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How to Discipline Three, Four and Five Year Olds

Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Preschoolers can be a tough bunch. Here you will learn effective ways to discipline 3, 4, and 5 years old

This article will explore discipline strategies for 3, 4 and 5 year olds. While the developmental differences and abilities between a 3 and 5 year old can be significant, your approach to training and discipline does not have to be. Here are some suggestions for this wonderful period in your child’s life.

Pick your battles

Independence is the name of the game at this developmental stage. “I can do it myself!” is the battle cry of virtually every preschooler. You don’t need to engage in the battles however. Things like what she wears, what order she completes her morning routine, whether or not she has left-overs for breakfast are things that you want to let go. Attend to issues such as gentle hands and words, following directions and showing respect for others. Allow autonomy and choice as often as is possible and practical. It is okay for children to know that sometimes there will not be a choice.

Be consistent

Children at this developmental stage thrive on consistency and predictability. They love routines. Create structure to their day, but also provide opportunities for learned flexibility. When there is a slight change in your routine, you can say, “Yes, we normally don’t do that now. But just for today it will be fine. It can be fun to do different things once in a while.”

It’s also important to be consistent in discipline. Establish your family rules and boundaries and enforce them. A pictorial list of your family’s rules stuck to the refrigerator can be a helpful reminder. Phrase the rules in the positive such as, “Pick up toys when asked” (instead of “Don’t make a mess”) and “Give gentle touches to siblings” (instead of “No hitting.”). Furthermore, it’s often better at this age to show instead of tell. This means that redirection in the form of actions rather than words is often more effective. Model and encourage the behaviors you want to see more of.

Speak slowly and clearly with eye contact

To make sure that you are heard, you need to make eye contact with your child before giving an instruction. These instructions should be short with no more than one or two components. You can say, “Go put your truck in the toy box and then come back for your next instruction.” For some children you may find it helpful to have them repeat the instructions back to you before sending them on their way.

Use time outs the “right” way

Time outs are a very common discipline strategy for parents of preschoolers, but more often than not, they are used ineffectively. Parents may want to read this article that outlines the effective use of time outs in a values-based parenting context. Sitting your child in a chair, listening to a timer tick will not provide the long-term, internal heart change that most parents desire. You may want to consider using time outs in conjunction with our one-of-a-kind parenting tool, Heart of the Matter Parenting Cards, developed just for this purpose.

Be proactive

Your goal as a parent is not to avoid problems, but to address them through discipline and training. Now is the time to do that. If your child struggles at the grocery store, it may be tempting to avoid such situations. However, he will never learn the skills he needs though avoidance. Instead, teach him the skills he is missing through practice at home with roleplay and skill-building exercises. Establish rules and expectations before you go and follow through with your expectations (even if that means leaving and trying another day).

Find a school that supports your style of parenting

For many children, this is when they will enter a formal school setting for the first time. You will need to choose wisely. While you may not think that this should be part of your discipline plan, it is. You will be entrusting your child to the care of other adults for several hours a week. If the staff and environment do not support your family’s values and expectations, you may find yourself with daily repair work to do in the area of discipline.

Be positive and stay connected

Children at this age have boundless energy and curiosity. It can be draining to even the most resourced and patient parent. Enlist your support system to help you get the breaks you need to be able to stay positive and connected. Carve out time to engage in mutually interesting activities where you can truly connect and enjoy each other’s company. Your relationship is the cornerstone for effective discipline.

This is a fun but also tiring time for parents. Put in the effort now and you will reap the rewards in the future.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed therapist who offers individual and parent counseling to residents of Connecticut. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of her favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She is happily married with a young adult son and a teenage daughter.

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