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Preschool : Behaviour

Updated: 7 hours ago




Preschoolers are steadily learning everyday things such as how to talk to others, how to act, empathy, manners, routines etc. It is important to remember children at this age are trying to understand the world around them, so we should forgive them if they get a little distracted. Setting boundaries for their behaviours, while at the same time encouraging their self-expression and enthusiasm can be a challenge.

It is around this age that your child may be ready for preschool. Children benefit greatly from attending preschool, as it helps children learn how to get along with other people and children in a formal setting, how to follow instruction, how to approach tasks, and all the wonderful traits that a school environment instils. Most preschools focus largely on ‘play’ as the primary way for 3-5-year olds to learn and develop their friendship skills, but as they age, they will be set more challenging tasks.

Some children settle into Preschool with no worries, for others it may take a little time for them to adjust. Be gentle, but firm – helping your child overcome their fears of preschool will help with their transition to School in the coming years.

Preschooler’s Behaviours – What to Expect

Your preschooler is showing more control and can regulate their emotions and communicate more clearly, but there will still be behavioural development and testing behaviours as they grow. If your child is still throwing tantrums do not despair, this is still common but thankfully they tend decrease in frequency and severity after around 4 years of age.

Aside from tantrums you will no doubt experience some (or many) arguments with your preschooler. This is a fact of life. Some factors which will affect their behaviours during a fight are temperament, environment, age and communication and reasoning skills. You will most likely also experience your Preschooler arguing or fighting with other children, since they generally start some form of preschool care around this age and are therefore in the company of other children, perhaps for the first time.

Coping with Fights

  • First and foremost – identify the cause of the fight. This will help you decide on the right action and/or consequences.

  • Treat all children fairly in line with their age and skills. E.g. it may not be feasible to treat a 3-year-old the same as a 5-year-old. Ask them what they think they happened, and what they would like to happen as a result.

  • Try to avoid negative comparisons i.e. accusing a child who is older that they should be old enough to know better, or labelling a child the ‘naughty one’ can have damaging effects and cause resentment in children.

  • Use consequences – an effective form of discipline when children cannot work out the problem on their own and an issue needs resolving. A consequence of fighting could be to remove the toy being fought over, denying them what they wanted or delaying where they wanted to go etc.

The point of discipline is not to punish your child, but to help them understand that misbehaving has clear and negative consequences.

If you are concerned about the frequency or intensity of your child’s fights, do not hesitate to consult your Healthcare Professionals for advice. Fighting should not be in the form of intimidation, bullying, or in any way threatening or aggressive.


Whatever tiffs do occur, physical aggression is not the norm and should be dealt with immediately. Children with hyperactivity of inattention disorders may act in dangerous ways or have trouble managing their behaviours, and if you feel this may apply to your child then always seek professional advice.

Anxiety and Lying

Anxiety is common for preschoolers, as is exaggerating the truth or lying. Generally, it is better to encourage your preschooler to tell the truth, as opposed to punishing them for telling small lies. But if their fibbing becomes common and extreme then it is important to handle it by talking to them and/or your healthcare professional for advice on how to curb this behaviour.


Lying can develop around the age of 3 and children aged between 4 and 6 will generally lie a bit more. It can be for a combination of reasons, from basic attention seeking to more in-depth confidence issues. Keep an ear out for an increase in frequency and again discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider.

Your child may experience bouts of anxiety, especially as this age brings many behavioural and developmental milestones. Preschoolers commonly fear being alone, and the dark, or make-believe characters due to their vivid imaginations, such as monsters or ghosts. Support your child by acknowledging their fear, while gently encouraging them to do the things they are afraid of and praising them when they do.

Creativity & Imagination

Preschoolers have extremely vivid imaginations, full of wonder, magic, witches and wizards, superheros and more. At this age, stories and cartoons may seem incredibly real to a child, and their creative imagination may allow them to enjoy a rich fantasy life. You may find your child tells elaborate stories about things which have not happened, or they tell you about an imaginary friend (more on this later).

Preschoolers love the process of creating. They will take any chance to draw, paint, paste, sing, dance and play, all with boundless enthusiasm. Obviously a three year old is not yet equipped with the coordination to manage a great deal more than a page of scribbles or blobs, but by the age of 5 your Preschooler may be drawing with more care, understanding shapes and perspective, with these abilities increasing once they start day care.

By the age of 5 your child may begin to live less in the imaginary world and want to learn more about the real world around them. Your child will still enjoy creative play but may become more interested in playing real life roles such as ‘mummies and daddies’, ‘doctors and nurses’ etc. By the age of 5 preschoolers are generally more interested in social play with other children and enjoy games with clear rules and guidelines, while their games are still detailed and imaginary.

Ways to Encourage Creative and Imaginative Play

To encourage creative expression in play, you may try:

  • Reading books and telling stories

  • Making up silly rhymes and riddles

  • Playing dress-ups

  • Messy play with sand, water, mud, paint etc

  • Making and playing musical instruments

  • Having new experiences and going new places – such as the zoo, museum, a natural waterhole, a secluded beach etc

  • Keeping old boxes and containers for your child to use in construction play

  • Making homemade play-doh or paint together (see our blog on DIY Paints)

Imaginary Friends

Two out of three children at some stage have a make-believe friend. They are the product of vivid and active imaginations and are a wonderful way for children to practice their social skills and express their feelings.

