Child behaviour in the preschool years
Preschoolers are fascinated by the world around them, so you can expect lots of ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions. You might need to allow more time when you’re doing things with your preschooler – for example, so she can stop and look at a bug on the footpath.
As they try to understand the world, preschoolers can sometimes get distracted. It might seem like your preschooler isn’t listening to you – but he might still be trying to figure out something you said five minutes ago.
Independence is important to preschoolers, who are very keen to do things for themselves. But your child needs your support to build confidence and self-esteem. Lots of positive attention, praise and opportunities to practise new skills will help.
And preschoolers are getting better at self-regulation, which is great for getting along with others at preschool or playgroup. But your child still needs your help with expressing strong feelings appropriately and managing behaviour, especially in challenging situations.
Going to preschool: why it’s good for children
Children can benefit from going to preschool at this age.
Some children can take a while to get used to preschool or have fears about starting preschool. But it’s worth sticking with it because preschool gives your child the chance to make friends and practise skills like sharing and taking turns. At preschool, children can start learning about following other people’s rules and getting along with other children.
Child behaviour concerns in the preschool years
Anxiety is a normal part of children’s development, and preschoolers often fear things like being on their own or being in the dark. If your child worries too much or 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. If anxiety is affecting your child’s life, see your GP.
Bullying can be devastating for children’s confidence and self-esteem, especially in the preschool years. If your child is being bullied at preschool, he needs lots of love and support, both at home and at preschool. He also needs to know that you’ll take action to prevent any further bullying.
Disagreements and fighting among children are very common. A few factors affect fighting – temperament, environment, age and skills. You can work with these factors to handle fighting in your family.
Lots of children have habits, like biting nails or twirling hair. Your child’s habits might bother you, but usually it’s nothing to worry about. Most habits go away by themselves.
You might have caught your child telling the occasional lie. Lying is part of development, and it often starts around three years of age. It’s usually better to teach young children the value of honesty and telling the truth than to punish them for small lies.
Shy behaviour is normal in preschoolers. If your child is slow to warm up, try to support her in social situations. For example, you could stay at preschool for a while in the mornings during the early days. It’s also good to praise your child for brave social behaviour, like responding to others, using eye contact, or playing away from you.
If your child has tantrums, it might help to remember that he’s still learning appropriate ways to express feelings. If you work on reducing your child’s stress, tuning into your child’s feelings, and spotting your child’s tantrum triggers, you should see fewer tantrums after he turns four.
Don’t worry if your preschooler has an imaginary friend. Make-believe mates grow out of healthy, active imaginations. They give children a great way to express feelings and practise social skills.
Helping preschool children behave well: tips
Preschoolers have short memories and are easily distracted. You might need to remind your child about things several times. For example, when it’s nearly time to leave the park, try saying ‘Adele, we’re going home soon’. Then give another reminder closer to the time you are leaving – ‘Adele, two more slides then we’re going’.
If your preschooler understands how her behaviour affects you, she might 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.
Preschooler discipline and guiding child behaviour
Discipline is helping your child learn how to behave – as well as how not to behave.
Discipline works best when you have a warm and loving relationship with your child and encourage good behaviour – for example, by using routines, clear instructions and plenty of praise for behaving well.
Family rules are a key aspect of discipline for children of all ages. They guide children’s behaviour in positive ways by stating exactly what behaviour you expect. But preschoolers are likely to forget or ignore rules, so they’ll need support and reminders to follow them.
Consequences are a handy way to guide children’s behaviour because they make it clear to children what not to do. You can tailor consequences to different situations, but consequences are always best when combined with a focus on your child’s positive behaviour.
Physical punishment like smacking doesn’t teach children how to behave and can hurt children. It can also make children scared of you, which makes it harder to teach them how to behave well.
Your preschoolers’s behaviour and your feelings
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.
Contact a child health professional if you have concerns about your child’s behaviour or you just don’t know what to do about it.