Tag Archives: limits

Discipline Tools Posters

When discussing Discipline, I use a tool I developed called the Discipline Flow Chart. It covers 6 steps:

  1. Prevent Behavior Problems
  2. When a problem begins, decide whether intervention is needed. (Pick your battles.)
  3. Instead of telling your child “Don’t Do X” or “Stop Y”, tell them what TO DO. A young child is often not able to think of alternatives, so tell them a positive action to take, and that’s often all you need do.
  4. If the problem is escalating, or is already at the point where more direct intervention is needed, let your child know a) what the problem is, and b) what the consequences will be if the problem continues.
  5. If the problem is at the point where immediate intervention is needed (especially if there’s imminent risk of harm to someone or something), then immediately enforce consequences: either remove the child from the situation, or remove the problematic item from the child.
  6. Move on. Let your child know that you still love them, but that their behavior was not OK, and you won’t let them do it now or in the future. Give a hug, and let it go.

Students asked for a poster to summarize this, so here’s the Discipline Flow Chart Mini Poster. I also have posters I hang in class, and students asked for a mini version of the discipline tools posters

The Discipline Flow Chart – 6 Easy (or not always-so-easy) Steps of Discipline


When many people hear the word Discipline, they think of punishment – the consequences for bad behavior. Discipline is so much more: it’s Prevention of problems – setting up an environment where your child can be successful. It’s Picking Your Battles – deciding which lessons are the most important to teach. It’s Teaching your child about the right way to behave (not assuming they were born knowing.) It’s Setting Limits – letting your child know when there is a problem and giving them the opportunity to correct it. Then, as step 5, not step 1, come Consequences. After consequences, we Move On – making clear to the child that their behavior was not OK with us, but they are! Let’s look at the 6 steps in more detail.

Step 1 – Prevent Problems

There are lots of things we can do to set the stage for good behavior. It’s easier for your child to behave when they are well-rested and well-fed. It’s easier for your child to behave when you have predictable routines for your day and they know what’s expected of them. We can plan our activities so that each day the child has plenty of kid-friendly times and places where we can say yes to them – yes, it’s OK to run here, yes, it’s OK to be loud here, yes, you can touch and play with all the things here. Having this time will make the “No” times easier.

Effective discipline is grounded in relationship. If your child trusts you, and trusts that you love them, discipline will be easier.

A key step of prevention is to teach your child what to expect, and what is expected of them. It will take them a while to learn what is appropriate behavior for church, stores, the doctor’s office and so on. On your way to an activity, talk about what you will be doing, and how you would like them to behave.

Step 2 – Pick your Battles

When some questionable behavior begins, think before you intervene.

If something is clearly bad behavior, we move on quickly to the other steps… especially if there’s imminent danger of harm to a person or a possession – then we’d jump straight to step 5 – consequences. Or if your child is having a full-out tantrum, you may need to just remove them from the situation and explain later.

But sometimes the ‘misbehavior’ that we notice and react to is really not that big of deal. Sometimes the behavior is just annoying to us but not really bad. (If this is the case, can you just ignore it?) Or sometimes, our kids just surprise us by doing something we didn’t expect them to do and we react negatively before we really think about it. And then next thing we know, we’re caught in a battle of wills about something, and we realize part way through that it’s a battle not worth fighting, but we don’t want to back down because then our child learns that they can out-argue us.

When you encounter one of those moments of “I can’t believe she just did that!”, stop and think before reacting. Share your thought process with your child….  “hmm… I need to think about whether it’s OK to do that.” Once you’ve decided, explain your decision to them so you both know the rules for the future.

[Note: when I say things like “explain”, remember that you always have to act in a developmentally-appropriate way with your child. So, explaining to a toddler may be “no, no, too hot” and an explanation to a 5 year old will be a lot more specific.]

Step 3 – Tell Your Child what TO do

[If the situation is escalating quickly, we might need to jump to step 4 or step 5. But ideally, we can spend a while on step 3… ]

We need to ask for the behavior we want to see. Toddlers don’t understand the word “don’t” very well, so if you say “don’t bite”, they hear the verb, and continue to bite. Also, even if they grasp what they shouldn’t do, they may not be able to think of any alternatives for what they should do instead. Tell them what they should do.

Connect to Correct: Don’t call out suggestions from across the room. Go close to your child, establish eye contact, and then give suggestions. Engage them in the new activity before moving away.

