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Quick reference medical handouts used by Pediatric offices

Positive Discipline and Child Guidance

New Page 7 Every adult who cares for children has a responsibility to guide, correct and socialize them toward appropriate behaviors.  Positive guidance and discipline are crucial because they promote children's self-control, teach children responsibility and help children make thoughtful choices. The more effective adult caregivers are at encouraging appropriate child behavior, the less time and effort adults will spend correcting children's misbehavior.  Using physical force, threats and put-downs can interfere with a child's healthy development and there is strong evidence that spanking can have negative effects on children.

Family specialists also agree that a perfect formula that answers all questions about discipline does not exist. Children are unique and so are the families in which they live. A discipline strategy that might work with one child may not work with another.

Effective guidance and discipline focus on the development of the child. They also preserve the child's self-esteem and dignity. Actions that insult or belittle are likely to cause children to view their parents negatively, which can inhibit learning and can teach the child to be unkind to others. However, actions that acknowledge the child's efforts and progress, no matter how slow or small, are likely to encourage healthy development.

Teaching children self-discipline is not easy. It requires patience, thoughtful attention, cooperation and a good understanding of the child. It also requires knowledge of one's own strengths and struggles with disciplinary issues. Unfortunately, the only preparation for most parents is their own experience of being parented. Such past experiences may not always be helpful in raising today's children.

Proactive strategies

Child misbehavior is impossible to prevent completely. Children, usually curious and endlessly creative, are likely to do things parents and other caregivers have not expected. However, there are many positive steps adults can take to help prevent misbehavior. (see also: Guidelines for raising a well-behaved child)

  • Set clear, consistent rules.
  • Make certain the environment is safe and worry-free.
  • Show interest in the child's activities.
  • Provide appropriate and engaging playthings.
  • Encourage self-control by providing meaningful choices.
  • Focus on the desired behavior, rather than the one to be avoided.
  • Build children's images of themselves as trustworthy, responsible and cooperative.
  • Expect the best from the child.
  • Give clear directions, one at a time.
  • Say "Yes" whenever possible.
  • Notice and pay attention to children when they do things right.
  • Take action before a situation gets out of control.
  • Encourage children often and generously.
  • Set a good example.
  • Help children see how their actions affect others.

Possible reasons children misbehave

If parents understand why their children misbehave, they can be more successful at reducing behavior problems. Listed here are some of the possible reasons why children misbehave.

  • They want to test whether caregivers will enforce rules.
  • They experience different sets of expectations between school and home.
  • They do not understand the rules, or are held to expectations that are beyond their developmental levels.
  • They want to assert themselves and their independence.
  • They feel ill, bored, hungry or sleepy.
  • They lack accurate information and prior experience.
  • They have been previously "rewarded" for their misbehavior with adult attention.
  • They copy the actions of their parents. (see also: Dealing with Misbehavior)

Positive discipline techniques
True misbehavior occurs when a child chooses to behave inappropriately. Before you take action, ask yourself the following questions:

Is the child really doing something wrong? Is there a real problem? (or are you just tired and out of patience

No, I am just tired and out of patience today

If there is no real problem, release your stress away from the child.

Yes, my child is misbehaving

Is your child actually capable of doing what you expect?


If you are not being realistic, re-evaluate your expectations.


Did your child know at the time that she or he was doing something wrong?


If your child did not realize she was doing something wrong, help  her understand what you expect, why, and how she can do that.


If your child knew what she was doing was wrong, and she intentionally disregarded a reasonable expectation, your child misbehaved.

Responding to Misbehavior
5 strategies parents can use

Natural consequences Allowing children to experience the consequences of their behavior is also called "learning the hard way." For example, Gena does not put her books back in her school bag after she finishes reading. One day she loses a book, and therefore must find a way to replace it.
Logical consequences These are set consequences that follow specific misbehaviors. The child should be able to see how the behavior and the consequence are directly related. For example, Andrew, who is a teenager, knows that if he stays out past his curfew on a school night, his parents will not allow him to go out with his friends over the weekend.


If children damage something, they need to help in fixing it or in cleaning up. If they cause someone distress, they should help in relieving that. For example, "Now that you made your brother cry, please come apologize and help me soothe him."
Time out During time out, children are required to spend time alone in a specific place that has few, if any, rewarding characteristics. This strategy gives the child a chance to reflect quietly on her or his behavior away from others. When giving a time out, be calm and firm. One minute for each year of the child's age is appropriate. For example, "Hannah, we have talked often about how hitting is not acceptable. But because you hit Jerry, please leave the playground and go to the Time Out Table for five minutes. Please think about how Jerry might have felt when you hit him."
Redirection This strategy can work when you notice that a child is not following the rules and is being uncooperative. Quickly get the child's attention and introduce another activity. For example, "Tom, please help me water the flowers now. You've been riding the bike for a long time and it's now Lena's turn."

Used with the kind permission of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, University of Missouri-Columbia. Copyright 2000 University of Missouri. Published by University Extension, University of Missouri-Columbia.


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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