Caring for Our Children (CFOC)

Chapter 2: Program Activities for Healthy Development

2.2 Supervision and Discipline

2.2.0 Discipline Measures

Reader’s Note: The word discipline means to teach and guide. Discipline is not punishment. The discipline standard therefore reflects an approach that focuses on preventing behavior problems by supporting children in learning appropriate social skills and emotional responses.

Caregivers/teachers should guide children to develop self-control and appropriate behaviors in the context of relationships with peers and adults. Caregivers/teachers should care for children without ever resorting to physical punishment or abusive language. When a child needs assistance to resolve a conflict, manage a transition, engage in a challenging situation, or express feelings, needs, and wants, the adult should help the child learn strategies for dealing with the situation. Discipline should be an ongoing process to help children learn to manage their own behavior in a socially acceptable manner, and should not just occur in response to a problem behavior. Rather, the adult’s guidance helps children respond to difficult situations using socially appropriate strategies. To develop self-control, children should receive adult support that is individual to the child and adapts as the child develops internal controls. This process should include:

  1. Forming a positive relationship with the child. When children have a positive relationship with the adult, they are more likely to follow that person’s directions. This positive relationship occurs when the adult spends time talking to the child, listening to the child, following the child’s lead, playing with the child, and responding to the child’s needs;
  2. Basing expectations on children’s developmental level;
  3. Establishing simple rules children can understand (e.g., you can’t hurt others, our things, or yourself) and being proactive in teaching and supporting children in learning the rules;
  4. Adapting the physical indoor and outdoor learning/play environment or family child care home to encourage positive behavior and self regulation by providing engaging materials based on children’s interests and ensuring that the learning environment promotes active participation of each child. Well-designed child care environments are ones that are supportive of appropriate behavior in children, and are designed to help children learn about what to expect in that environment and to promote positive interactions and engagement with others;
  5. Modifying the learning/play environment (e.g., schedule, routine, activities, transitions) to support the child’s appropriate behavior;
  6. Creating a predictable daily routine and schedule. When a routine is predictable, children are more likely to know what to do and what is expected of them. This may decrease anxiety in the child. When there is less anxiety, there may be less acting out. Reminders need to be given to the children so they can anticipate and prepare themselves for transitions within the schedule. Reminders should be individualized such that each child understands and anticipates the transition;
  7. Using encouragement and descriptive praise. When clear encouragement and descriptive praise are used to give attention to appropriate behaviors, those behaviors are likely to be repeated. Encouragement and praise should be stated positively and descriptively. Encouragement and praise should provide information that the behavior the child engaged in was appropriate. Examples: “I can tell you are ready for circle time because you are sitting on your name and looking at me.” “Your friend looked so happy when you helped him clean up his toys.” “You must be so proud of yourself for putting on your coat all by yourself.” Encouragement and praise should label the behaviors, not the child (e.g., good listening, good eating, instead of good boy);
  8. Using clear, direct, and simple commands. When clear commands are used with children, they are more likely to follow them. The caregiver/teacher should tell the child what to do rather than what NOT to do. The caregiver/teacher should limit the number of commands. The caregiver/teacher should use if/then and when/then statements with logical and natural consequences. These practices help children understand they can make choices and that choices have consequences;
  9. Showing children positive alternatives rather than just telling children “no”;
  10. Modeling desired behavior;
  11. Using planned ignoring and redirection. Certain behaviors can be ignored while at the same time the adult is able to redirect the children to another activity. If the behavior cannot be ignored, the adult should prompt the child to use a more appropriate behavior and provide positive feedback when the child engages in the behavior;
  12. Individualizing discipline based on the individual needs of children. For example, if a child has a hard time transitioning, the caregiver/teacher can identify strategies to help the child with the transition (individualized warning, job during transition, individual schedule, peer buddy to help, etc.) If a child has a difficult time during a large group activity, the child might be taught to ask for a break;
  13. Using time-out for behaviors that are persistent and unacceptable. Time-out should only be used in combination with instructional approaches that teach children what to do in place of the behavior problem. (See guidance for time-outs below.)

Expectations for children’s behavior and the facility’s policies regarding their response to behaviors should be written and shared with families and children of appropriate age. Further, the policies should address proactive as well as reactive strategies. Programs should work with families to support their children’s appropriate behaviors before it becomes a problem.

Common usage of the word “discipline” has corrupted the word so that many consider discipline as synonymous with punishment, most particularly corporal punishment (2,3). Discipline is most effective when it is consistent, reinforces desired behaviors, and offers natural and logical consequences for negative behaviors. Research studies find that corporal punishment has limited effectiveness and potentially harmful side effects (4-9). Children have to be taught expectations for their behavior if they are to develop internal control of their actions. The goal is to help children learn to control their own behavior.
Children respond well when they receive descriptive praise/attention for behaviors that the caregiver/teacher wants to see again. It is best if caregivers/teachers are sincere and enthusiastic when using descriptive praise. On the contrary, children should not receive praise for undesirable behaviors, but instead be praised for honest efforts towards the behaviors the caregivers/teachers want to see repeated (1). Discipline is best received when it includes positive guidance, redirection, and setting clear-cut limits that foster the child’s ability to become self-disciplined. In order to respond effectively when children display challenging behavior, it is beneficial for caregivers/teachers to understand typical social and emotional development and behaviors. Discipline is an ongoing process to help children develop inner control so they can manage their own behavior in a socially approved manner. A comprehensive behavior plan is often based first on a positive, affectionate relationship between the child and the caregiver/teacher. Measures that prevent behavior problems often include developmentally appropriate environments, supervision, routines, and transitions. Children can benefit from receiving guidance and repeated instructions for navigating the various social interactions that take place in the child care setting such as friendship development, problem-solving, and conflict-resolution.

