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Promoting Positive Behavior in Your Preschool-Aged Child

Do you have a preschooler at home? Then like me, you know what a roller coaster ride it can be! One moment your child is writing you love letters and the next they are having an epic meltdown in the grocery store because you didn’t let them place the granola bars in the cart. (How dare you, by the way!?!)

Preschool-aged children are natural explorers and scientists, questioning and testing their environment (and the people in it!) at every corner. They are also learning to assert their will and develop independence. Turns out these developmental “jobs” are not only a recipe for rapid learning, but also for behavior challenges and exhausted parents! If you’re like me, it’s easy to find yourself sounding like a broken record, repeating reprimands day in and day out. “Don’t touch that!” “Please wait!” “No thank you!” “Be careful!” “Get down!” “Get that out of your mouth!!!”

Over time, these reprimands weigh heavy on our children, and also on us as parents. When our ratio of positive to negative interactions with our child gets so “out of whack,” our relationship with our child suffers, as well as our ability to effectively promote positive behavior. Have you begun to pick up on a pattern? We reprimand, they push harder. We point out mistakes, they crumble emotionally. Is there any way out of this negative cycle?

The short answer is: PLAY. I know what you’re thinking. I’ve done that! I DO that! It doesn’t work.

Keep reading.

At Metropolitan Pediatrics, our pediatricians and behavioral health specialists enjoy teaching parents about a unique one-on-one way to play with their children that promotes positive behavior. This “special play time” is based on Child-Directed Play (CDP), a component of Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), developed by Sheila Eyberg, PhD.

What makes this type of play so unique? It’s child-directed. It provides children with an appropriate time and space to 1) assert their will, 2) receive the full, positive attention of their parent or caregiver, 3) practice problem-solving in a safe and supportive space, and 4) connect with you!

Here’s how it works. Carve out 10 minutes each day to play with your child. Select a space that has few distractions or interruptions. Set out a selection of 2-3 toys (your child gets to choose) that promote positive interactions and allow you to use the skills below. Choose toys that are collaborative, constructive, and creative such as Legos, blocks, baby dolls, Mr. Potato Head, Magnatiles, crayons, and cars. Avoid toys that are messy, board games with rules that need to be enforced, books (save these for reading time, not special play time), or anything violent/aggressive.

During special play time, you will follow the PRIDE skills and do ONLY these five things:

Praise your child.

Pay attention to and notice/name the positive behaviors your child displays. Children learn so much more from their successes than failures. Examples include:

  • “You are concentrating so hard on that puzzle!”
  • “I like how gently you’re playing with the Legos.”
  • “You’re doing a great job of sticking with a hard problem.”

Praising children in this way increases self-esteem, increases desired behaviors, models positive social behavior, and adds warmth to the relationship.

Reflect what your child says.

Reflections are a great way to actively listen to your child! You will simply repeat what they say. Examples include:

  • Child: “I did it all by myself.” → Parent: “Yes, all by yourself.”
  • Child: “I made a blue flower.” → Parent: “You drew a beautiful blue flower!”

Reflections allow the child to lead the conversation, show your child you’re listening and understand, can calm anxious children, and also improve your child’s speech and social communication.

Imitate your child.

Imitating means doing what your child does. If your child draws a green tree, you draw a green tree just like theirs. If they drive their car on the couch, you do too. Imitation allows your child to take the lead, shows your approval of your child, helps them feel important, improves self-esteem, and can increase their imitation of your behaviors!

Describe what you see them doing in play.

Describing is just like narrating play. Say what you see your child doing! Examples include:

  • “You’re rolling the Play-Doh out very carefully.”
  • “You are lining up all the trains.”
  • “You are putting the blue block on top of the green block.”

Describing increases concentration and attention span in play, can help to slow down an active child, increases mindfulness and maintains interest, as well as teaches vocabulary.

Enjoy your time with your child!

Show your child that you enjoy playing with them by smiling, making eye contact, rubbing their back, clapping, and giving high fives. We encourage parents to say, “I love playing with you! This is so much fun!”

During this play, remember to AVOID:

  1. Asking questions
  2. Giving commands
  3. Correcting or criticizing your child

These can take the lead away from your child and result in power struggles and/or negative interactions.

Also, remember to put your cell phone away! Your attention should be 100% on your child.

The team at MORE Good Day Oregon recently came out to Metro Peds NW to learn more about this special play time. Watch the video below to learn more:

Interested in learning more about child-directed play for children ages 3-6?

Sign up for our parenting workshop on Saturday, March 3rd from 10:00-11:30am at our Northwest Office (Metropolitan Pediatrics patients only, please).

For more information or to sign up, contact Audelia DeCosta, LCSW, at 503-295-2546.

Learn more about Parent-Child Interaction Therapy at Metropolitan Pediatrics.