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The Competent Parent: Best way to discipline kids

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Best Way to Discipline Kids

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’m studying to be a preschool teacher and hope to have children of my own some day. What do you think is the best method of discipline for young children?

Early Childhood Major



Read last week’s column about goofing off in class.

Dear Early Childhood Major and Future Parent,

If I can only pick one, then Behavior Modification. This is a teaching technique that works with the child’s own motivation to learn a specific better way of behaving.

Focus on one behavior at a time. Visualize the child’s success with it. Explain it to the child such that he or she agrees that, yes, that behavior would be good to have. Choose a (not unhealthy, not expensive, not difficult to carry out) reward the child will receive immediately following the new behavior. Carry out the reward for a couple of days – 2 weeks, tops. And reinforce that the child is experiencing an intrinsic reward just by doing the new behavior.

Example: Help a four-year-old to put dirty clothes in the hamper (instead of dropping them on the bedroom floor). Why would he want to do this? Keeps the floor clear for spreading out train tracks to play with, and this helps to keep a playmate happily enjoying playtime together. (Note, the intrinsic reward of having a friend spend time happily playing with him happens to be the perfect motivation for this particular child and will always be reinforced for him by his new skill in putting his dirty clothes in the proper place.) The immediate reward when he puts clothes he has worn into the hamper is a kiss from Mommy for each item. When the playmate comes over the next day, and the floor is clear, and the children are happily playing with the tracks, Mommy says, “Isn’t this great that there’s so much room on the floor to play on.” Reinforce again after the friend leaves. “That was nice that Chris had such a good time playing with you on your clean floor. I’ll bet you enjoyed it, too.”

Behavior Mod works because it draws positive attention to a success that was always possible, but needed a little incentive to get started. Once the new behavior proves to be its own reward – you have it forever!

There are other techniques that are applicable to different children and in different situations. Think of driver’s education. There are many variables that go into “best methods” for driving. Weather conditions? Type and condition of vehicle? City streets or highways? Tired driver or alert driver? One driver may drive expertly on a rainy night on a dark highway. Another might do best to wait out the storm until morning and proceed cautiously through slick spots. There are many things to know and skills to practice in order to be a good driver. Same for having effective guidance strategies with young children.

If you’d like more on this subject, please consider attending my upcoming 6-hour course “Effective Discipline for Preschoolers.” It’ will be held Mondays, Nov. 12-26, from 7-9 p.m. at Chesapeake Children’s Museum in Annapolis. Call 410-990-1993 or email info@theccm.org to register.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com.

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