What are typical behavioral characteristics and challenges?
Children are in the Preschool Years from 3 years old until they start school. These children are starting to show personality traits and more intellectual development, including:
What are some solutions to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)?
- Egotism. A preschooler is the center of the world. Your child believes that everything in the world revolves around her.
- Independence. A preschooler will want to dress by himself and want to help you with the household chores. Be patient as your child practices these skills.
- Creativity. Imaginations are constantly "on." Your child's world is full of magical things at this time.
- "Why?" Preschoolers are trying to learn all about their environments; they will ask "why" constantly! Take the time to help your child learn about what causes the events happening around him.
- Sociality. Preschoolers are learning to be a good companion or friend to other children their age. Preschool, day care, play dates or playgroups provide wonderful opportunities for your child to learn important social skills.
- Listening. Preschoolers must also learn to listen to others with interest. Model appropriate listening behavior for your preschooler by actively listening when she tells you about her day, her friends and her discoveries.
- Motor skills. Preschoolers are also learning complex movements such as hopping, climbing, and skipping. Let your child practice and make it fun!
- Adventurous. Children can be very active during this time period. Make sure to provide helmets when riding tricycles and do regular safety checks on play equipment.
- Language. Pronunciation improves during this time. Don't be alarmed if your child leaves out word sounds occasionally.
- Principles. Preschoolers are also learning the difference between right and wrong. You can help by setting firm and consistent limits for your child.
- Reality vs. fantasy. Preschoolers must learn the difference between reality and fantasy. By the end of the preschool years, your child will have a better understanding of past, present and future.
- Phobias. New fears, especially to unfamiliar sights and sounds are common at this age. Be supportive while trying to ease irrational fears.
- Poor sportsmanship. Preschoolers learn to follow simple rules in the games they play, but they will always want to win and be in "first place." Playing "fair" will come later in your child's development.
- Highly impressionable. Preschoolers are heavily influenced by what they see. It's important to actively supervise what your child is exposed to on television and in the real world.
- Sexual curiosity. It is normal for preschoolers to engage in sexual exploration. Help your child learn what is appropriate.
Children this age are constantly testing their parents and the world. Many parents face similar behavioral problems. Try some of these solutions to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) you may have about your preschooler.
Some days my preschooler acts as though she's ready to be "all grown up," other times I fear she's regressing back to her "baby" days. How can I help her through this change?
I think that if I communicated better with my child I would be able to influence his behavior more. But how can I start to improve this aspect of our relationship?
- Help your child transition from "baby" to preschool. Your child may rely on security items (e.g., blankets, special bear) and needs your understanding about the importance of these special items.
- Master the art of feeling identification. "Learning to recognize and deal with children's feelings is a vitally important step in handling children's behavior."
- Preschoolers haven't learned what feelings are, how to talk about them or what each one feels like. They may throw a toy or tantrum when trying to deal with frustration or anger.
- Parents must interpret nonverbal clues, understand feelings, and help their child understand too.
- For example, Jamie starts crying when Mom leaves to go to the store. Dad says, "Oh you're crying because you're sad that Mommy left. She'll be back soon." Dad realizes what Jamie is feeling and helps her recognize the feeling "sad."
Remember that your child has a limited vocabulary and doesn't understand everything you say. It's important not to use too many words. Don't expect your child to understand another person's viewpoint because children this age are very egocentric. Also, your child can't understand abstract ideas yet so it's important to use concrete examples when using logic, reason, or cause and effect (e.g. if you turn your plate over, all the food will fall off). Practice these ways to communicate with your child:
My 4 year-old daughter seems so angry all the time, but I can't get her to talk to me about what is going on. What can I do?
- Learn and model ways to use nonverbal communication in actions that are appropriate for your child.
- "Nonverbal communication" involves the feelings expressed through facial expressions, voices, and the way you move or stand.
- Children are very sensitive to nonverbal communication. For example, Johnny comes running inside to show Dad the picture he drew. Dad barely takes his eyes away from his work. Johnny learns Dad is not interested in Johnny's achievement.
- Make sure to maintain eye contact when you express your feelings to your child.
- Eye contact tells your child she is important and that you are focusing on her. It also encourages her to make eye contact with you.
- Making eye contact increases the effectiveness of your message.
- Be aware of your posture and position when talking with your child.
- Get down to your child's eye level. Kneel next to him or sit beside him to take away the intimidating difference in size and height.
- Watch out for negative body language. For example, crossed arms or legs can indicate that you are "closed off," resistant, or hostile.
- Monitor your tone of voice.
- Your tone of voice may be the most powerful nonverbal tool of all!
- A simple phrase can be interpreted differently depending upon the tone of voice.
- Keeping the voice calm, soothing, and soft helps children feel safe and able to express themselves in return.
- Remember the importance of facial expressions and touch.
- Simply rubbing a child's back, smiling and winking, or tucking a child into bed communicates, "I care about you."
- Children are very aware of our faces and the way we express affection through the touch of our hand or a hug.
Try active listening
! Active listening is the art of observing and listening to your child's feelings, then repeating what you have heard to your child. Active listening:
- allows your child to feel like you understand her,
- lets your child work through her feelings in an appropriate way (rather than yelling or hitting), and
- does not mean you agree with everything your child says; you are simply providing her with a supportive forum for her feelings.
of active listening:
My 3 ˝ year-old child has terrible temper tantrums - especially when we are out in public and she isn't getting her way. What can I do? No matter what I try it makes things worse...
- Billy comes in yelling, "Harry took my favorite toy away!!!" and bursts into tears.
- Mom says, "Gosh, you seem pretty angry about this!"
- Billy thinks and says, "It's not fair! Harry took my toy - he's taller and runs faster than me!"
- Mom gently reflects back, "It must be really frustrating to have your toy taken away by someone bigger than you."
- Billy thinks some more and says, "I feel sad."
- After more talking, Billy decides to forget about his favorite toy and go play outside. Mom has helped him feel listened to, appreciated, and loved.
Tantrums are one typical expression of young children's anger. Children often have trouble verbalizing their feelings and act on them instead.
I feel as though my preschooler does not listen to me at all. I tell him to clean his room and he keeps playing. Ever since he turned 4, it's been a struggle to have him do anything that I tell him to do. In fact, sometimes he'll do the opposite! What can I do?
- Parents can help their children with feeling identification to:
- Begin to understand why they get angry
- Recognize how powerful emotion begins
- Develop ways to cope with and overcome their anger
- Try to have your child draw a picture of how she's feeling - have her think about what colors go along with the feelings she's experiencing.
- Ask her to talk about how she's feeling rather than acting it out. You can ask simple "yes-or-no" questions to start this process:
- "It sounds like you are feeling hurt and want to get even…"
- "It seems like you are so angry you are having trouble holding it all inside!"
- Ask your child to tell you what she feels in her body when she gets "super angry." Most of us feel anger physically.
- She might say that her fingers make a tight fist, her face feels really hot, or her stomach is in knots.
- Help her recognize those signs when she is becoming angry and provide ways to cool off before the anger gets out of control. This is a coping strategy many of us can use!
- Help your child come up with specific coping strategies that are acceptable ways to deal with anger.
- Have an "anger box", a knee-high box where an angry child can go to stand, jump or yell when upset.
- Run races around the neighborhood or in the front yard.
- Play with Play-Doh to help release some pent up energy (punching a pillow or punching bag is not recommended).
- Yell into a pillow.
- Play "let's pretend" with your child. Role-play (act out the situation like a performance) and work through ways to deal with feelings. By practicing these strategies, your child has a plan for dealing with intense emotions.
- Be a role model for your child. As a parent, you experience lots of emotions in a single day - these are perfect opportunities to show your child appropriate ways to act and react.
- Talk it through. Be honest and this will teach children to do the same. The simple statement, "I'm feeling very angry right now" can start a talk about the situation.
