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.

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 to do about bullying 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.

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 – 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.

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 preschool children’s behaviour: some tips

Use reminders
Preschoolers have short memories and are easily distracted. You might need to remind your child about things several times.

Share feelings
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.

Use consequences
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.

Try rewards
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.

Our Preschoolers Behaviour Toolkit has information on tailoring behaviour management strategies to your preschooler’s behaviour.


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.

When your child’s behaviour is challenging you might feel angry or stressed. Looking after yourself by eating well, getting enough sleep and doing some physical activity can help. It can also help to talk about your feelings with someone you trust, like your partner, a friend or your GP. Or you could call a parenting helpline in your state or territory.