Pre-Schoolers with Problem Behaviour

How to know when your 3 – 5 year-old needs help!

We don’t often think of pre schoolers having problem behaviour do we?

We think “Aw she’s just a toddler still – she’ll grow out of it!” 

We normally associate difficult children with school age youngsters who are acting out in class, throwing things, and being cheeky to the teacher!  But… in a lot of cases, these children have actually been showing signs of problem behaviour for quite some time before they start school so I’ve put together a few things listed here that parents should watch out for in their 3-5 year-olds:

  • The little one’s behaviour maybe disrupting day to day life.
  • Parents may be concerned that they might hurt their little one if behaviour gets any worse.(losing their temper)
  • The child is extremely hard to manage and so the parents “give in” a lot.
  • The child may be having more tantrums, which are lasting a lot longer, and seem far more serious.
  • The child may have been excluded from nursery or Pre-School
  • The child’s behaviour maybe putting a terrible strain on his or her siblings as well as the parents.
  • If the child has a younger baby sibling, mum or dad may be worried about the baby’s safety. (the child may hurt her)
  • The child’s behaviour may be affecting the parent’s relationship/marriage

But if I think my little one needs help – where do I go? 

In my clinics, (or more recently on zoom) I see parents with very young pre- school children with behavioural problems. There are not many therapists that will see children at such a young age, but I personally believe that the earlier they are treated, and helped, with behavioural problems, the better. One mum asked me to treat her 4 year- old little girl Jessie last October. She said: 

“Please help us, we are at our wits end. Jessie is a very stubborn child, and she has started to be very controlling. She basically says “NO!” to everything. Going to bed, eating her dinner, putting her clothes on and if I try to be assertive with her, she has the most horrendous meltdowns and throws things around the room, she even threw my mobile phone at me the other day and could have really damaged my eye. I just don’t know what to do, the GP said she will grow out of it, but she has already been excluded from nursery!” 


I saw Jessie and her mum, Sue, for a six – session programme of therapy for pre – schoolers with difficult behaviour and anger issues.

The first session was with both of them. The second was with mum on her own, the third and fourth were with Jessie on her own. The fifth session was with Mum and dad on their own and the final session with all three of them.

Looking back at the first and last sessions, one could see a huge difference. Mum and dad had both learned how to stay calm and yet be assertive. Jessie had learned some little tools that she could use when she was feeling angry or anxious, which would help her to be able to communicate her feelings to her mummy or daddy without lashing out, screaming, or shouting. 

Many of the mums I speak to worry that their child won’t co operate with me over zoom, but they do! I use glove puppets, toys and games to gain their attention and to keep them from getting bored and the children love the sessions. What I aim to do is not only help the child to behave better but to reset the family relationships in a more positive way. 

Children are like sponges, aren’t they? They soak up information – both good and bad!  They are constantly learning and the longer their bad behaviour goes on, the more firmly rooted it becomes and the harder it is to treat. 

“My child doesn’t play up – he just won’t obey me!”

When you tell your child to do something, perhaps six or seven times and he just keeps saying things like “Ok I’m coming” or “Just one more minute” or you know he’s heard you but he’s totally ignoring you – we call this “passive non-compliance”. This is just as worrying because if you were walking down the road with him and asked him to hold your hand and he doesn’t and he goes into the road – well – need I say more? Or, if he is still behaving like this when he goes to school, the teacher won’t put up with it and it will seriously affect his ability to learn.

Time Out – And how to do it!

Most mums and dads know how to do a Time out however if it is not done properly, you may as well not bother at all as it will be totally ineffective. When a child is misbehaving and his mum or dad are trying to discipline them, emotions can get right out of control very quickly. A Time – Out will allow both the parent and the child some time to calm down. It’s a good idea to tell the child what you are going to do and how a time out is done so that it doesn’t all go wrong when you need to use it!  Follow these steps:

  1. Tell the child you are giving him a warning if he carries on with that behaviour.
  1. Tell your child “why”. Tell your child he is going to time-out and tell him the reason why. Tell your child, “You are going into time-out because you…” You should say this only once. Say it in a calm but firm voice. 
  1. Sit him in time out – Have an area, some use the bottom step of the stairs, or a corner somewhere. Tell him he is to sit there for four minutes (if he is four years old – one minute for each year) 

    Getting a child to stay in time-out is sometimes very difficult. If your child gets out of the time-out space, put him back and do not talk to your child. When you first use time-out, you may have to return your child to time-out several times.
  1. End time out. When you end the time out you MUST remind him of why he was put there and ask him if he has thought about what he did and is he prepared to say he’s sorry?
  1. If he comes out of Time Out and just carries on mis-behaving you MUST repeat the Time Out. It may take a few times before he learns that you are not going to tolerate this bad behaviour. However, the next thing that he does that is GOOD behaviour you must really praise him and tell him how proud you are, then he will soon learn that good behaviour gets lots of praise and hugs from mum and dad, but bad behaviour only ever gets Time Out.

Remember, Time Out is a strategy that should be used if you have asked your child to do something more than once or twice and he is constantly refusing, or in fact any behaviour that you feel is unacceptable. It will give YOU, the parent time to cool down and it will give the child time to think about what he has done. Try your hardest not to scream and shout at your child. You can be assertive without losing your temper. (I do know that at times it is hard though!) 

If you feel that your pre – schooler’s behaviour is unacceptable and you need some help to get it back on track, don’t feel embarrassed about asking for help. Some children may be acting up due to some little anxiety and a very good children’s therapist will be able to spot this and get to the root of it. The most important thing is that you get the behaviour sorted before he goes to school as the teacher won’t tolerate it and it will affect your child’s concentration, and eventually his ability to learn. Also, if your child is your FIRST child and you have no other children to compare his behaviour to – it can be hard to know if the behaviour is “age acceptable” or not. Just ask me if you are unsure, and don’t wish to ask your family, and I will give you an honest answer.

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