Model: Act the way you would like your child to act. Point our other kids who are behaving well. Children are great at copying what they see. “Let’s touch the doggy gently. See, this is gentle.” “Watch how I walk carefully down the stairs, and I get to jump off just the very last stair.”

Re-direct: Tell them what other action they could do with that object. So instead of “don’t pour the rice on the floor”, say “keep the rice in the bowl.” Instead of “Don’t drop that!!” say “Hold it very carefully” and say “when you’re ready to set it down, I’ll take it from you.”

Substitute: Tell them what other object they can do that action with. “I can see you’re in the mood for throwing. Let’s go find a ball.” “I can see you want to bang on things. Where’s your drum?” Sometimes it’s delayed substitution: “I know you want to jump and run today. Later, we’ll go to the playground and you can do that all you want. For now, I need you to sit quietly.”

Offer Choices: “You have 3 cars. Bobby wants to play with one. Which one do you want to give him?”

Note: don’t offer choices to a child who is very upset. It will only make it harder for her to calm herself down. A tantrum-ing child needs to be given clear direction about what to do.

Explain the Reasons: “I want you to stop banging on that, because it might break. That would make us sad.” “I need you to be safe. When you go head first down a slide, it can hurt you. Go feet first.”

Step 4 – Alert Child to the Problem, set Limits

If re-directing has not been working, and misbehavior continues, we need to take action. [If there is imminent risk of harm, jump to step 5.]

Get serious. By this, I mean: change your tone of voice to calm but stern, change your body language. Let them know you mean business. Tell your child that his behavior is not OK. (He might not know. Or he may know and is testing the rule – and you.)

Remind your child what the expectations are and encourage her to behave better. Let her know what the consequences will be if the misbehavior continues.

Try for logical consequences, where ‘the punishment fits the crime.’ The most common consequences fall into two categories: remove the child from the situation until they can behave well, or remove options from the child (i.e. take away toys, buckle them into the high chair, stop them from using the slide.) Make sure the consequence is in proportion to the issue. Some examples: “when you throw your Duplos, I need to put them away for the day” or “when you don’t stop when I say red light, I need to carry you to keep you safe” or “I need you to help put away toys. If I put them away all by myself, I will put them up high on a shelf out of reach.”

Don’t set any consequences you’re not willing to enforce!

Step 5 – Calmly Enforce Consequences

If the misbehavior continues, you must impose the consequence. Although it’s hard to “punish” a child, it actually builds more trust if you do what you said you would do than if you “let it slide.”

Your role is to be the authority who helps your child stay safe and grow into the best adult they can be. Although you can be loving and friendly to your child at all times, you can’t always be their friend. Sometimes you’ll be the “bad guy” who blocks them from doing what they want.

No need to discuss this or re-hash it or re-negotiate it. Just do it.

Step 6 – Moving On

Once the consequence is complete (your child has calmed down enough to return to the situation or the time limit on taking the toys away has run out) then you move on.

Remind your child you still love himhis behavior was the issue. Make plans together for how to prevent or manage this sort of situation in the future.

Over time, we want our children to learn self-discipline, so as they get older, we need to “fade” back a little with our guidance. We ask them to tell us what the appropriate behavior is for a situation, we wait a little longer to correct, we let them experience some of the problems we’ve warned them about (instead of always protecting them from consequences), and take more responsibility for behaving properly.


Would you like a cheat sheet version of this article to print and post on your fridge? Download PDF: Discipline Flow Chart

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DisciplineFlowLooking for tips on discipline? Read on to learn about: having developmentally appropriate expectations, helping kids understand what is expected of them, modelling and rewarding desired behaviors, setting limits, and enforcing consequences.

What is discipline?

Discipline does not mean punishment after misbehavior has happened.

Discipline means guidance. It means setting clear expectations for how we would like our children to behave, not assuming they know how. It means modeling for our children the kinds of behavior we would like them to display. It means setting clear limits about things they cannot do. And, it means that when they misbehave, we let them know that the behavior was not OK, but we do still love them, and we tell them how to be better in the future. This style of discipline not only guides behavior, it also builds trust and respect between parent and child.

