“Your son is such an angel!” his preschool teacher gushed. “He listens attentively, eats alone and packs up without being told…and he’s always smiling!”
Uh, are we talking about the same kid? I can’t even get him to brush his teeth without screaming. The only time I get him to pack up his toys is if I threaten, “I’m going to tell Teacher!”
Clearly, preschool teachers have found a formula for getting a roomful of kids to be on their best behavior. So I asked some of them for their discipline hacks for toddlers and preschoolers because if they can manage a classroom, they can help me manage my child. (By the way, #7 made me cry.)
#1 Give age-appropriate rules Every school year, preschool teachers give a list of classroom rules that they reinforce every single day – no exceptions. However, don’t set your child up for failure by asking him to do something that’s not age-appropriate. “A three-year-old will be a messy eater, so a fair rule would be ‘Wipe the table after eating, not ‘Don’t spill your food,’” says preschool teacher Aileen Gomez.
#2 Give kid-friendly reminders To teach kids to stop shouting, junior nursery teacher Anna Cordero uses the words “Indoor Voice” and “Outdoor Voice.” She uses hand signals to remind her class when they’re getting too loud. She will also remind them before an activity: “Okay, everyone, Indoor Voice!” Constant reinforcement turns rules into habits.
It’s the same principle Cordero uses when they go out to the playground. “Loving hands!” she says, which is their code word for no pushing or hitting. She taught this rule with a story about what our hands can do. “We can use them to hug or to hit. We can use them to make people happy, or make people sad.” This helps explain the rule and create a phrase that reminds her students about the rule.
Praise them when they follow a rule!
#3 Make it easy to succeed Packing up is easier when the boxes are within a toddler’s reach, and it’s clear where to return something after it’s used. Here are some preschool setups you can recreate in your playroom:
Install low shelves and fill them with labeled plastic boxes. (Example: the word LEGO and a picture of lego.) This helps teach them to read and where to put things back.
Store books in wicker baskets, so it’s easier for kids to find the book they want.
Hang eco-bags in low-lying hooks for small toys and accessories.
Cover their art table with plastic, so it’s easy to wipe up paint or water spills.
Preschool directress Sharon Alfonso says that having too many toys and books invites the mess. Store some of them and bring them out one batch out at a time, rotating every month. “They don’t get bored, and they’re able to organize what they have.”
#4 Catch them when they’re good and help when they’re not Praise them when they follow a rule! Positive reinforcement helps – and also gets other kids to follow because they want to be praised too.
And yes, those stickers and stamps on the hands work really, really well. You can get them at bookstores and craft stores. Use them on charts, so both you and your child can see your weekly progress. “If you see your child keeps getting a ‘Sad Face’ for cleaning up, then that means that’s a rule you both have to work on,” says Alfonso. If it means you have to wait 30 minutes for them to put away their toys before going to bed, then stick to it, because that’s your child’s Lesson for the Month.
#5 Keep calm and get them to calm down too You’re the adult. Act like one. When kids are screaming, disobeying, and generally being little monsters, you need to take a deep breath and stay in control. Count to 10, kneel in front of them, and with a firm voice and maintaining eye contact, say: “Stop.”
“Don’t overwhelm them with a lot of lectures and punishments.”
That’s it. Don’t over explain the rule or get them to do something when they’re having an emotional meltdown (and you’re pretty close to having one yourself).
Get them to the point when they’re actually listening – that’s what Quiet Time and Corner Time are for – and then explain what you want them to do.
Veteran preschool teacher assistant Lorraine Angeles says that’s what’s worked for every meltdown she sees in the classroom. “Huwag mo sabayan ang bata. Hindi siya makikinig. Quiet time for five minutes and then talk when both of you are okay na.”
#6 Put discipline in perspective Alfonso says that sometimes it’s better to focus on reinforcing one or two positive habits than nagging them about a dozen things. “Don’t overwhelm them with a lot of lectures and punishments! Tackle problems one at a time. This is a child, and you have many years to learn together. Be consistent, but don’t stress out. Learning is a process!”
She says that parents have to see parenting as a journey. “I always cry at graduations because I remember the kids when they first entered my school in junior nursery and how much they have learned and changed by the time they leave kinder. Some of them had very difficult behavioral problems that took years to correct. Most of them have strengths and weaknesses that you have to work with.”
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She says parents have to see that every child is unique, and discipline is really about bringing out the best in your child while accepting who he is. “I have been teaching 20 years, and I have students who visit me after 10, 15 years and I think, ‘Aah, this is what God meant you to be.’ My super kulit preschoolers with lots of questions turned out to be science scholars. A slow reader who preferred to talk with classmates during Book time is now student council president because she’s so charismatic. There are so many ways to succeed.”
“Kids will always be ‘better’ in the classroom because it’s a classroom!”
#7 Remember: you’re the mom, and that’s why they drive you crazy Former preschool teacher Grace Alcantara offers another way of looking at things: kids act up with you because they trust you. They can show you when they’re in a bad mood. They feel safe enough to cry and express their emotions. They can’t do this in school because peer pressure has already kicked in, but home is where they can be themselves and show you (if not tell you) what they need.
“Discipline is hard. I know, because I’ve taught for 10 years and I have kids and grandkids of my own. But kids will always be ‘better’ in the classroom because it’s a classroom! The sign of healthy parenting is that your child opens up to you and is more relaxed at home. If he’s happier and more confident in a classroom, that’s when you start worrying.”