How to Influence Positive Behavior in Preschoolers

March 24, 2020

Posted by Lake Erie Nature and Science Center

If you feel like you’re constantly reminding your preschooler what NOT to do, or your conversations seem to always include the words “Don’t” and “No” – it’s time to flip your script. The way you phrase words with small children can make a significant difference in how you influence their behavior.

Less is more

Most adults say too many words when communicating with children under age 4, who have extremely short attention spans and under-developed impulse control. Adults also tend to phrase sentences in the negative rather than the positive. As a result, when you say “Don’t run!” your child may only hear the word “run” and may not be able to think of an alternative to running.

As Miss Teece likes to explain to parents, talk like Tarzan—kneel down to speak at your child’s eye level, look at each other face-to-face, and talk like Tarzan by giving your child a clear and positive direction in two- to three-word phrases.

  • Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do.
  • Calmly and simply state your expectation.
  • Model the desired behavior by mimicking it yourself, but don’t over-talk about it. (When voices get too loud in play, calmly walk in and say softly in your child’s ear, “Use an inside voice.”)
What Not to Say: Instead, Say:
Don’t run! Use walking feet
Stop climbing! Keep your feet on the floor
Don’t touch! Hands in your pocket
No yelling! Use an inside voice
Don’t stand on the couch! Sit on the couch
Don’t hit! Use your words
Don’t steal her toy! Ask, ‘Can I use it when you’re done?’
Stop pulling the dog’s tail! Pet gently
Don’t throw your truck! Drive your truck on the floor
No biting! We only bite food
Stop splashing the water! Keep the water in the tub

Playtime conflicts

Teachers and parents can help young children learn social skills with their peers by observing play interactions from a distance, then stepping in to feed kids a line when they get frustrated or don’t know how to get their needs met.

If two preschoolers are fighting over the same toy, wait to see if they can work it out themselves before stepping in. Rather than talking too much about taking turns, which is not always a reasonable expectation for many children this age, help by giving each child the appropriate words to say to their friend. 

  1. Kneel down by the playmates and observe, “Hmm, it looks like you both like the T-Rex.”
  2. Have the shy child tell his grabby friend: “I’m still playing with this.”
  3. Then in the same exchange, have the grabby friend ask for a turn by saying: “Can I use that when you’re done?”

The answer is always “Yes,” and both kids get their needs met. This approach teaches children how to share and resolve conflict with their peers while also giving them practice speaking up for themselves.

Topic: Preschool