They can be based on a person your child already knows, a cartoon or story-book character or a toy, teddy or doll. They may always be present, they may appear and disappear, or they may only exist in a place such as the cubby house, or the car. Your preschooler may have an Imaginary friend because they listen to and support your child, play with them, or because they do not judge him/her.

Imaginary friends help your child explore a make-believe world which they have created, all by themselves. Research suggests children with imaginary friends may be more imaginative and display more empathy and may be less socially shy. There may be times when the imaginary friend becomes annoying or inappropriate.


Your preschooler may request that you offer food, drink, hold doors for, or make a bed for their imaginary friend. In this instance you may like to encourage your child to do this for their friend, which both lets your child know you accept their friend while reminding your child to share and help.

Very rarely, imaginary friends could be an indication of a more serious issue, especially if the friend is being malicious or hurtful, or your child believes their friend is encouraging nasty behaviour. If you have any concerns do not hesitate to speak to your healthcare provider for advice.

Starting Preschool

Most preschools will have a gradual approach to school attendance. Starting Preschool may be difficult for your child, for you both, and neither of you. Your outgoing confident 4-year-old may run from the car to class without glancing back, while other children may become extremely upset and anxious, but all can usually be overcome with perseverance and patience.

Parents are welcome to remain at the centre for as long as they wish during the early stages of preschool care. For the first few day’s caregivers often remain at the centre while their child plays, before taking their child home again after a time. Each day the parent can stay longer but may be moving further and further from eyesight to allow an attachment to build between your child and the teacher and other children. This can help instil a sense of security and may help lessen any separation anxiety. At times, your child may function fine and suddenly become very upset without you near, in which case your child’s teacher may suggest you return to the centre for a time, or perhaps lessen the duration of care until your child is confident again.

Your reaction as well can greatly influence your child’s perception of school. If you display anxiety, if you become upset or worried then your preschooler may pick up on and react to your mood. It is completely natural for a loving parent to feel worry and upset over leaving their child for the first time. In this instance talk to your child preschool teachers – they will have lots of experience helping parents and children alike through separation anxiety.

Many children reject the notion of care in the beginning. It is particularly important not to give in and to continue to take your reluctant child to preschool even if their protest. If your child’s terror is extreme or if you need guidance regarding care and separation, always consult your Healthcare professional.

Sharing

Learning to share can be a real challenge for children to learn, but a vital skill needed throughout childhood and into their adult lives. It is needed for children to learn how to get along with others, play and cooperate. It also teaches children about compromise, as they learn if they give a little, they may receive a little too.


Sharing teaches the importance of turn-taking and negotiating. Your child will have already been taking cues from you and your family, watching you take turns and share, and this sets a great example for your preschooler, especially in the lead up to attending day care and being in the company of other children.

Some ways to encourage sharing include:

  • Praising your preschooler when they share – reiterating their action and explaining why it was positive helps i.e. “I saw you give that book to Eva, that’s great Sharing!”

  • Pointing out when others are sharing, or examples of haring in books or on TV Shows

  • Playing games with your preschoolers which involves turn taking or sharing, talking your child through the process i.e. “see now it’s my turn, and next it’s your turn – you share the blue block with me and Ill share the red block with you!”

  • Talking to your preschooler about sharing before a playdate or day care can help remind them that its important

  • If your child has a special toy perhaps putting it away before other children come to play at your house might help avoid a sharing argument altogether

Self Esteem - Praise, Encourage & Rewarding Good Behaviour

Regardless of a child’s age, praise and encouragement will help them feel good about themselves by building their confidence and lifting their self esteem. By around 3 years of age Preschoolers generally start to develop a true sense of ‘self’ and will realise that their body and mind belongs to them. This is also the reason children may begin to cope with being away from you for short periods of time at preschool or day care – they have a sense of confidence and they feel secure, loved and protected by you.

Children learn a lot about self-esteem by watching their parents/carers. How you speak about yourself and others and how you behave will have a direct impact on your preschooler’s behaviour and attitude. Taking pride in your achievements and avoiding self-criticism in front of your preschooler are just a few simple ways to model a healthy sense of self:

Praise

This is a positive way to tell your preschooler what you like about their behaviour. It is an effective way to reiterate and encourage good behaviour, whilst boosting their confidence and self esteem.


Describe to your child exactly what they did that pleased you – as a child who is praised for behaving well more often than criticised for behaving badly, will usually behave well more often. Praising behaviours is not the same as bribing your child. A bribe is a reward which is offered before the behaviour you want your preschooler to display and a reward is given after.

Encouragement

This is when you praise your child for effort, either before or during an activity. You can also encourage your child to do well in the future. Some children need more encouragement than other, and this need tends to increase as your child grows.

Rewards

These are positive consequences of good behaviour. It could be anything from a treat to a surprise to an extra privilege. It is one of the most effective ways to say, “Well Done”, and together with praise and encouragement can be a wonderful way to express your pleasure at their behaviour.

Preschooler’s behaviours are influenced by their consequences, so naturally a positive consequence generally encourages that same behaviour in the future. Rewards are not always necessary – saying thank you or expressing your appreciation is often enough.