Child behaviour in the preschool years: what to expect
Preschoolers are curious, energetic and fascinated by the world around them. This means you can expect many ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions. You can also expect things to take a little longer, as your child explores their environment. For example, a walk to the letterbox might involve stopping to look at a bug on the footpath.
As preschoolers try to understand the world, they can sometimes get distracted. It might seem like your child isn’t listening to you – but they might still be trying to figure out something you said 5 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. Plenty 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 will still need your help with expressing emotions and behaving in positive ways, especially in challenging situations.
Going to preschool: why it’s good for children
Children can benefit from going to preschool at this age.
At preschool, your child can learn and develop new skills through play. These include skills like sharing, taking turns and problem-solving, which are important for getting along with other children and making friends. Preschool also gives your child the chance to practise following other people’s rules, which is good preparation for school later on.
Some children can take a while to get used to preschool, and other children have fears about starting preschool. But it’s worth sticking with it. If you’re concerned about how your child is settling in at preschool, start by talking with your child’s preschool teacher.
Guiding preschoolers towards positive behaviour
A positive and constructive approach is the best way to guide your child’s behaviour.
This means giving your child positive attention, praise and encouragement for behaviour that’s important in your family – for example, being cooperative, thinking of others and sticking to family rules.
Preschoolers will probably need help to understand, remember and practise this kind of behaviour. These strategies and tips can help:
- Family rules – these are positive statements about how your family wants to look after and treat each other. For example, ‘We say please when we ask for something’.
- Routines – these help families know who should do what, when, in what order and how often. For example, ‘We take turns setting the table for dinner each night’.
- Clear, positive and short instructions – these tell your child what to do and can help your child do things well. For example, ‘Please chew with your mouth closed’.
- Reminders – these can keep your child on track, especially if your child is distracted or forgetful. For example, start by saying, ‘We’re going home soon’. Then remind your child by saying, ‘Two more slides, and then we’re going’.
- A helpful environment – this can make it easier for your child to behave in positive ways. For example, if your child is getting frustrated because your baby is crawling over a jigsaw, find a quiet spot where your child can play undisturbed.
There will be times when you need to use a consequence to reinforce messages about positive behaviour. This might be when reminding your child of the rules, giving a clear instruction or setting up a helpful environment hasn’t worked. You can tailor consequences to different situations, but consequences are always best when combined with a focus on positive behaviour.
Positive behaviour strategies work best when you’re spending warm and responsive time with your child, strengthening your family relationships with affection and communication, and tuning in to your child’s emotions. This is what children need to develop and learn, including to learn about positive behaviour.
Child behaviour concerns in the preschool years
Anxiety, worries and fears
Anxiety, worries and fears are a typical part of children’s development. For example, preschoolers often fear things like being away from their parents or being in the dark. Anxiety, worries and fears can make your child cling to you, avoid going places, or want reassurance. If your child worries a lot or shows signs of anxiety, you can support your child by acknowledging their fear, gently encouraging them to do things they’re anxious about and praising them when they do. If anxiety is affecting your child’s life, see your GP.
Bullying in preschool is less common than fighting, but it can harm children’s confidence and self-esteem. If your child is being bullied at preschool, they need a lot of love and support, both at home and preschool. Your child also needs to know that you’ll take action to prevent any further bullying.
It’s common for preschoolers to be very energetic. Many preschoolers can use up their energy during the day through play, physical activity and learning. But being still and quiet for long can be hard for preschoolers, so it’s good to plan for these times. For example, if you have a GP appointment, try to give your child the chance to run around outside beforehand.
If you’re concerned that your child’s energy is unusual for their age or makes it hard for them to participate in learning or social activities, talk with your child and family health nurse or GP.
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.
It’s common for preschoolers to have difficulties with focusing on instructions and activities. It can be particularly hard when the instructions or activities are long or complicated. It can help to break down instructions into chunks and give your child breaks from complicated activities.
Many children have habits, like sucking their thumb, biting their nails or twirling their 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 3 years of age. If this happens with your child, try to focus on the value of honesty and telling the truth.
Shy behaviour is common in preschoolers. If your child is slow to warm up, try to support them 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 saying hello to, responding to or playing with others.
If your child has tantrums, it might help to remember that your child is still learning appropriate ways to express feelings. Tuning in to your child’s feelings can help, as can recognising and avoiding your child’s tantrum triggers. You should see fewer tantrums after your child turns 4.
Don’t worry if your preschooler has an imaginary friend. Make-believe friends grow out of healthy, active imaginations. They give children a great way to express feelings and practise social skills.
Preschooler behaviour and your feelings
It’s natural to find your child’s behaviour challenging at times.
Calmly telling your child how you feel is a great strategy for these times. For example, ‘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. Naming your feelings also helps your child learn words to describe and understand their own feelings.
It can also help to talk about your feelings with someone you trust, like your partner, a friend, or your child and family health nurse or GP. Or you could call a parenting helpline in your state or territory.
Your GP or nurse can also help if you have concerns about your child’s behaviour or you just don’t know what to do about it.
Corporal punishment including smacking doesn’t teach children how to behave. It can hurt children and affect them in the longer term. It can also make children scared of you, which makes it harder to encourage them to behave in positive ways.