Understanding children’s behaviour in the preschool years
Preschoolers need limits that guide them as they grow and explore. Limits and routines give your child security, and help her take on responsibilities when she’s ready.
Preschoolers are trying to understand the world around them so they might sometimes get a bit distracted by what’s going on around them. A good rule is to always allow 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 be just 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 an organised group. Preschool gives your child the chance to play with other children and practice friendship skills.
Some children settle into preschool well. Others take a while to get used to it, and some children might even have fears about starting preschool. It’s worth sticking with it and helping your child settle in at preschool.
What to expect from preschool children’s behaviour
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 lessen after children turn four.
Your child might also have some strong opinions about eating – for example, what kind of food she eats and when. If so, a good rule to keep in mind is that you’re responsible for making healthy food available on a regular basis. Your child can be responsible for deciding how much of the food she eats.
Habits and lying
Lots of children have habits – for example, biting nails. Your child’s habits might bother 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, you can try 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 than children of other ages. It’s often 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 him by acknowledging his fear, gently encouraging him to do things he’s anxious about and praising him when he does. It’s also good to avoid labels like ‘shy’ or ‘anxious’. Step in to help your child only when he actually gets anxious. If shyness or anxiety is affecting your child’s life at home or preschool, see your GP for advice.
Changing preschool children’s behaviour: some tips
Preschoolers have short memories and are easily distracted. You might need to remind your child about things several times.
If you can honestly tell your preschooler how her behaviour affects you, she can recognise her 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 his jigsaw puzzle, try to find a quiet spot where your preschooler can play undisturbed.
When you explain the consequences of behaviour, your preschooler can figure out why something is wrong. This helps her understand the world around her. Sometimes it’s OK not to explain too.
Setting consequences for undesirable behaviour can help to change your child’s behaviour. Sometimes you won’t have to set a consequence at all. The natural consequences of your child’s behaviour will help him learn too – for example, feeling a bit cold because he wouldn’t put on a coat.
Time-out is a type of consequence. It involves having your child go to a place that’s away from interesting activities and other people for a short period of time. You can use it for particularly difficult behaviour, or when you and your child both need a break from each other.
Encouraging your child to change her behaviour can be tricky. But when children get praise, encouragement and rewards for behaving well, they’re likely to want to keep behaving well.
Discipline is helping your child learn how to behave – as well as how not to behave. Discipline works best when it’s firm but fair and when you have a warm and loving relationship with your child.
Discipline doesn’t always, or even often, mean punishment. Punishment by itself doesn’t guide children towards what they should do – it teaches children only what they shouldn’t do.
Punishment doesn’t mean physical punishment. Physical punishment like smacking doesn’t teach children how to behave and can hurt children.
Contact a child health professional if you have concerns about your preschooler’s behaviour or you don’t know what to do about your child’s behaviour.