Time-out (also known as temporary separation) is one strategy to help children change their behavior and should be used in the context of a positive behavioral support approach which works to understand undesired behaviors and teach new skills to replace the behavior. Listed below are guidelines when using time-out (8):

  1. Time-outs should be used for behaviors that are persistent and unacceptable, used infrequently and used only for children who are at least two years of age. Time-outs can be considered an extended ignore or a time-out from positive enforcement;
  2. The caregiver/teacher should explain how time-out works to the child BEFORE s/he uses it the first time. The adult should be clear about the behavior that will lead to time-out;
  3. When placing the child in time-out, the caregiver/teacher should stay calm;
  4. While the child is in time-out, the caregiver/teacher should not talk to or look at the child (as an extended ignore). However, the adult should keep the child in sight. The child could 1) remain sitting quietly in a chair or on a pillow within the room or 2) participate in some activity that requires solitary pursuit (painting, coloring, puzzle, etc.) If the child cannot remain in the room, s/he will spend time in an alternate space, with supervision;
  5. Time-outs do not need to be long. The caregiver/teacher should use the one minute of time-out for each year of the child’s age (e.g., three-years-old = three minutes of time-out);
  6. The caregiver/teacher should end the time-out on a positive note and allow the child to feel good again. Discussions with the child to “explain WHY you were in time-out” are not usually effective;
  7. If the child is unable to be distracted or consoled, parents/guardians should be contacted.

How to respond to failure to cooperate during time-out:

Caregivers/teachers should expect resistance from children who are new to the time-out procedure. If a child has never experienced time-out, s/he may respond by becoming very emotional. Time-out should not turn into a power struggle with the child. If the child is refusing to stay on time-out, the caregiver/teacher should give the child an if/then statement. For example, “if you cannot take your time-out, then you cannot join story time.” If the child continues to refuse the time-out, then the child cannot join story time. Note that children should not be restrained to keep them in time-out.

More resources for caregivers/teachers on discipline can be found at the following organizations’ Websites: a) Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) at and b) Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention (TACSEI) at


Gross, D., C. Garvey, W. Julion, L. Fogg, S. Tucker, H. Mokos. 2009. Efficacy of the Chicago Parent Program with low-income multi-ethnic parents of young children. Preventions Science 10:54-65.

Breitenstein, S., D. Gross, I. Ordaz, W. Julion, C. Garvey, A. Ridge. 2007. Promoting mental health in early childhood programs serving families from low income neighborhoods. J Am Psychiatric Nurses Assoc 13:313-20.

Gross, D., C. Garvey, W. Julion, L. Fogg. 2007. Preventive parent training with low-income ethnic minority parents of preschoolers. In Handbook of parent training: Helping parents prevent and solve problem behaviors. Ed. J. M. Briesmeister, C. E. Schaefer. 3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Gartrell, D. 2007. He did it on purpose! Young Children 62:62-64.

Gartrell, D. 2004. The power of guidance: Teaching social-emotional skills in early childhood classrooms. Clifton Park, NY: Thomson Delmar Learning; Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Gartrell, D., K. Sonsteng. 2008. Promoting physical activity: It’s pro-active guidance. Young Children 63:51-53.

Shiller, V. M., J. C. O’Flynn. 2008. Using rewards in the early childhood classroom: A reexamination of the issues. Young Children 63:88, 90-93.

Reineke, J., K. Sonsteng, D. Gartrell. 2008. Nurturing mastery motivation: No need for rewards. Young Children 63:89, 93-97.

Ryan, R. M., E. L. Deci. 2000. When rewards compete with nature: The undermining of intrinsic motivation and self-regulation. In Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: The search for optimal motivation and performance, ed. C. Sanstone, J. M. Harackiewicz, 13-54. San Diego, CA: Academic Press

Center, Early Head Start, Head Start, Large Family Child Care Home, Small Family Child Care Home
RELATED STANDARDS Transitioning within Programs and Indoor and Outdoor Learning/Play Environments Handling Physical Aggression, Biting, and Hitting Preventing Expulsions, Suspensions, and Other Limitations in Services Recognizing and Reporting Suspected Child Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation Immunity for Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect Preventing and Identifying Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma Care for Children Who Have Experienced Abuse/Neglect Facility Layout to Reduce Risk of Child Abuse and Neglect Enrollment Information to Parents/Guardians and Caregivers/Teachers Written Discipline Policies Availability of Documents to Parents/Guardians
  1. Henderlong, J., M. Lepper. 2002 The effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin 128:774-95.
  2. Hodgkin, R. 1997. Why the “gentle smack” should go: Policy review. Child Soc 11:201-4.
  3. Fraiberg, S. H. 1959. The Magic Years. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  4. Straus, M. A., et al. 1997. Spanking by parents and subsequent antisocial behavior of children. Arch Pediatric Adolescent Medicine 151:761-67.
  5. Deater-Deckard, K., et al. 1996. Physical discipline among African American and European American mothers: Links to children’s externalizing behaviors. Dev Psychol 32:1065-72.
  6. Weiss, B., et al. 1992. Some consequences of early harsh discipline: Child aggression and a maladaptive social information processing style. Child Dev 63:1321-35.
  7. American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on School Health. 2006. Policy statement: Corporal punishment in schools. Pediatrics 118:1266.
  8. Dunlap, S., L. Fox, M. L. Hemmeter, P. Strain. 2004. The role of time-out in a comprehensive approach for addressing challenging behaviors of preschool children. CSEFEL What Works Series.
  9. Fiene, R. 2002. 13 indicators of quality child care: Research update. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.