As an early childhood educator, I have spent most of my days dealing with children’s behavioural issues. From the very small issues such as using a spoon to the bigger issues such as biting or hitting. You name it, and I am surely able to say that yes, I have dealt with it. In fact, the goal of management of their challenging behaviours also called ‘discipline’ is changing unwanted behaviours to wanted behaviours such as following the rules. For this, young children need to learn how to control one’s self, respect others, and use problem-solving skills, so they are eventually able to perform pro-social behaviours. There are two different ways to discipline: punishment and guidance. Punishment focuses on correcting the behaviours instead of teaching them what accepted behaviours are while enforcing strict obedience. In particular, physical punishment including spanking is strongly discouraged by the Canadian Pediatric Society due to the possibilities of physical and emotional damage to a child (in the worst cases, damages can last permanently). It also can cause a feeling of disapproval, isolation, or shaming in your child which impacts negatively on developing a self-image for your child. On the other hand, guidance is teaching proper behaviours through encouraging them to make their own choices within the given safe and developmentally appropriate environment as well as, letting them be responsible for their own behaviours. It is a positive and gentle way to promote appropriate behaviours.
One day, I came up with the idea that if sleeping well and independently is an ideal behaviour, could we apply the behavioural management strategies when dealing with bedtime issues? Certainly! I’d love to introduce to you some guidance strategies which are very often used in relation to bedtime struggles. Before jumping into the strategies, there are some prior conditions we need to accomplish first.
1. Respect your child
Listen to your child, observe your child, acknowledge their feelings and show genuine interest in your child. This includes respecting your child as a human being who deserves respect from others even when misbehaving is the first step of managing behaviour problems.
2. Get to know your child
Each child is a unique individual. Each one has a different temperament, different biological needs, different developmental stages, different tolerance levels, different abilities to accept changes, different family dynamics, etc. That’s why one method of sleep training your friend’s child is not necessarily going to work for your child. Deeper insights into your child will provide more efficient ways to deal with your child’s challenging behaviours.
3. Provide developmentally appropriate activities and set up realistic expectations
Safe but challenging activities intrigue a child’s motivation to explore. If activities provide your little one with opportunities to take risks and to experiment with its surroundings, your child will maintain its intellectual curiosity. Moreover, various and appropriate types of stimulation from different activities ensure different domains of development (e.g. physical, cognitive, social/emotional). Furthermore, having realistic expectations reduces frustration on both sides (you and your child), plans the next steps once your child meets your expectations and ensures a positive relationship between you and your child.
4. Maintain consistency
Young children need consistency in their lives. Even though their language development occurs drastically during their early lives, they still have limited linguistic comprehension skills. Therefore, you need to maintain consistency so they can understand your expectations. When you respond to your little one in one way but sometimes in another way, you confuse your child with mixed messages. Among primary caregivers (e.g. you, your partner, grandparents, nanny, etc.), you need to come up with a mutually agreed strategy to respond to certain behaviours.
5. Be firm when you need to be
You are a loving, selfless parent. I know it is hard to be firm with your child. However, young children need your lead and guidance. You need to let your little one knows that you actually mean it and you expect him/her to follow your directions. You don’t need to be harsh, but sometimes you need to be determined.
Once you have established all these conditions, we can now apply some good guidance techniques.
Be a good example for your child. You can make sleep as a priority for the entire family. Demonstrate good bedtime behaviours such as stopping the use of TVs, computers, and phones when it’s close to bedtime, cutting down on sugary and caffeinated food and drinks, or starting meditation, stress management, etc. as a part of a healthy lifestyle.
2. Setting a limit
Simple, easy, clear, and realistic rules are required.
Example: “You can call me three times before you fall asleep. After that, you need to wait to talk to me until tomorrow morning.”
Example: “It’s 7 o’clock. You can have one more story read to you, and then, you will go to bed.”
Explain the reasons for required behaviours.
Example: “It’s time for bed. Your body needs a rest.”
Example: “Mommy’s gonna go to her room because she needs her bed to sleep. Go to your bed. You need your bed now.”
Help your child focus on the desired behaviours instead of the undesired behaviours. For example, when a child keeps throwing a toy, you can give him/her a ball. Also, if a child tries to climb the shelves, you can take him/her to the climber.
