate to allow them to earn the privilege back through good behavior (e.g., "As soon as your room is clean, we can go to the movie.") This makes it both a punishment and a reward. However, taking or giving privileges is most helpful when the privilege comes fairly quickly, especially for young children.


If misbehavior (especially arguing between children) centers around toys, then the toys can be put in "time out" in order to end the conflict. Tell the children what they must do to earn their toys back from their parents.


Use a variety of types of time out. At home, children can generally be trained to sit on the couch, the parents’ bed, or a bean bag chair as a type of punishment. It may take a number of weeks to get a child to comply with this. Avoid lecturing during time out. Keep time out fairly short. Generally time out should not exceed one minute for each year of age (for example, no more than 10 minutes for a ten year old). Try to make the child feel that he/she is in control of his/her behavior and can choose to cooperate and rejoin the group or activity in a few minutes. The time out can help the child calm down and can also help the child decide if he/she would rather cooperate or stay in time out. The key mistakes with time out are using a lot of lecturing, keeping the child in timeout too long, or allowing the child to get up when they are still misbehaving.


Most children will respond best to discipline that is calm and quiet. Most children tend to get more upset, and lose self-control, when confronted with an angry parent or teacher. Try not to let the child make you angry as they will often do things just to see if they can get you upset. If you stay calm then the child is not getting the upper hand. Calm discipline shows the child you still care and that you are in control. Use time out as a chance to calm down before using other types of discipline. Generally, loud reprimands or screaming make children worse.


Remember that the relationship forms the basis for all behavior management. You must have time in your schedule for fun with the child. You must be able to say nice things to the child and point out their strengths to them. You must use praise and positive techniques if the punishments are to work effectively.

Remember that other parents, teachers, and developmental psychologists have experience and ideas on ways to work with children. Try to be creative and flexible. Remember to pay attention to the relationship.


© Parent-Child Services, Inc. 6/98

William Allen, Ph.D., NASP

Permission to use for educational purposes only, with appropriate reference.

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