Preschool: Discipline Considerations

This information has been taken directly from Child Welfare Information Gateway

The purpose of discipline is to teach, re-teach, and assist children in developing their own internal controls. Discipline should take into account your child’s abilities, learning styles, and family history. There are many resources available to help parents learn and use positive discipline. This section provides information about a few specific strategies that may be particularly useful for parents of adopted children.

Note that parents need to be especially careful with children who have been abused or neglected. Physical punishment and threats of physical punishment should not be used as forms of discipline.

Establish Routines and Rules

Young children thrive on consistency and routine. Routines and rules help children begin to organize their world and regulate their own emotions; they can be especially helpful for children whose worlds previously felt chaotic. Children are generally more cooperative and secure when they know what to expect.

Preschool children need just a few simple rules to promote child safety and family harmony. From the moment your child joins your family, establish the household routines that will ease everyday life. Routines for meals and bedtime are especially important. Children who were placed in institutions or who had chaotic pasts may take a while to become comfortable with family routines. Children who have been placed in several foster or relative homes will have experienced different rules and expectations in each setting. Be patient when explaining and demonstrating your rules and routines. Be cautious about varying the routines until you are sure your child is used to them and feels secure.

Use Developmentally Appropriate Rewards and Consequences


Children respond better to praise and positive rewards than to scolding or correcting. Preschoolers love being told that they have done something well. Praise reinforces positive behaviors.

Be sure to notice and praise specific behavior. For example: “You did a great job waiting your turn” is more effective than “You’re a good girl.” In fact, nonspecific labels such as “good girl” may backfire with adopted children who were neglected or abused. Their self-esteem may be so low that they cannot believe they are good or worthy.

As preschoolers mature, they begin to see the connection between cause and effect. With this ability, they are ready to learn through both natural and logical consequences. Natural consequences occur without parental intervention. The natural consequence of leaving a toy outside overnight might be that it gets rushy or stolen. Logical consequences are determined by the parent. For example, a logical consequence of running into the street may be to come inside for the rest of the afternoon.

When using logical consequences, it is important to be extra sensitive to a child who has experienced poverty or neglect. For such a child, the loss of a toy might seem so tragic that it interferes with the lesson to be learned. Coach, explain, and give second chances.

Natural and logical consequences work only if your child can understand the connection between actions and consequences. Adjust your discipline strategy to fit your child’s abilities and developmental stage. If your child was prenatally exposed to alcohol, he or she may have extra difficulty understanding the connections between actions and consequences. Work with a knowledgeable therapist or parent coach to develop an appropriate discipline strategy

Use Time In Instead of Time Out

Many parents and teachers of preschoolers like to use a brief period of isolation to help a child regain self-control. This is known as time out. For children who have developed a secure attachment to others, a few minutes of time out are often effective. These kids don’t like to be alone, and they will improve their behavior quickly so that they can rejoin the group. If you use time out for your 3- to 5-year-old, keep it short, and remain in sight of your child.

However, the time out method is not the best approach for children who have been neglected, abused, or institutionalized. The main challenge in parenting these children is to help them form healthy attachments. In these cases, use the time in method. Time in is useful because it avoids distancing kids from parents, playmates, and the rest of the family. When your preschooler’s behavior indicates out-of-control emotions, take him or her aside and say: “Time in. You need to stay right here with me until you are ready to join the group.” Keep the child physically close to you until he or she is calmer. If the child is extremely agitated, you may need to sit him or her securely on your lap. This will send a message of support without the need for a temporary separation. Attending parenting classes or reading parenting books specific to adoption, attachment, or children exposed to trauma also will be helpful.


The preschool years are the perfect time for adoptive parents to increase their comfort with and sensitivity to adoption issues. These years also play an important part in creating a bond between parent and child based on honesty and trust. With a few adjustments, these early years can provide the foundation for healthy development and a warm and loving parent-child relationship.

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Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2009). Parenting Your Adopted Preschooler. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.