Discipline for School-Aged Children

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Harvard Medical School
Chrome 2001
Chrome 2001

Discipline for School-Aged Children

Mental Health
Behavior and Development
Discipline for School-Aged Children
Discipline for School-Aged Children
Learn techniques for teaching your child self-control and the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
InteliHealth Medical Content
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Discipline for School-Aged Children

Discipline is important for all children, no matter how young or old. Discipline should not mean punishment, but rather the time spent teaching and protecting your child. The overall goal is to keep your child safe by teaching self-control and the difference between acceptable (right) and unacceptable (wrong) behaviors. Most children begin to learn self-control around 3 or 4 years of age, but continuously benefit from some external controls on their behavior.

With a variety of ways to discipline a school-aged child, you will probably end up using most, if not all of them at some time or another.

  • Use natural consequences. Your child can learn by seeing the natural consequences of his actions. For example, if he breaks a toy in anger, he will no longer be able to play with it. If he is careless and loses his favorite scarf, obviously he will no longer be able to wear it.
  • Use logical consequences. Some unacceptable (wrong) behaviors have no immediate or obvious natural consequences. In these cases, you should determine consequences that are logically related to the misbehavior. For example, you might tell your child that if he does not pick up his toys before bed, then you will put them away and he will not be allowed to play with them for one whole day.
  • Delay a privilege. If your child is refusing to complete a necessary task, tell him that he cannot do something else that he enjoys until after he finishes. For example, say, "After you finish your homework, you can watch one television show."
  • Use "I" messages. Tell your child how you feel when he misbehaves. Start your sentences with "I." For example, "I get upset when you throw the ball in the house." Just like an adult, your child is more likely to not listen and be defensive to messages that start with "you," such as, "You upset me when you throw the ball."
  • Discuss things in family conferences. As children get older, they want to negotiate and help to find solutions to problems, rather than being told what to do. When a problem arises, ask your child for suggestions about how to handle it. For example, "We are not getting out of the house on time in the morning. What do you think we could do to change this?" Some discipline techniques stand the test of time, meaning that the same techniques can be helpful for younger and older children alike.
  • Limit opportunities for temptation. Although discipline involves setting and enforcing limits of acceptable behavior, it also means preventing problems before they happen. One of the best ways to keep your child safe is to thoroughly childproof your house.
  • Ignore harmless behaviors. You can simply ignore unacceptable behaviors that are harmless, such as temper tantrums, whining or interrupting.
  • Shift the focus. Try shifting your child's attention away from trouble, toward a different, safer activity.
  • Express your disapproval. Go over to your child, look him straight in the eyes, and say, "no" or "stop." Tell him what he should not do and why he should not do it. In many cases, this is all that is necessary to stop an unacceptable behavior. You should also tell your child what the consequences would be if he does it again.
  • Move your child. Sometimes you may need to physically move your child away from a tempting situation or toward a desired activity. For example, you actually may have to carry your child into the bathroom for his bath.
  • Give time-out. Time-out can be used with children as young as 1 year of age. It involves taking a "break" away from a difficult situation and spending time in a less-appealing place. The peak ages for using time-out are 2 to 4 years, but time-out may be useful occasionally for older children, giving them more focused time to think about their actions.

Other things to keep in mind:

When setting limits, it's important always to be consistent. Rules should be the same for every caregiver of your child (grandparents included), and these rules must stay the same from one day to the next. When enforcing rules, keep a straight face. Laughing when your child misbehaves doesn't send a message of disapproval; your child might not take you seriously, now or the next time.

Many parents feel like they are constantly saying "no" to their child. Consider re-evaluating which issues are worth a battle and which are not. Certain aggressive behaviors such as hitting and biting are unacceptable, but you may want to think about taking a more relaxed approach with other issues — maybe it isn't so important to pick up every toy in the family room before bed. Remember, your ability to remain calm and flexible will influence your child's future actions as well.

What about spanking? While it may seem like spanking solves an immediate problem, studies have shown that spanking isn't as effective in changing long-term behaviors as positive reinforcement and other forms of discipline are. In fact, spanking may actually make kids more aggressive in the future. Try the other forms of discipline described above instead.

One final thought that can be key to making positive changes in your child's behavior: Catch 'em being good! Make sure that you regularly reward acceptable behaviors. When you see your child doing something that you like, hug him, smile at him and praise him. Children want their parent's attention and can be taught that positive behaviors are the best way to get that attention and make you proud of them.

Last updated July 31, 2014

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