Example: (When your child keeps wanting to play with a dog instead of sleeping) “I can tell you really want to play with Koko (a dog). But he needs to sleep, too! Let’s wear puppy pyjamas and read a puppy story in the bed before you go night, night.”
5. Positive reinforcement
Ignore small negative behaviours (“small” means even though the behaviours are not desirable, it is negligible and don’t affect your little one’s safety) and praise all small positive behaviours. I can tell you that it is one of the most effective ways to manage problematic behaviours. Do not respond to every small frustration, wiggling, calling, etc. However, celebrate each small positive behaviours.
Example: Your child sits down and calls you, “Mommy, mommy, mommy!”. You know your child is safe. Then don’t respond. Finally, your child lies down again. Then you can go to your little one and say, “I really like the way you laid down on your bed and tried to sleep quietly.”
6. Providing choices
Having choices is the way to empower them, encourage their autonomy, and inspire them to take responsibility. However, you need to decide how many choices and what choices they can have based on the situations and their developmental stages. Too many choices can overwhelm your child. For example, for a toddler, it is proper to let him/her pick one choice among two to three options. Moreover, never ask them, “Do you want to go to bed?” Most likely, they will say, “No!” You can offer two to three bedtime stories, stuffed dolls to take to the bed, or pyjamas to wear. The given options should all be acceptable.
7. Positive language
Instead of using “Don’t” or “Stop”, describe the desired behaviours in a positive way.
Example: (Instead of “Stop standing up in your crib”) Lie down!
Example: (Instead of “Don’t open your eyes”) Close your eyes!
Example: (Instead of “Stop wiggling”) Stay still!
8. I messages
I messages are pretty powerfully even for adults. It shows that you care and are concerned about the other person.
Example: (Instead of “Stop calling me and go to bed”) I was worried when you called my name. It is time to sleep.
9. Letting them experience natural consequences
Again, if a situation causes serious safety concerns, you must step in. However, after providing multiple, clear, developmentally appropriate verbal warnings, you may need to let them experience natural consequences.
Example: (A child keeps throwing his/her soother out of back and you continue to return it back to them even after multiple warnings) “Okay, no soother for you tonight. Tomorrow, when you lie down nicely, you can have your soother back.”
Example: (You sit next to the bed and try to help your little one sleep, but he/she keeps sitting down in his/her bed) “Mommy’s gonna help your brother first because you are not ready to sleep.”
Some of you may question me I mention the word “time out” – What? Time-out? Are you really an early childhood professional? Time-outs are simply removing your child from a situation where misbehaving is occurring. Of course, you need to consider its use depending on your child’s developmental stage (e.g. at least at the toddler age who will understand the concept, one minute per year of age). However, the goal of time-outs is to provide your little one with a moment to gain back control and re-enter the situation, so he/she can cope better with it.
Time-outs can be performed in two ways; negative and positive. The negative way of using a time-out usually involves asking your child to stay in a certain area (e.g. a naughty chair) and stay alone. During the period, you will ignore your little one’s crying and screaming. For sure, no child likes this and your child will learn that it is not ok. However, it may cause your child to feel abandoned, rejected, frightened and confused due to its harsh and punitive function. On the other hand, a positive time-out, also called “time in” is an alternative way to the traditional time out. For the time-in, you will invite your child to sit with you outside of the situation where his/her misbehaving occurred. You will talk about your little one’s feelings and actively support your child to help him/her calm down and be ready to go back to the situation again. Through this quality time, your child can feel that you are there to support him/her while he/she can learn what are acceptable and not acceptable behaviours. For example, if your child is jumping on the bed and screaming on the bed, you can first ask your little one to sit down with you and talk about what made him/her so excited then help him/her to relax again and go back to bed.
There is also one extra situation where you can use a time-out. When the situation is out of control, you as a parent can have a time-out! Even though you love every inch of your child, it is very easy to yell back t your child when he/she is out of control. If you are feeling this way, ask your partner to watch your child, and remove yourself from the situation so you, can have time to calm down. You can engage in deep breathing exercises, stretching, meditation or simply think or see other things. Give yourself some time to regain your mind and composure. I can guarantee you this works! After this, you will be a more patient, more logical and more accepting parent.
Hope this helps all of you lovely families! Happy New Year!