About a year ago, I published a post entitled Preschoolers Playing the Odds about the tendency for parents of young children to issue far too many unimportant commands and to follow through on a very small number of them. This parenting mistake is sometimes referred to as command overload. I recommend reading, or rereading, that post before continuing on with this one. Limiting commands issued to preschoolers to those that are truly important is an essential first step in improving young children’s compliance.
Even when parents do everything correctly, preschoolers will not always comply. There are many reasons they don’t do what they are told. Sometimes they are asserting their independence and attempting to control what is happening around them. Sometimes they are just having a really good time and don’t want to put their toys away. Sometimes they are just cranky and don’t feel like washing their hands for dinner. Children this age have very poor time awareness, so the concept of “hurrying” is completely lost on them. I don’t think preschoolers are ever really intentionally driving their parents crazy, even though to parents, it often feels this way.
The best way to improve a young child’s compliance is to issue clear commands, with one warning when needed , and then to offer a positive or negative consequence, depending on your child’s response. This sequence must be repeated consistently in order to shift the odds in your favor.
If your child complies with a command, then offer praise, a hug, a star on a chart. If your child does not comply, then here are your best options:
- Toy Time Out (TTO). This strategy is appropriate when a child is engaging in a behavior that is destructive or otherwise inappropriate with a toy or other object. Examples include coloring on the wall, throwing blocks at a sibling, or tearing pages from a book. First say, “Eli, do not tear the pages.” If he continues, say, “Eli this is the last time I will tell you to stop tearing the pages.” If the inappropriate behavior continues still, then a TTO is your best option. TTO sounds like this: “Eli, I’m taking the book because you are tearing the pages. I will give it back to you in 5 minutes so you can try again to be gentle with the book.” It is best when parents can use a very matter-of-fact tone of voice. When using TTO, it is essential to give your child another opportunity to use the toy or other object appropriately. If he does, then offer praise and attention: “I love the way you are handling the book carefully. Maybe we can look at it together.” If he resumes the inappropriate behavior, then take the toy away again, saying in a firm voice, “No tearing the pages. You can try again with the book later.” Allow an hour or more to pass before giving another try with the toy.
- Time Out (TO). This strategy is appropriate when a young child’s behavior is inappropriate but there is not a toy or other object that can be removed. Examples include a child slamming a cabinet door over and over, pulling flowers from a garden, or calling a sibling mean names. First, a parent should say, in a neutral tone of voice, “Ella, stop calling your brother mean names.” If she continues, say “I have already told you to stop calling your brother mean names.” If the name-calling continues, a TO is appropriate. TO sounds like this: “Ella, time out for calling your brother mean names. Sit here for 3 minutes and then you can try again to play nicely with him.” I do not think it is essential for children this young to have a special TO chair or location (this just creates the opportunity for another power struggle!), but they should not have anything to play with, and you should be able to monitor their behavior without interacting with them. TO is short for Time Out from Reinforcement. Remember that your attention is the most powerful reinforcer of all so it is imperative that you keep eye contact and conversation to a bare minimum. If your child attempts to leave TO, then say “Time out begins when you sit down.” It is easier for children to comply with TO if there is a timer with a visual representation of the passage of time (i.e., not digital) placed within their sight. As soon as the TO ends, remind your child to use appropriate behavior: “Ella, I know you can play nicely with your brother.” If she complies, offer praise and attention. If she resumes the inappropriate behavior, then give her another TO.
- Offering an Alternative (OA). For behaviors that are not dangerous, destructive, or violations of another’s rights, it may make sense to try this strategy before using TTO or TO. Preschoolers are usually pretty easily distracted (except when they aren’t!) Here are some examples of this strategy:
- You are really in the mood for banging. Maybe you could try these wooden spoons and bucket instead.
- The flowers in Daddy’s garden need to grow some more. If you want to pick flowers, these dandelions would make a pretty bouquet.
- You seem really angry at your brother. Let’s find different words to tell him why you are mad.
If your child moves on to another, more appropriate activity, offer praise and attention. If OA fails, then TTO or TO should be the next step.
TTO and TO work because they teach young children that good behavior results in good outcomes (praise, attention, a sticker) and undesirable behavior results in undesirable outcomes (loss of attention and loss of opportunity to play). Both types of consequences are necessary; relying exclusively on negative consequences teaches children that the most effective way to get attention from parents is to misbehave.
Preschoolers are filled with awe and delight as well as determination and independence. The preschool years can simultaneously be the most joyful and most exhausting years of parenting. Consistency in parenting is always essential but never more so than in these years when children are developing skills for emotion regulation and self-control. Preschoolers need parents to be clear, patient, firm, and predictable. TTO and TO are strategies that are well-matched to the needs of this age group and promote development of emotion regulation and self-control. And what could be more delightful than a young child who possesses these skills alongside his or her capacity for boundless love and joy?