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General Principles of Discipline

While every child is different, most children need to be given consistent, clear rules and expectations about behavior. The following are some general principles about discipline:

  • Discipline needs to begin as soon as the child is mobile pulling up and crawling.

  • Young infants rely on their parents to provide a safe environment.

  • Discipline should be age-focused and should teach age-appropriate behaviors.

  • Try to recognize and praise your child when he or she is being good.

  • Be a good role model for your child.

  • After the discipline occurs, hug your child. Make sure the child knows it is the behavior you are not happy with, not the child.

  • Physical punishment is not needed or appropriate.

  • Rewards for good behavior should be immediate.

Decrease unwanted behavior

It is important to remember not to reward a child or give positive reinforcement for a bad behavior. For example, if a child is having a temper tantrum, giving him or her a cookie to be quiet is rewarding the child for the bad behavior. In order to help decrease the chance of bad behavior, consider the following:

  • Do not reinforce the behavior; simply ignore the child.

  • The behavior may have to result in an unpleasant consequence, such as punishment.

  • Active punishment has two forms, including the following:

    • Denying the child privileges or desired activities, such as decreasing TV time or no dessert

    • Undesirable or uncomfortable activities can be required of the child, such as doing chores or having "time-out"

  • The behavior can result in natural consequences. For example, a child who will not eat may go to bed hungry.

  • It is generally accepted that spanking and other forms of physical punishment are not helpful. These types of discipline teach the child aggressive behaviors and poor conflict management.

Methods of discipline

Discipline methods often depend on the age of the child, and how much the child understands his or her behavior. The following are some suggestions for discipline techniques for each age group:

Infants and toddlers

  • Safety is the main concern.

  • Infants will respond to a loud, firm voice saying "no."

  • Provide a safe environment that decreases the chances of things being broken by the child.

  • After saying "no," direct your child to an acceptable behavior, such as a toy.

  • Do not reward bad behavior. Ignore temper tantrums, but confront other problems, such as biting or hitting.

  • Praise and reward good behavior.


  • Preschoolers need clear and consistent rules.

  • This age group needs time to prepare for the next activity. Give your child a warning before it is time to stop playing.

  • Preschoolers need lots of explanation as to why things are being done.

  • Use time-out for bad behavior.

  • Use praise for good behavior.

School-aged children

School-aged children need the above rules and guidelines plus the following:

  • Give your child chances to explain his or her side and opinion and opportunities to express his or her feelings and concerns.

  • Give your child choices.

  • Give your child chances to help solve problems together regarding his or her behavior.


  • This age group needs patient and understanding parents as they test all limits.

  • Adolescents need to be told the long-term outcomes of bad behaviors.

  • Adolescents need to be involved with limit-setting, based on their maturity.

General Principles of Discipline - WellSpan Health

Online Medical Reviewer: Finke, Amy, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 2014-04-29T00:00:00
Last Modified Date: 2014-05-07T00:00:00
Posting Date: 2008-11-30T00:00:00
Published Date: 2015-08-04T00:00:00
Last Review Date: 2007-03-30T00:00:00
© 2015 WellSpan Health. All Rights Reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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