The first step in discipline is to consider how old your child is…

Make sure your expectations are developmentally appropriate

From birth to three, your child is going through massive developmental changes, with more brain growth than ever again. They learn through hands-on exploration of the world, which means they get into everything, and have no sense yet of what is safe and what’s not. Your role is to protect them as needed, but also allow them to explore and learn within limits. They learn through repetition, which means they need to do something over and over to learn it, and that includes misbehaving over and over and experiencing consequences over and over before they really remember the rule. Your role is respond consistently each and every time to misbehavior to help reinforce their learning.

Discipline will be more effective (and you’ll be less frustrated) if you keep your child’s developmental capabilities in mind at all times. Do encourage them to stretch themselves and work on impulse control, but don’t expect more than they are capable of. Learn about developmental capabilities by reading books, looking online, taking classes, and by watching other kids. (Though it’s also important to remember that individual temperaments have a big effect on what kids are capable of, no matter their age.) For example, typically toddlers are not yet capable of sharing, have a hard time waiting and controlling their impulses, will bite and hit at times, and can’t always “use their words.” We ask them to do better, but we shouldn’t be surprised when that’s too much for them.

Learn more: www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/discipline-behavior/9-development-reasons-why-toddlers-can-be-difficult-discipline and Discipline that works: Ages & Stages Approach: http://umaine.edu/publications/4140e/

Explain what to expect, and what is expected of them

Remember how little your children know about the world. They don’t know that you’re supposed to be quiet in some places and that it’s OK to be loud in other places until you teach them that. They don’t know that they need to stay at the table at the restaurant until you teach them that (and remind them again and again). The more you can tell them ahead of time what to expect and what is expected, the better. When they are young, keep it very simple: “this is a quiet place”, “you need to sit with me here”. As they get older, you can have codes. Like in our family “theater rules” means a place where you sit in a seat, and are quiet, unless everyone else is clapping or singing.

To learn more about ways to guide your child in what TO DO, rather than focusing on what NOT to do, see my post on “Saying Yes.”

Model desired behavior and praise them when they manage it

Act the way you would like your child to act. Also, point our other kids who are behaving well. Children are great at copying what they see.When you make mistakes, say so, and apologize for it. “I tell you not to use bad words, and I just used a bad word. I need to work harder on using nice words.”

“Catch” them being good – praise them for the positive behavior they demonstrate. Some people recommend you shoot for a ratio of 4 – 5 times where you tell them they’re doing something right for every 1 time you tell them they’re doing something wrong.

Setting Limits and Consequences

When misbehavior begins, let them know that what they’re doing is not OK. (They might not know. Or they might, and are testing to be sure they understand.) Use a firm voice and a serious expression to convey this. It is confusing to toddlers if we use our regular sweet smile and playful voice when we’re telling them what not to do. Also, the louder your child gets, the calmer you need to be.

Remind them what the expectations are and encourage them to behave better. If they don’t, let them know what the consequences will be if misbehavior continues. Try for logical consequences, where the ‘punishment fits the crime.’ For example: “when you throw your Duplos, I need to put them away” or “when you don’t stop when I say red light, I need to carry you to keep you safe” or “I need you to help put away toys. If I put them away all by myself, I will put them up high on a shelf out of reach” or “when you dump your food on the floor, it tells me you’re done, and I’ll put it away.”

Consistently Follow through on Consequences

If the misbehavior continues, you must impose the consequence.  Although it’s hard to “punish” a child, it actually builds more trust if you do what you said you would do than if you “let it slide.”

Punish the behavior, not the child. Let them know you still love them, but the behavior was not OK. Use a calm and firm voice and expression, not an angry tone.

No need to discuss this or re-hash it or re-negotiate it. Just be clear and move on.

Handling Quickly Escalating Situations (including hitting and biting)

When anyone (or anything) is in imminent danger of harm, we need to act more quickly. There may not be time to suggest better behavior nor time to tell them what the consequences will be. You may just need to act quickly and explain later.

Also, if your child is in a full meltdown tantrum or very wild and out of control, you won’t be able to reason with them. They’re not understanding language at that point. You may just need to remove them from the situation, go somewhere quiet till they calm down, and then explain things.

How does your child respond to your no’s? How do you respond to that?

When you set a limit, does your child beg, whine, and plead? Or throw loud dramatic tantrums? Or try to make you feel like a bad parent, shouting “you don’t love me!”? If so, do you give in? If you do, you teach your child that whining, tantrums, and guilt trips are effective tools and they will use them again. And the toddler tantrums that seemed overwhelming at the time won’t compare to the battle your teenager will be able to put on after years of learning how effective tantrums are against you.

