By Raising Children Network
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Little girls and mums at preschool

Preschoolers are working out that other people have feelings too. When they remember, they’ll want to be considerate of those feelings.

Understanding preschooler behaviour

Preschoolers need boundaries that guide their natural enthusiasm but that don’t dampen their passion for life. Boundaries and routines offer security. They protect preschoolers from getting overwhelmed by too much responsibility before they’re ready.

Preschoolers are trying to understand the world around them, so we have to forgive them for being a bit distracted. A good rule is to always budget for another 30 minutes when doing things with your preschooler.

Preschool children are also still learning the everyday things that we take for granted, like how we talk to each other. For example, you might think your preschooler isn’t listening to you – but he might still be trying to figure out what someone said five minutes ago!

Going to preschool
At this age, children can really benefit from going to preschool. This is where they can start learning about other people’s rules and how to get along with other children in a formal setting. Preschool gives your child the chance to play with other children and practice friendship skills. 

Some children settle into a preschool with no worries at all. Others take a while to warm up. Let your child take it slowly, but also be firm. It’s worth sticking with it and helping your child overcome fears about starting preschool.

For most children, preschool is a positive experience. But sometimes preschoolers can experience bullying. Here are some tips on how to spot if your child is being bullied and what you can do about it.

What to expect

Tantrums and other troubles
If your child has tantrums, it might help to know that this behaviour is still very common among children aged 18-36 months. Hang in there – tantrums tend to tail off after children turn four.

You might also still have some eating battles with your child. If so, a good rule to keep in mind is that, as the parent, you’re responsible for making healthy food available on a regular basis. Your child can be responsible for deciding how much of the food gets eaten.

Some fights are a fact of life when kids get together. A few factors affect fighting – temperament, environment, age and skills. You can work with these factors to handle fighting in your family. 

Habits and lying
Lots of children have habits. Your child’s habits might bother or frustrate you, but usually it’s nothing to worry about. Most habits go away by themselves. But if your child’s habit is interfering with everyday activities, has become embarrassing, or is even causing some harm, there are things you can do to help your child break the habit.

You might have caught your child telling the occasional lie. Lying is part of a child’s development, and it often starts around three years of age. Children aged 4-6 years usually lie a bit more. Generally, it’s better to teach children the value of honesty and telling the truth than to punish them for small lies. 

Anxiety is a normal part of children’s development, and preschoolers often fear being on their own and in the dark. If your child shows signs of anxiety, you can support her by acknowledging her fear, gently encouraging her to do things she’s anxious about and praising her when she does, and avoiding labels like ’shy’ or ’anxious’. Step in to help her only when she actually gets anxious.

Video Discouraging behaviour

This video shows you how to discourage bad or inappropriate behaviour in children. It covers strategies such as empathy, distraction, ignoring, using consequences and communicating clearly with your child about what you expect. You might need to experiment to work out which strategies are best for your child.
Don’t worry if your child has a imaginary friend at this age. Make-believe mates grow out of healthy, active imaginations, give children a great way to express their feelings, and give children someone to practise social skills with.

Changing preschooler behaviour: some tips

Use reminders
Preschoolers have short memories and are easily distracted. You might need to remind your child about things several times. (You can test this by saying, ‘I’ll give you a treat tomorrow morning’ and see if your preschooler remembers!)

Share feelings
If you can honestly tell your preschooler how his behaviour affects you, he can recognise his own emotions in yours, like a mirror, and be able to feel for you. So you might say, ‘I'm getting upset because there’s so much noise, and I can’t talk on the phone’. When you start the sentence with ‘I’, it gives your child the chance to change things for your sake.

Change the environment
You can often prevent or minimise problem behaviour by changing your child’s environment. For example, if your preschooler is getting frustrated because your baby keeps crawling over her jigsaw puzzle, try to find a quiet spot where your preschooler can play undisturbed.

Use consequences
When you explain the consequences of behaviour, your preschooler can figure out why something is wrong. This helps give him a better understanding of the world around him. Sometimes it’s OK not to explain too – for example, the most effective way to deal with your child’s swearing is to ignore the swearing completely.

Your preschooler can help set the consequences for undesirable behaviour – or at least agree to what you set. It’s amazing how much easier it is when children know what consequences to expect because they’ve already agreed on them. But sometimes you won’t have to set a consequence at all – you can just let your child begin to develop responsibility through experiencing the natural consequences of behaviour, like feeling a bit cold for refusing to put on a coat.

Time-out is a type of consequence. It involves having your child go to a place that’s apart from interesting activities, and other people, for a short period of time. It can be used for particularly difficult behaviour, or when you and your child both need a break from each other.

Try rewards
Encouraging your child to change her behaviour can be tricky. When children get praise, encouragement and rewards for behaving well, they’re likely to want to keep behaving well.


You can find extra information and more strategies for encouraging good behaviour in our preschoolers behaviour toolkit


The word ‘disciplinemeans ‘to teach’ – not necessarily to punish. The true goal is to teach your child the rules of behaviour so he can use them.

Children learn self-discipline by growing up in a loving family, with fair and predictable rules and expectations. Punishment can actually interfere with their development of self-discipline.

Physical punishment doesn’t help children learn proper behaviour. It doesn’t give them the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. Instead, it can make them fearful, insecure and resentful. Children learn from example, and hitting teaches them to get what they want by hitting. 

If you have concerns about your preschooler’s behaviour, seek professional help. You can also read more practical advice about discipline.

Some parents might hit their child because they’re trying to relieve their own tension or stress in a situation. For more help with managing your own stress and angry feelings, try reading Feeling stressed and When you feel you might hurt your child


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  • Newsletter snippet: Preschooler behaviour: what to expect

    By Raising Children Network

    Preschoolers benefit from having boundaries and a regular routine in their lives. It gives them guidance while they learn and explore the world around them. Preschool can give your child the chance to learn about getting along with other children.

    At this age, you might expect some tantrums, eating battles, lying, imaginary friends, habits and maybe even anxiety. These things are usually normal.

    Behaviour tips

    • Your preschooler has a short memory so you might need to remind her about things several times.
    • Let your preschooler know how his behaviour makes you feel so he can identify with your feelings.
    • Explain the consequences of her behaviour so she can understand why something is wrong.
    • Praise, encouragement and rewards can kick-start good behaviour.
    • Use ‘time-out’ as a discipline tool to discourage undesirable behaviour.
    • Children learn self-discipline by having fair and predictable rules and expectations.
    • Children learn from example, so physical punishment as a form of discipline doesn’t help them learn appropriate behaviour.

    This article is an extract only. For more information, visit

    Sourced from the Raising Children Network's comprehensive and quality-assured Australian parenting website,

  • Last updated or reviewed 12-12-2011