top of page

Enforcement and Reinforcement of Behavior in Young Children. You Are The Boss, Kind Of.

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

In parenting, teaching, and leadership, the boss is the one in charge but the boss is moreso, the biggest chearleader. You have to be the boss at first in order for them to be able to be the boss of themselves later.

Main technique/Behavior Management Cycle:

  1. State the Expectations

  2. Warning(s) including Identification of the Consequence

  3. Enforcement. EVERY SINGLE TIME.


Note: As with many aspects of dealing with young children, behavior management in young children is mostly based on the action of adults. It is determined by the patience, will, and consistency of the adult(s). Behavior management is also a process that is hard at first for the promise of easier behavior management later. It's a "gets worse before it gets better" deal. When you have to discontinue activities in order to reinforce proper behavior, the child will obviously hate it. Later though, they will behave as they should so that they do not have to experience that and to receive praise.

IMPORTANT: This post does not get into the use of mindfulness tactics to help children control their emotions or to support follow up conversations after tantrums. That is also an incredibly important topic that will be discussed in a different post for sake of time :)

Lets dive deeper.....

Young children want structure. Even though they are always pushing the boundaries and they cry when you are reinforcing boundaries, they need that structure in order to know how to behave. Otherwise, they are in this relatively chaotic world of doing whatever they want and not knowing what to expect. Doing whatever they want might sound nice but they have no idea when they are going to upset someone, when a toy will be taken away because they arent using it appropriately, or when another child is not going to want to play with them because of their behavior. When there are clear boundaries for them, they know what to expect. They can begin to know what behaviors are going to make people smile, what behaviors are going to make people upset, what behaviors get them what they want, how to get other people to do what makes them smile, how do avoid having people do what makes them upset, how to make the best of routines that arent always so fun but we have to do them every day anyway, etc.

Step 1:

Stating Expectations

We cannot expect children to just inherently know what to do in any given situation or material, ESPECIALLY with something new. Young children need to be told (with your words) and TAUGHT (through your behavior) the expectations of how to behave with certain materials and during certain activities many times before they can expect to know it on their own. They need to be given expectations in language that they can understand but telling the expectations to the child, doesnt necessarily mean they will understand them at first. They will learn them through your behavior surrounding the situation or material.


"We are going into the grocery store. We are going to hold hands and walk in the parking lot. Then I am going to put you in the cart. You will stay in the cart the whole time we are in the store. We use a quiet voice in the store. Ok?"


"This is playdough. It is mooshy and has an interesting smell but it is not to be eaten. You can play with it with your hands or with these tools but you can't eat it. If you eat it, we will have no more playdough and then you wont be able to play with it anymore. It might also make your belly hurt. You also need to do your best to keep the playdough on the table. It should not be on the floor. If it gets on the floor is could get stuck and then we wont have any left for you to play with."

Step 2:


The warning will give the child the "heads up" that you are noticing they are not following directions and that if that continues to happen they will have to stop doing the activity they are doing. Deciding whether to give one or two warning depends on the age of the child and how novel the material or activity is. For older infants and toddlers, 2 warnings is appropriate. As they become older toddlers and beyond, one warning can be given for familiar activities and 2 for new activities.


The word "consequence" gets a bad rap for being a harsh word. Consequences refers to what happens due to a behavior. So making someone laugh is the consequence of telling someone a joke. They arent always something harsh and they DO NOT need to be associated with negative feelings. We are not working to help children learn, "When I eat the playdough, my mom or my teacher gets mad." We are trying to help them learn that if they break the toy, they wont be able to play with it anymore or if they are mean to someone, that person won't want to play with them. These are natural consequence. Natural consequences are consequences that naturally occur when something happens. For example, if you turn you water bottle over and spill it on yourself, your clothes are going to be wet. If we outside when you do this, you might get thirsty in a little while and wont have any water left to drink because you spilled it all. Helping a child do something or doing something for them can even be a consequence since they like to do everything themselves. Not all actions have a natural consequence but we want to find and use the natural consequence as often after possible. As much as learning to avoid making an adult mad might work for some behaviors, children will one day be asked to behave and function while there isnt an adult around and don't you want them to be able to make informed decisions about that rather than say, "Well theres no adult around to piss off so sure yeah I'm going to break this."


"You asked me if you could have the ball and I said no. When I said no, you started screaming. We use quiet voices in the grocery store. If you arent able to calm down and stop screaming, we are going to need to leave the grocery store. If we leave the grocery store, we won't have any of your snacks when we go home." Yes, when you first do this, the child will probably not care because they wont make the connection with not having any of that snack later. BUT when they dont have that snack later and you remind them why there isnt any, they will get it. Also kids like the grocery store. If they know that you will actually leave, they will take you seriously. AND heaven forbid, you go shopping without them because they misbehaved last time you took them?? They will get it.


"I saw you put a peice of the playdough in your mouth. If you do that again, we are going to need to be all done with the playdough because if you eat it all, we wont have any left and also, I dont want you to get a belly ache." Then when they do it again, despite any tantrum, put the playdough away. In this case, the child likely didnt eat all the playdough and you could also just buy more if you run out but if this were a material that was toxic or something they could choke on, you wouldnt want them to say "its fine, ill just eat a tiny bit, we can just buy more." You want them to know that when you say they cant eat something/put something in their mouth, you mean it and if they do eat it or put it in their mouth, they wont be able to play with it any more. It's all about following through with the consequence. It works every time! Too often, kids arent allowed to play with playdough or other sensory materials, or paint, or markers, etc because their parent doesnt trust them with it. Whose job is it to teach them how to use it??? Take the time to teach them so that they have access to more experiences.

Step 3:


Enforce the consequence. Every time. If you are not consistent with reinforcing the warnings and consequences, you are a hampster on a spinning wheel. It won't work unless you mean what you say. This is much harder for some personalities than others and it is much harder on some days than others but it will make everything easier as your child grows up.

Step 5:


MAYBE THE MOST IMPORTANT PART! Negative reinforcement (taking something away due to behavior) is one way to deal with behavior but an even equally as effective tool is positive reinforcement! The effective and consistent combination of the two is where the magic happens for children! The opportunities to teach them appropriate behavior through positive reinforcement are immense and powerful! Praise them as much as possible when they are doing things right and well. Again, for the sake of time, there will be a separate post on the use of positive reinforcement but for now, just know that your praise is so powerful in shaping who your child will become.

54 views0 comments
bottom of page