Children don’t need strict or harsh punishment to learn. Through positive reinforcement and consistent guidance, children can learn how to behave well while developing closer bonds and increased trust with their parents and carers.
By using positive discipline techniques for Children like redirection, positive reinforcement, selective ignoring and connection, you can prevent and respond to bad behavior with positive discipline rather than anger and punishment.
If you would like to find out more about how positivity and encouragement can be used to discipline children, and want to gain a practical and science-informed toolkit that you can use to make children happier and healthier, consider a Child Development: Behavior and Mental Health online course.
Here are some positive behavioral discipline techniques for Children you can use:
Very young children have a short attention span, which means that it can be quite easy to redirect their attention to something else when they are having a tantrum or acting out.
For example, if a child is playing with a dangerous object, you can draw their attention to another safe toy, or take them to another room.
With older children, you can redirect their attention by telling them what they can do and by giving them options, rather than focusing on what they can’t do.
For example, instead of telling them that they can’t watch TV, tell them that they can play outside, work on a new puzzle or help you with an activity. By focusing on the positives and redirecting rather than saying no or punishing, you can reduce arguments and defiance.
Positive reinforcement is a research-based practice that is essential for supporting appropriate behaviors and skills in children. As Paul Caldarella suggests in his paper ‘Effects of teachers’ praise-to-reprimand ratios on elementary students’ on-task behaviour’,
when children are praised for doing something right (rather than punished for doing something wrong) they are more likely to act in the desired way in the future.
You can also reward children for good behavior. For example, if a child asks nicely to spend five more minutes at the playground rather than throwing a tantrum when you say you are ready to go home, consider granting them some extra time to motivate similar polite requests in the future.
Here are some examples of positive reinforcement, when a child displays a desired activity:
- High fives
- Giving praise
- Offering a reward and using reward systems (like sticker charts)
- Telling another adult how proud you are of the child’s behavior while they are listening
When giving positive reinforcement, be clear and specific about what they have done right, to let them know that you notice their success.
For example, if a child puts their toys away after playing with them, you could say “I noticed you put your toys away when you were finished playing. Thank you for helping to keep this room tidy”.
When a child displays minor behavioral issues, it can work well to use ‘selective ignoring’. Sometimes, children engage in testing and attention-seeking behaviors designed to draw your attention. For example, when a child throws something at you to get your attention while you talk to a friend.
Rather than responding to these displays with attention and annoyance, ignoring them can be more effective. When a child fails to get a reaction from you, they are less likely to use that strategy again.
Selective ignoring should be used with consideration – you should always stop dangerous, destructive, or harmful actions immediately and consider consequences like a time-out if the behavior continues.
Connect With the Child
Sometimes, when children misbehave, it is because they are trying to tell you something and don’t have the skills to identify or express their needs. Spending quality time with the child, regularly checking in with them and teaching them how to express their emotions and needs can prevent behavioral problems.
By giving your child positive attention and the space to connect with you and share their emotions, you will reduce attention-seeking behaviors.
American Academy of Pediatrics, ‘Positive reinforcement through rewards’, 2022
Child Mind Institute, ‘How to Give Kids Effective Instructions’, 2022
Positive Discipline Association, ‘What is positive discipline?’
Extension Alliance for Better Child Care, ‘What is the difference between discipline and punishment?’
Nelsen J, Tamborski MN, Ainge B.’Positive Discipline for Today’s Busy (and Overwhelmed) Parent: How to Balance Work, Parenting, and Self for Lasting Well-Being’, 2018.
Hardy JK, McLeod RH. ‘Using positive reinforcement with young children’. Beyond Behavior. 2020;29(2):95-107. doi:10.1177/1074295620915724.
Riley AR, Wagner DV, Tudor ME, Zuckerman KE, Freeman KA. ‘A survey of parents’ perceptions and use of time-out compared to empirical evidence’. Academic Pediatrics. 2017;17(2):168-175. doi:10.1016/j.acap.2016.08.004.
Dadds MR, Tully LA, ‘What is it to discipline a child: What should it be? A reanalysis of time-out from the perspective of child mental health, attachment, and trauma’. American Psychologist. 2019;74(7):794-808. doi:10.1037/amp0000449
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ‘How to use ignoring’, 2017
Nelson J. (2011). Positive Discipline: The Classic Guide to Helping Children Develop Self-Discipline, Responsibility, Cooperation, and Problem-Solving Skills. Ballantine Books.
Caldarella, Paul, et al. “Effects of teachers’ praise-to-reprimand ratios on elementary students’ on-task behaviour.” Educational Psychology 40.10 (2020): 1306-1322.