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Early Childhood Development & Child Discipline

By Juniper Russo ; Updated June 13, 2017

During the toddler and preschool years, children experience a rapid increase in curiosity and physical agility. Because they are incapable of understanding consequences of their curiosity-driven actions, young children can be difficult to discipline. Parenting expert Dr. William Sears notes that structure and communication are critical in facilitating a healthy discipline technique. Parents and caregivers can enable a safe, structured environment while preserving a child's emotional and intellectual well being.


In Western cultures, the most common forms of discipline involve systems of punishments and rewards. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends four basic forms of punishment for young children: time out, withholding privileges, logical consequences and natural consequences. The AAP indicates that, during early childhood, punishments should be administered immediately so that children are able to connect bad behaviors and their consequences. However, some parenting experts, including Alfie Kohn and Barbara Coloroso, believe that punishments and rewards are ineffective discipline techniques; they contend that these systems fail to promote good behavior.


Appropriate discipline techniques are essential aspects of early childhood development because they provide children with structure and limitations. Early childhood discipline helps to prevent accidents and safety hazards; it also enables children to understand that their actions have consequences. Young children have a strong natural desire to explore the world around them and to establish the limits of acceptable behavior. Children crave structure and require guidance from their caregivers so that they can understand and recognize behavioral boundaries.


Corporal punishment techniques, including spankings, are popular methods for disciplining young children. However, expert organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychological Association, recommend against this practice. Spankings are harmful to a child's emotional development, especially when they are administered at an early age. The American Psychological Association declares that corporal punishment is ineffective and emotionally traumatizing; it encourages children to use aggression and physical force to control others. These organizations also note that no study has demonstrated that spankings effectively alter a child's behavior.

Expert Insight

The term "discipline" is often used synonymously with "punishment", but discipline techniques do not necessarily involve systems of punishment and reward. Child development experts Alfie Kohn and Barbara Coloroso contend that punishments and rewards are manipulative and counterproductive; no study has conclusively demonstrated that these common techniques actually facilitate positive behavior. Kohn and Coloroso argue that communication--not bribes and threats--are useful for proactively enabling positive behavior in children. Dr. William Sears also opposes manipulative discipline techniques: "It is not what we are doing to our children, it is what we are doing for and with them, and what they are doing for themselves. "


No discipline technique works universally. Some children may thrive in a very flexible environment, whereas others may need the security of a strict routine. Children with special needs often require specialized discipline techniques if a language delay or psychological disorder hinders the effectiveness discipline methods. Caregivers should consult a pediatrician or child development expert regarding the safety and efficacy of common discipline techniques. A specialist may be able to provide advice tailored to suit the needs of an individual child.

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