Building Self Control

What happened the last time you were faced with a child’s misbehavior?  Was the child punished- or disciplined?  Children are punished when: their behavior is controlled through fear, they behave to avoid a penalty imposed by an adult, feel humiliated, hide their mistakes, have a poor self-concept, fail to develop inner controls to handle future problems.   Children are disciplined when: they see the possible consequences of their actions, alternative behaviors are proposed, they learn to control themselves.  Children who are disciplined: learn to balance their needs with those of other people, feel good about themselves, become increasingly independent.  When we look toward the future, discipline accomplishes the goals we have for children.  How then do we help children build self-control?


Broken rules, disruptive behavior, lack of cooperation are all real problems for parents and teachers.  However, effective discipline begins long before such behaviors erupt.  Your personal interaction style, the environment, the schedule, and your expectations all have an effect on children.

Interaction style

Start by examining your own teaching or parenting style, and your tolerance levels.  You may be giving subtle messages to your children.  Your responses to these questions will help you identify some of your strengths and weaknesses.

                  What behaviors do you consider to be inappropriate?

What levels of noise and confusion do you consider normal?  When does the level          become intolerable?

Do you identify who really has the problem in a conflict?

When a child’s anger is directed toward you, do you feel hurt or threatened?

                  Do you need to make most of the decisions for you  share control with the children?

                  Do you model the behavior you expect from children?


Sit on a child-size chair and take a good look at your home or classroom.  Your observations may give you some ideas about how to improve the arrangement of furniture or learning materials.  Be sure to consider children’s abilities and interests. 

                  Are there tempting items on display that are off-limits to children?

                  Are toys and supplies on low, open shelves where children can reach and return them, 

                  thus encouraging independence?

                  How does the arrangement of materials or furniture encourage appropriate behavior?

How do you limit access to areas with limited materials?

When groups are expected to participate in an activity are there sufficient items for everyone?


Discipline problems can be expected when children are bored or rushed, when they have to wait, or when they are over-stimulated without time to unwind.  Children are learning every minute of the day, so your schedule may contain opportunities to encourage more self-control.

Are most of the day’s activities child selected?  Are those determined by adults appropriate and interesting for the children?

Can children move between activities at their own pace?

Is the length of time far an activity based on growing attention spans? 

How are children prepared for changes in activity/place throughout the day?  

Do you use creative or dramatic activities to help child move between areas or wait for an unexpected delay?

Have you established a sense of rhythm to the day? A routine that can be counted on to give children a sense of security?


Consistent and fair limits help children control their own behavior if they know what the limits are.  Review your expectations for possible sources of difficulties.

                  Are limits clear? Is the real reason for the rule stated?

                  Are limits appropriate?  Do the show understanding of children’s needs and abilities?

Are the limits truly necessary? Too many rules are confusing and easily forgotten.  Some adults have only one basic rule.   You may not hurt yourself, others or things.  Hurt can be explained as either physical or feelings.

Have the children helped form the rules?

Are children’s rights protected?  Do they feel assured that if another child grabs their marker an adult will help them preserve their right to finish using it?

Do you help children interpret each other’s feelings?  Are children encouraged to verbalize their frustrations, hurts, and disappointments?

No magic solutions

When discipline is viewed as a teaching opportunity we can see that there are no magic techniques which work for every problem or every child.  Our approach must relate to the problem.  Any consequence must logically follow the child’s action if the child is to learn from the experience.  The techniques I recommend are positive and tend to rely on problem-solving skills, essential factors if children are to become self-disciplined.

Natural consequence

In many instances, children may already have found the consequences of their action when the problem becomes evident. The child may already have learned from the experience, although sometimes it may be appropriate to point out what happened and why.

Two children who both yank on their favorite doll and break it can be encouraged to discuss how they could prevent this next time.  A child who forgets to put a treasured painting in his or her cubby and then searches in vain for it will be likely to store items more carefully in the future.

Direct toward consequence

Some situations call for the adult to positively direct the child to a logical consequence without being punitive.  This approach helps children become more responsible for their own actions.  For example, toddlers can wipe up spilled drinks.  An older child who writes on the wall can be expected to wash it off.

Problem solving

Whenever possible, the best discipline method is to encourage children to think of alternative solutions and possible effects of taking those alternatives.  Through problem solving, children develop a sense of responsibility for their actions, participate in the decision-making process are more likely to adhere to their decisions.  Younger or inexperienced children probably will need adult assistance to think of alternatives that are potentially agreeable, you might ask: How can you…? What could we do to…?   Children soon learn to generate their own solutions.  

Problems between children and adults or between two adults can also be resolved with negotiation.


Infants about to engage in an unwanted activity can be easily distracted.  Older children may have their activity redirected or replaced with an acceptable substitute.  Combined with other approaches, it is an effective technique because the circumstances are changed.  When reasons are stated, children can soon learn to redirect themselves.  When you want to redirect an activity, you first need to think about why the child is involved.  For instance, it two children are fighting for a scoop in the sandbox, you can find another way or item or place to resolve the difficulty.  A cup might work just as well.

Time out

This technique is one of the most misunderstood and misused disciplinary methods.  While timeout is more behavioristic than the other approaches suggested here, it can be especially effective in situations when children have lost control and are unable to reason.  However, the following principles must be observed for time out to be a positive learning experience leading toward self-discipline.

Time out is not a punishment.  Children should not be threatened with or fearful of a time out.

Time out should not be humiliating.  Consequently, there should not be a predetermined time out chair or place.

Time out should last as long as the child feels is needed to calm down. ( Make sure you follow DCF guidelines for time outs for children)

Time out can be a time for the adult and child to talk about feelings, after the child has calmed down.

Sometimes children will become overly excited and behave inappropriately.  Such children can be asked to remove themselves from the situation to take an opportunity to calm down.  Another appropriate use of time out is for a aggressive child to gain self-control away from the other children.  One such child in time out was reminded that he could decide when he was ready to return to play.  He responded, “I know, but I’m not ready yet”.  In a short while, with the help of an adult, the child talked about his feelings and was ready to play.

Ignoring Inappropriate Behavior

Children who behave inappropriately often receive the most attention from adults.  This can encourage negative behavior from others.   While not all inappropriate behavior can or should be ignored, situations that are simply annoying rather than harmful may be handled best in this way.  For example, preschool children often find that foul language gains them immediate attention although they probably have no idea what it means.  If you ignore the cursing however the child will eventually see there is no gain in using that language, and the words may not be repeated.

Other factors besides the need for attention may account for the disruption of quiet times such as naps or stories.  Try to determine the cause for disruptions and take appropriate action.  When children are cuddled, talked to and made to feel important throughout the day, they will be less likely to demand attention by disrupting such activities.  This technique usually takes longer to be effective than other methods, and at first the inappropriate behavior may increase as children diligently try to attract your attention,  These behaviors will also escalate if you sometimes ignore and sometimes criticize the children.  Be consistent.

Before you try these techniques

In offering these suggestions about ways to discipline children I take the risk that the style you use to implement them may be inappropriate or punitive.  How you apply these techniques is just as essential as knowing what to do.  Otherwise, discipline may not be consistent with our goals for the healthy growth and development of children.

As you use these ideas keep these principles about effective discipline in mind.

The goal of discipline is to help children build their own self-control, not to have them behave through adult-imposed control.

Any discipline technique will be most effective if it is applied in a way that maintains or enhances the child’s self-esteem.

Discipline must immediately follow the behavior.  Children cannot be expected to relate future consequences to their current actions.

Match the technique you use to the behavior and the child.   No technique will be effective in every situation.

Help the child understand why she or he is being disciplined; after the child has gained self-control.

Effective discipline requires follow-through.  Idle or impossible threats encourage children to test rules and push limits.  When you use a disciplinary action, make sure the problem-solving solution works, that a redirected child becomes involved elsewhere, or that a child in time out has an adult with whom to talk.

Progress may be slow.  If either you or the children are accustomed to other techniques, time and patience are required for these ideas to be effective.   It takes time for children to understand self-control instead of adult-imposed discipline.  It may take you a while to be consistent and in control of yourself.

Help others understand the positive approach to discipline/guidance.  Emphasize why helping children learn to control themselves is an essential part of becoming an independent and caring person. 

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