By Elizabeth Heubeck
Anyone who has a 4-year-old knows how fun—and infuriating—he or she can be. A preschooler’s energetic and high-spirited nature can make him or her a joy to be around. That is, until his or her stubborn, self-centered side takes over.
A young child’s seemingly impulsive and contrary behavior can catch even the most vigilant of parents off guard—especially if it’s been smooth sailing on the behavior front up until this point. But typically, around preschool age, even children who may have been the sweetest of toddlers begin to try their parents’ patience.
Sound familiar? If so, not to worry. Your preschooler probably is acting like a typical 3- or 4-year-old. And, while you can’t expect to improve his or her behavior overnight, if you can better understand why your preschooler is acting the way he or she is, you may be able to respond to that unwanted behavior in a better, more effective way.
Why the Behavior?
A sudden outburst? An unreasonable response to a reasonable request from an adult? Small hands and feet that suddenly fly to the face and knees of a friend or classmate?
Most experts agree that, in the majority of cases, a preschooler’s undesriable behavior can be traced to an explicable source, with fatigue and hunger at the top of the list.
“Around 11:30 a.m., we often start to see some unwanted behaviors,” says Sue Adair, director of education at The Goddard School, a nationwide early childhood education program with 16 locations in Maryland, including ones in Baltimore, Bel Air, Columbia, Owings Mills, and Pasadena.
Although their energy might seem boundless, preschoolers tend to tire suddenly, leaving them cranky, irritable, and, subsequently, prone to bad behavior, she explains.
In a school setting, the curriculum, or how it’s presented, may sometimes be to blame for bad behavior. If a child is bored, he or she may be more likely, for example, to start shoving the kid next to him or her for entertainment’s sake. Also, if the teacher is talking over his or her head, the child may be more likely to become frustrated, which may lead to him or her acting out.
And then, alas, some children simply crave attention.
“Children who want your attention would prefer a positive response, but they’ll take a negative one,” says Concetta Clark, a 40-year veteran of United Evangelical PACT (Parents and Children Together), a parent-child preschool program in East Baltimore. “Some parents and teachers get into a trap where they’re giving negative feedback, and children start to look for it.”
Preventing Behavior Problems
Even as adults, we can get flustered when our day doesn’t go as expected or when we’re in a situation where we don’t know what to expect from day to day. Imagine, then, how young children must feel when encountering these types of scenarios.
Most experts agree that establishing and maintaining a routine has a critical impact on a young child’s peace of mind and, subsequently, on his or her ability to behave cooperatively. From getting up at around the same time each morning to ending the day with a familiar bedtime routine, regular daily regimens can help make preschoolers feel secure. And when children know what to expect from their surroundings, they’re more likely to do what’s expected of them.
This applies at home as well as at school.
“We establish clear and simple rules,” says Adair, suggesting that this may not always happen in home settings. “A lot of times, [a child’s] parents have different takes on what’s acceptable.”
She urges mom and dad to find some common ground and present a unified front to their children.
Use Words Strategically
In addition, according to early childhood experts, what we say—or don’t say—to our children to address a behavioral problem can make a big difference.
Adair advises parents to validate feelings that may provoke an unwanted behavior while not condoning any such behavior that may, in fact, occur.
“Tell your child, ‘It’s okay to be angry,” she says. “’But we don’t hurt our friends when we’re angry.’”
In some situations, however, experts suggest that no feedback is the best feedback.
“If a child is acting out and having a temper tantrum, as long as no one is being injured, we advise teachers to ignore the child,” says Adair.
Dawn Katz, a Towson mother of three boys, says one of the best pieces of advice she’s gotten on discipline, from a behavioral pediatrician no less, was to avoid talking too much while addressing a behavioral issue.
“He advised me to take my child to the timeout in silence,” explains Katz, who has taken that advice one step further and now reminds her children what she expects of them before they enter situations known to spark unacceptable behavior.
“Before we sit down at the dinner table, I’ll have a quick conversation about how we don’t throw food,” she says. “And I’ll remind them then that if they do, they’ll get a timeout.”
Clark, meanwhile, believes that, when two young children are locked in a standoff, say over sharing a coveted toy, the best way to resolve the situation may be asking them to work it out.
“If two children want the same toy, we try not to take the toy away completely or arbitrarily choose who we think should have it,” says Clark.
Instead, the teacher can verbalize the challenge by saying something such as, “We have a problem: one truck, two boys.”
“Our hope is that they begin to verbalize how to work that out,” adds Clark.
Respond to Bad Behavior
But, regardless of what adults say or don’t say, preschoolers are bound to test the limits of acceptable behavior at one time or another. And, as adults, we’ve got to be ready to respond—regardless of what particular techniques we might employ.
“We don’t use timeouts. We prefer to redirect, or get them involved in another activity,” says Adair, adding that this tactic, in her experience, when also used at home by the parents, has proven to be effective at keeping behavior problems at bay in the classroom.
In Clark’s classrooms, teachers attempt to promote positive behavior—even when the students aren’t behaving particularly well.
“If a child is standing on a chair, we try to say things like, ‘In school, our seats stay on the stool,’” says Clark. “We don’t use negative language.”
Although, in general, early childhood programs appear to be moving away from using timeouts, many parents still rely on this time-honored behavioral strategy.
“For us, the timeouts calm down the behavior for the moment,” notes Katz, the Towson mother, while acknowledging that they’re not a magic bullet.
Kelly Klug, a Timonium mom of three boys, has been using timeouts with her children since her oldest son, who is now 7, was 2 years old. Her patented strategy is to sit them down for as many minutes as they are old, such as two minutes for a 2-year-old.
But, Klug admits, this strategy worked a lot better when she only had only one child.
“My youngest is the least responsive to it,” says Klug of her 4-year-old. “There’s usually so much going on when he’s acting up that he just toddles away from his timeout, or the other kids go to him while he’s sitting there.”
Finally, there is always spanking—that severe and swift punishment that many readers may vividly remember receiving as children. It’s rarely even discussed these days, let alone used. However, some parents will admit to spanking, or having spanked, their children at some point or another when pressed—and often regretting it afterwards.
“My husband and I both realize it’s really just a parental temper tantrum,” says Katz. “It doesn’t work, period.” BC
Elizabeth Heubeck also writes the Baltimore’s Child Baby & Toddler column.. Elizabeth@BaltimoresChild.com.
©Baltimore’s Child 11/2010