- Use "I" statements to help explain how/what you are feeling and also to help prevent you from blaming others: "I am so angry right now, I need to take a time-out so that I don't do anything I'll be sad about later…"
- Blame the behavior rather than the child. Parents should remind their child that it is his action at fault, not the child - there is a difference. For example, you could say, "I love you, and I can't allow you to kick people."
- Remember that your child's physical condition can affect her behavior. Fatigue, hunger and sickness often lead to poor behavior.
- Don't plan activities such as shopping expeditions unless your child is well rested and fed.
- Bring small toys along.
- Bring snacks and beverages.
- Decrease your expectations for behavior if your child is feeling sick. Remember to return to your regular routine and normal expectations when she's feeling better.
My oldest son was potty trained by 18 months. My youngest daughter is almost 4 and is still not potty trained! I am using the same potty training strategies I used with Ray, my oldest. What am I doing wrong?
- Look at how you talk to your child. Nagging, lecturing, or yelling will turn the child off to listening, and threats and bribes teach fear and greed, not obedience.
- Give choices: "Would you like me to help you pick up all the toys or would you rather do it yourself?" This empowers your child.
- Stop the power struggle. Adults set up a power struggle that makes winning more attractive than listening or cooperating. When your child does the opposite of what you say, he thinks, "I win!"
- Be developmentally appropriate. Sometimes we expect our children to be more advanced than they really are. Remember that many of the younger children can't understand a request because it involves thinking or listening skills that they haven't developed yet.
- Be understanding. A child this age is "programmed" to explore as much as she possibly can. Sometimes this desire to check out the world will win over an adult's words.
My preschooler will not eat about 85% of what I serve to him. In fact, the only things he will eat on a regular basis are peanut butter sandwiches on white bread - sometimes some apple slices. I've become a short-order cook for my family! What can I do to change this?
- Every child is different. As simple as it sounds, children all have their own unique schedule.
- Factors that influence potty training success include:
- Physical readiness. There are different levels of bladder control capability.
- One child might be able to "hold it" long enough to find a bathroom while another child might have an accident along the way.
- Be understanding of your own child's physical readiness and find ways to work with her level.
- Ease of wakefulness. Some children sleep very deeply and do not wake when they feel the urge to use the toilet.
- Ask your pediatrician for strategies to deal with bed-wetting such as a bell-and-pad that sounds an alarm at the first sign of wetness.
- Child's perspective. It can be very difficult for a child to get to a bathroom and undo buckles and buttons while fidgeting.
- Make sure your child has "easy-off" clothing (e.g. elastic waistbands) and be kind, patient and understanding when accidents happen.
- Power struggles. Power struggles between parent and child can decrease a child's motivation and delay successful potty training.
- Try not to be over-controlling and try to ignore the urge to "win" - it will only escalate the battle. Children can be very resistant during this stage.
- Talk things through. Start asking questions (in a friendly tone of voice) when you are met with an "accident":
- "Can you tell me what happened? What do you think you need to do next time?" They might be having trouble with buttons or the bathroom might seem too far away.
- Beware of the urge to lecture or talk "at" them. Talk WITH them - let them share their ideas.
- Put less pressure on potty training to eliminate power struggles. A child may become more interested in potty training on her own.
- Cooperation. Watch your own attitude or tone. If you are relaxed and comfortable, your child will also feel that way.
- Make it a team effort. If an accident occurs, hug and reassure your child that everything is okay and then clean up together.
- Let her pick out favorite potty-friendly clothing (e.g., waist-banded pants or shorts).
- Have a change of clothes and sheets ready.
- Family environment. Examine the whole family environment:
- Has there been a constant level of stress (e.g., Mom worrying about her terminally ill mother?)
- Are you placing too many decisions on your 3 year-old's shoulders? Balance choice with some reasonable structure.
- Has your child been involved in way too many activities or classes? Make sure both your schedules are not too busy or stressful.
- Other tips for potty training include remembering to:
- Don't punish a child when bed-wetting is a physical problem.
- Always treat your child with dignity and respect. Never humiliate, especially in front of others - this will only make your child feel shameful and damage her self-esteem.
- Set a schedule to encourage the habit of going to the bathroom regularly. Make sure to use the toilet prior to outings!
- Be sure to emphasize the importance of washing hands
- Have a stool to help reach the sink.
- Clear soap with a toy inside (e.g., plastic car or flower) can motivate children to wash their hands to get the prize.
- Have your child sing the alphabet or another 20-second song while washing her hands.
- Bottom line: remember that you can't force your child to be potty-trained. It's something she must do on her own. The best thing you can do is work within your child's own unique time frame and celebrate each step along the way.
When my child is really acting up, I give her a quick spanking and her behavior stops immediately. Spanking seems to work better than any of the other disciplinary methods I've tried, so why is it bad?
- Offer choices. If your child complains about food, ask (in a supportive manner), "You can eat what's on the table or fix your own sandwich. What's your choice?" You can teach him how to make his own peanut butter sandwiches at this age.
- Invite solutions. Ask, "What can we do about this problem?" This invites your child to use his thinking skills and problem-solving skills. He can use his power in positive ways to feel capable instead of in power struggles.
- Share tasks. Children are more cooperative when they have been included and feel like a contributing member of the family. Sharing tasks also helps teach life skills.
- Invite your child to help plan menus.
- Get him involved in creating the shopping list.
- Take him to shop at the grocery store. Many stores have small carts that can be pushed around by small children. Ask him to find certain items to put in his cart. If your child wants something that is not on the list, you can kindly and firmly say, "That isn't on our list."
- Have your child help with meal preparation. A three year-old can set the silverware and napkins and older children can help with snapping peas, mixing batter, and squeezing juice.
- Encourage him to help with the cooking. Let him decide which nights he wants to be the chef's "special helper."
- Respond without giving in.
- Use reflective listening (e.g., "Gosh, I guess you don't like that.") but avoid engaging in discussions beyond that.
- Allow your child to handle the problem (e.g., "You don't have to eat it. I'm sure you can make it until our next meal…").
- Choose your battles. Don't turn it into a battle of wills (e.g. your child sits at the table for hours while refusing to finish his broccoli). This is destructive to your relationship and may lead to eating problems in the future.
- Keep up those mealtime routines! A small snack can also help with after-school hunger pangs. Make sure that mealtime is regular. Have rituals such as a quick game before lunch or a walk after dinner. This sense of family togetherness, especially around the evening meal, can help children feel part of a secure, loving group.
- Ease your own anxiety about nutrition. Give your child a good multi-vitamin and relax.
My child doesn't always listen to me. It's a struggle to get her to do what I say. There's no reasoning with her, especially once she's throwing a tantrum. How can I effectively discipline her?
- Spanking is a form of punishment that leads to negative feelings. Discipline is different from punishment. Discipline leads to a learning experience for your child.
- Even though physical punishment may stop the behavior immediately, "hitting begets hitting" and children who have been physically punished often hit others because they have been taught to be aggressive.
- Spanking can have long-term negative effects on the child such as:
- low self-esteem,
- future abusive relationships, and
- the belief that hitting is okay
- Spanking children teaches the wrong lessons:
- Big people get to hurt little people.
- "I can hit others when I grow up."
- Hitting is an acceptable way to deal with anger.
- Hide the behavior instead of change the behavior.
- Focus on the "mean mommy" instead of the inappropriate behavior.
- "I am a terrible, worthless person who deserves to be hit." This may set children up for future failure, ill-treatment, abusive mates.
- It's not safe to make a mistake or take a risk.
- Do what you want but don't think about the consequences (rebelliousness).
- Don't misinterpret fear as respect. Some parents think that their children respect them more because of their physical discipline. This is not true!
- Remember that you are always modeling behavior. If you don't want your child to hit others, don't hit your child either.
More general parenting tips
- Have both respect for your child and positive discipline in your disciplinary routines.
- Communicate with your child after she's had a moment to calm down. Calmly review the behavior with your child and explain why it was wrong using age-appropriate words.
- Be consistent and firm, yet kind.
- Try these strategies to deal with problematic behavior:
- Ignore mild behavior. If a child does not get attention for a behavior, he will often stop doing it.
- Use distraction. Try redirecting your child to another behavior, toy, or activity. You can also use humor as a distraction tool.
- Give warnings then follow through. For example, "Food stays on our plate. If it goes on the floor, I will take it away" (the warning). If the warning needs to be repeated more than twice, take the plate away and end the meal (the consequence).
- Time-out. Remove your child from the situation (e.g. put her in another room, have her sit in the corner) for a short period. This will help her calm down as well as motivate her to behave so she can "get back into the game."
- "Calming time." Giving your child a quiet activity (drawing, coloring, puzzle pieces, etc) can calm her better than simply sitting (a time-out)
- Stay in control. Be emotionally neutral and matter-of-fact. Avoid spanking, shouting, or pleading for cooperation. If you start using these techniques, it's okay to say that you made a mistake and to start over using a different technique. Remember to take a "calming time" to cool off when YOU need it too!
- Trial and error. Remember that each child is different and your strategies may need to change for each child or as your child grows through different phases. Find what works specifically for you and your child.
- The best strategies are ones that prevent problem behavior from occurring:
- Be playful. If you want your child to clean up her toys, get down and do it with her in a fun way. For example, have a "10-second tidy" where you see how much you can clean up in 10 seconds or sing a silly song like "Clean up clean up, everybody everywhere. Clean up clean up, everybody do your share." Feel free to make up your games and lyrics!
- Say "no" less. Prevent battles by childproofing your home and removing objects your child isn't allowed to play with.
- Problem-solve difficult situations. For example, if grocery shopping always leads to a major battle between you and your child, try to figure out what's going wrong. Are you going at the end of the day when your child is tired? Would some snacks or small toys in your bag help keep him well behaved?
- "Time in." Make sure your child has at least 15 minutes a day of your complete attention. This reduces "attention-getting" behaviors and shows your child love and support.
- Take care of yourself. As a parent, you need to find time for yourself so you have the energy to give the proper attention and discipline. Paying attention to your needs, feeling rested and being calm improves your relationships with others.
- Take parenting classes, read books, ask lots of questions, visit www.howkidsdevelop.com!
- Try to "walk a mile" in your child's shoes. The key to understanding children's behavior often comes with understanding what/how they are feeling and the events that lead up to their negative actions.
- Actively listen to your children to find out what's causing their behavior and help them through difficult moments.
- For example, you find your child throwing toys at the dog. Ask questions, listen and reflect. You might discover that your child wanted to play for the past hour but everyone was too busy and her feelings of rejection caused her to throw the toys out of frustration.
- Sometimes, even just the simple act of a reassuring hug can say "I love you" and help stop negative behavior.
- Praise and encouragement is extremely important. It's not just the act of praise or encouragement, but HOW you praise or encourage that's truly important in what's effective, positive and reinforcing for your child.
- Keep your praise and encouragement specific. When your child draws a picture, instead of saying, "This is great," talk to your child about it. You might say, "Tell me about these stripes here - are blue and pink your favorite colors? What kind of shape did you use here?" This way you can talk and learn together, while sending the message that the picture is important to you too.
- Watch the content of your praise and encouragement. Saying, "Wow, that is the most beautiful artwork I've ever seen!" can make your child focus on always trying to please people. Instead you could say, "I like all the colors you used in this picture."
- "Catch your child being good." Instead of always pointing out everything your child does wrong, give them attention for the things that they do right. Celebrate the positive things they do and reward their good behavior!
- Instead of focusing on the two Lego pieces your child forgot to put away, praise him for cleaning up all the other pieces.
- After you praise him, you can ask if he notices anything he missed and then praise him again when he figures it out. This creates two situations for praise and helps your child feel confident twice!
- Be consistent! You can empathize with your child's feelings, but it doesn't mean you think his behavior is always okay. For example, let him know that violence (e.g. hitting a sibling, breaking a toy) will not be tolerated or allowed. When the parent is consistent, it's easier for the child to learn the rules.
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