Try to stick to your no, no matter what. If you change your mind for some reason, be very clear about why “I’m not saying yes to this because you begged for it. I’m saying yes because I talked it over with your dad, and now that we’ve had more time to think about it, it seems fair to do. In return, here’s what we expect from you….”

Remember that giving in can make things easier in the moment, but it doesn’t accomplish your long-term goals, and can reinforce behaviors you dislike. Sticking to your consequences can be really hard sometimes. One year we had to bar our daughter from participating in a school play – something the whole family was looking forward to – due to one really bad week of homework issues. My husband and I were a strong united front in her presence, and did our own grieving behind the scenes.

Discipline Tactics that are Less Effective

Avoid empty threats: Saying “I’ll just leave you here in the store” or “I’ll throw away all your toys” can be very frightening to a child and scare them out of proportion with the offense. Then someday they figure out you don’t mean it, and then it’s pointless. Either way, it’s not effective at helping the child behave well.

What about spanking? It works in the short term to discourage a particular misbehavior. But it’s not beneficial in the long-term. Murray Straus, after 4 decades of research, says “Research shows spanking corrects misbehavior. But … spanking does not work better than other modes of correction… Moreover… the gains from spanking come at a big cost. These include weakening the tie between children and parents and increasing the probability that the child will hit other children and their parents, and as adults, hit a… partner. Spanking also…lowers the probability of a child doing well in school.”  www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131211103958.htm
It also harms brain development: www.cnn.com/2014/07/23/health/effects-spanking-brain

What about time-outs?

  • Time outs work very well for some families. It depends on the temperament of the child and of the parent. Successful time-outs are not a punishment. They are a chance for a child to go somewhere quiet and calm down. They come back out when they’re ready to get along again. A typical rule of thumb is for a maximum time-out of one minute per year old. So a 5 year old would have at most 5 minutes.
  • If your child views a time out as a rejection, it might make her very sad. That child might need a “time-in” where the two of you sit quietly together until she calms down.
  • Some children view timeouts as a call to battle, and they only escalate the situation.
  • Some parents take time-outs themselves, saying “I need to go to my room for just a minute to calm down, then I’ll come back and we’ll talk about this.”

Think before reacting – Pick your Battles

As much as possible, think ahead of time about what the limits are. But sometimes you find yourself in a situation where you need to set a limit in the moment… take a little while to think it through before acting. For example, my first daughter wanted to wear her dress-up clothes to the grocery store. I said no, which turned into a battle of wills. Halfway through, I realized I really didn’t care. But at that point, I couldn’t just back down – I had to stick to the rule I had set. So, what I should have done is when she asked for something I didn’t expect, I should have said “Hmm… I need to think about that for a minute and decide if that seems OK with me.”

Some parents have tried a system where they have in their minds three categories of behavior. Green light options: things that are always OK, that they can always say yes to. Red light options are never OK, and they can never say yes to them, no matter how much the child asks or how embarrassing the public tantrum may be. (Safety issues are a good example.) And there’s a whole lot of yellow lights: things that are sometimes OK, and sometimes not. Then when their child asks them “Can I wear my swimsuit today” they might say “hmm… that’s a yellow light thing. Let’s think it through: if it’s warm out and we’re playing outside, that’s OK. But it’s not OK if it’s cold out or we’re going somewhere like church. So, today, since it’s so cold out, I have to say no.”

Think before reacting – See things from your child’s perspective

Children love to explore but sometimes that means they make a big mess. Before getting upset, try to see things from your child’s perspective to see the joy they may have found in making that mess. And try to see that they might not have realized that the mess would be a problem. Say “It looks like you had a lot of fun playing and exploring here! But, next time you want to play with that, we need to figure out how to do it without making a big mess. Can you help me clean up now?”

Steps in the Discipline Process

Check out this flowchart for steps which help your child to behave well.

Helpful resources

Webinar on Discipline: www.youtube.com/watch?v=sX0MQ5ZXVio&list=WLsMLXfBPSxoG3J_FkZGqnxVV2P34cr_S_

Overview Handout: www.parentingcounts.org/professionals/parenting-handouts/information-for-parents-discipline.pdf

8 tools for babies/toddlers. www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/discipline-behavior/8-tools-toddler-discipline

Tantrums: https://bellevuetoddlers.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/toddler-tantrums-and-emotional-meltdowns/

If you have a hard time saying no, check out: