Effective and Compassionate Behavior Management for Preschoolers

May 24, 2022 9:00:00 AM / by Amber Lappin

Early childhood classrooms are famously sticky when it comes to behavior management. It’s easy to get frustrated when trying to care for preschoolers, especially if the techniques that seem to have been used since the beginning of time aren’t producing the results we’re hoping for. Sometimes, teachers think they’re bad at classroom management, when the blame isn’t with the teachers at all, but with the old-fashioned practices that need a second look. Here are three common discipline strategies: what they are, why they mostly don’t work, and some ideas of what we can do instead.


  • The Time-Out Chair
    • What it is: Seen as a more humane idea than spanking, the Time-Out Chair grew in popularity in the ’90s. Children are put in a chair for a designated period of time, away from the activity of the classroom. The idea is that children will sit and think about their behavior, repent and sin no more.
    • Why it (mostly) doesn’t work: Preschool children are known for many things, but their long attention spans and talent for introspection are not on the list. Sitting in a chair away from the rest of their friends doesn’t lead a three- or four-year-old to think about their behavior; it’s more likely to lead them to thoughts about the injustice of it all! Some studies show that the isolation can bring more harm than good.
    • When it might work: Having a quiet place where a young child who is feeling out of control can go to pull themselves together is a wonderful thing. It should be treated as an option the child can access to help themselves, though, not as a consequence for unwanted behavior.
    • What you can do instead: True discipline is about teaching children, not punishing them. Natural and logical consequences are more likely to help mold desirable behaviors. For example, if a child spills something, they need to clean it up. If they hurt someone, they need to find a way to help them feel better. If they are playing with a toy in a destructive way, and have been taught how to play appropriately, the next step is for them to find something else to play with. When children have a direct link between the behavior and the consequence, they are much more likely to learn the lesson you’re trying to teach.

  • Behavior Clip/Card Charts
    • What it is: Each child may have a clip or a color-coded card with their name on it. Good behavior is rewarded by the child being able to move their clip higher on the chart or turning the “better” color on the card. Sometimes, landing high on the list or with a (usually) green card is rewarded by some sort of prize or privilege. Unwanted behavior is punished by the child being required to move their clip lower on the chart or turning the “worse” color card. Sometimes, as a child moves lower on the chart, there are specific consequences related.
    • Why it (mostly) doesn’t work: Public humiliation is sometimes a motivator, but it’s not a good one. Some children get so anxious about having to move their clip, it drives a wedge between the teacher-child relationship. Also, most teachers find that while the clip may have some short-term powers, overall, it doesn’t have any long-term influence on children’s behaviors.
    • When it might work: A modified reward system with an individual working on a specific behavior sometimes works! Some children who are working on potty training, for example, do really well if they get to put a small sticker on a chart when they’ve done their business. But this is best done one-on-one instead of something they have to do in front of the whole class.
    • What you can do instead: All children’s behavior is an attempt to communicate. Remembering this is key to coming up with ways to help children behave well. As we build relationships, children learn how to communicate their needs better. When you have a child who is interrupting storytime constantly, you can take the time to find out what it is they need. Is it more individual attention? Less stimulation? Something to hold in their hands to they can focus? If a child is being rowdy during worship time, what are they showing you they need? Though this strategy is less immediate than the instant punishment of moving a clip or turning a card, in the long term, helping children get what they need is a much more lasting way to discipline.

  • Threatening to call parents
    • What it is: Using the threat of calling parents (or the other adults who care for the child) out of service when a child is behaving badly, or reporting their poor behavior to a parent at pick-up time.
    • Why it (usually) doesn’t work: There are many instances in which this may be ill advised. First, it takes away from our relationship with children—when we essentially abdicate our authority, we may send a message to the kiddos that if they behave badly enough, they get to go home. Next, it draws a barrier for our relationships with the parents. When we call for them early, or unload a list of offenses, we run the risk of sending an unintended message that their child is a burden. Finally, it uses fear as a motivator—something that may work in the moment, but almost certainly isn’t a sustainable practice.
    • When it might work: When a child is behaving out of character—being especially weepy or cranky or lethargic. We want to be careful or setting a precedent that if a child cries long enough or behaves badly enough, we just call their grownups, but that doesn’t mean we never call! Especially in unusually rough days, calling a parent may be exactly what the child needs—but it should be used as a solution to the issue, not a punishment.
    • What might work better: Imagine you’re at work, and you’ve had a really bad day. What would be the best way to turn it around? A threat or grace? The Bible tells us that God’s lovingkindness leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). What is the kindest thing we can do to help this child who’s having a rough time? Can we offer a lap to come and sit in? Can we give them a fresh start? In what ways can we demonstrate mercy and grace?


Though our instinct may be to make children change how they are behaving through using techniques from generations past, we aren’t representing God well by isolating, shaming, or threatening them. Instead, let’s work toward finding ways to mold their behavior through the methods God uses through Christ—building relationships, providing for their needs, and extending grace.

Topics: Early Childhood Ministry

Amber Lappin

Written by Amber Lappin

Amber Lappin, M.Ed., is a speaker and writer with three decades of experience in early childhood development and children’s ministry. She works as a professor in the School of Education & Teacher Prep at Riverside City College. Amber enjoys her small farm in Southern California with her husband of 30 years, Jason. They have three adult children and an ever-growing assortment of weirdo animals.


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