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Sitters / Au Pairs in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria - Sitters4U Babysitting, House sitting and Au Pair services. - Positive Discipline

Your Role in Positive Discipline and Behaviour Development

As an au pair your greatest challenge will be to establish respect and communication with the children you care for. Each family has its own philosophies about discipline and child rearing. It is very important to discuss this issue thoroughly with the family once you have been chosen as the successful candidate. The most important key to learning to effectively, positively discipline, would be to form a clear idea on how to interact with the children and maintain this throughout your employment with the family. This will ensure a good, friendly relationship with them throughout your employment. We have put together this article to guide you in creating and enforcing positive discipline and behaviour development with the children who are in your care.

Do not be fooled, there is no simple, easy, one time solution to disciplining a child positively, as it is not something you can instil once and forget about it. It is an ongoing process. You must guide their behaviour and help them to resolve problems in ways that will allow them to feel responsible and empowered, allowing them to develop the skills they will need later in life, from finding positive and peaceful solutions to problems to developing self discipline and self control.

Discipline is often mistaken for punishment. It is very important for you to understand the difference between these. Punishment is not constructive. It emphasizes what the children should not do, it is negative, defeats and undermines their independence, self esteem and ultimately contributes to their need to rebel. On the other hand, discipline is more about teaching the children what is right and wrong. Discipline teaches children to feel self confident, to have self control and to be respectful towards both yourself and others. Now, it may sound strange, but believe it or not children feel more secure within rules and boundaries. It is up to you and the parents to work together and help each other in setting these and then sticking to them. How children should be disciplined depends on their age, stage of development, personality and many other factors, but there are some basic principles to guide you which apply to all children.

The next question that comes to mind is…when do you start? Too many parents believe that discipline is a reaction to negative behaviour. It is not the case. Children do not automatically know what is expected of them. Time needs to be spent on teaching them about this and helping them develop a keen sense of self discipline. A child is never to young to learn the difference between right and wrong and what is expected of him or her. Talking and reading to young children teaches them what to expect by the use of tone. In a conversation, what you say counts only 10% of the conversation, whereas tone and body language make up the rest. Discipline should always be speaking coupled by action. It is up to you and the children’s parents to do this. One of the first reactions that we learn in life is to cry. Even at this stage you can start training the infant to know when it is time to sleep or when it is time to play or just be cuddled. We can encourage children to make choices, however they need your guidance in order to make the right choices. This is our responsibility as parents, guardians, teachers and as anyone who cares for a child.

Remember that all children are unique and what works with for one child may not work with another.


Why is Discipline Important?



  • Protects from danger
  • Helps teach self discipline and control
  • Helps instil good values
  • Helps develop a sense of responsibility



Requirements for Effective Discipline

  • Consistency is Key
  • Respect yourself and others
  • Fair play
  • You and the Parents

Consistency is Key

Discipline that is not consistent is confusing to a child of any age. If you are inconsistent with the children and how they are disciplined, they will find it hard to respect you. How you act when you discipline a child is also very important. Inconsistency, such as giving in to a tantrum rewards children for bad behaviour and at the very least, on a subconscious level, teaches them that they will be rewarded for this kind of behaviour, making it more likely to be repeated.

If you are firm and consistent, the children will learn that there is no point in fighting about something he or she is going to have to do anyway. You need to realize it is normal for children to test the boundaries and if you are not consistent in the methods of discipline used, you are encouraging more misbehaviour.

Respect Yourself and Others

Children need to be taught respect. Respect for themselves, your authority, the authority of the parents and the rights of others. Treating children with respect is actually easier than you think. Keep in mind that respect has nothing to do with spoiling them, agreeing with them or loving every idea they have. In fact opposing a child’s ideas positively by having something to say about why its not a good idea, will lend a helping hand in teaching respect.

When it comes to respecting opinions there are many ways we can show a child that their opinion matters. Involving them in making decisions gives them the feeling that their opinion does in fact count! Whether it’s a decision about what activities you will be doing with them for the day or letting them help decide on dinner, doing this gives them the feeling of what it is like to have one’s opinions respected. In the same way that you feel a sense of self worth when included in a decision, so too does it gives the child a feeling of self worth and respect.

Giving a child space to grow is another form of respect. Respect for their privacy, thoughts and their decisions. If a decision carries consequences, don’t just say, “you may not do that!”, rather take the time to explain the facts to the child first and see if they change their minds and alter their decisions by themselves before taking evasive action. There is a huge difference between respecting a child’s privacy and realizing when it is necessary to intervene and guide the child. Respect is easy to give a child. All it entails is showing the child that he or she matters to you.

Fair Play

Children need to see discipline as fair. Too often we tend to overreact out of stress and frustration. When we do this the children learn nothing as we are not practising self discipline our selves. The consequences of their actions must be matched by their behaviour. For example if a child were to throw food on the floor or make a mess with his/her toys, then be sure that before they are allowed to do anything else, they help clean up or if old enough, do it themselves. When they have done as you have asked, the consequence is ended. Fairness and ensuring that the children know what the consequences of their actions will be creates a good base for fair discipline.

You and the Family

As the secondary care giver, you will, over time form a unique bond with the children you care for. It is up to you to ensure that discipline is fair and consistent whilst the children are in your care. It is also up to you to talk to the parents and ensure that you are all in the same boat, otherwise the child/children may become confused. By ensuring all of the above you will ensure lasting positive effects on the children’s behaviour and lives long after you have left.

Tips to encourage effective positive disciplineshutterstock_4653217

  • Spend time alone with each individual child daily, even if only for a few minutes each day.
  • Give the children lots of love, hugs and cuddles.
  • Do activities that are fun and include the children in the decision making.
  • During play time make sure that they do not have to many toys at once to play with as this can be confusing, leading them to become irritable.
  • Ensure that the children have a lot of physical exercise daily.
  • Respect the children’s feelings if they are angry or sad, try to understand why and support them.

  • Don’t make promises if you can’t keep them. The children will respect you more. In a difficult situation when you are unsure of whether or not you can make a promise, just don’t. The children will trust you more and will want to know that you trust them.
  • When disciplining, make sure the child understands that it is the child’s behaviour you are not happy with and not him/her. Ensure that they know you always love them.
  • Give praise when praise is due, continuously praising the children for routine activities will make your praise less effective in the long run. Let them know when what they are doing right and when they make mistakes explain why it is wrong.
  • Stay calm, do not get emotionally involved when they misbehave. You need to be in control, avoid yelling or screaming, not doing so will teach the children that you can behave erratically when you don’t get your way.
  • Concentrate on conveying messages positively, instead of concentrating on the negative. So instead of saying “Good, you finally put your dishes in the kitchen without me asking.”, rather say “Well done for putting your dishes in the kitchen.”
  • Never use physical punishment, EVER! If a firm no and an explanation do not work, remove the child from the situation, using distraction or time out.
  • When making requests, always maintain eye contact with the child. Remember that children under the age of 2 have difficulty remembering and understanding rules.
  • Do not try to use bribes. A bribe is given before hand as motivation. This teaches the child to only do good things if there is a reward. Rather reward or praise the children after they have done something good.
  • If young children are tired or upset, be understanding and calm to help the children/child settle down. Having a short quiet time can prevent the child from behaving in an irritating or “bad” manner.
  • Try to distract the children from improper behaviour. By giving the child something more interesting to do you will distract their attention from the situation at hand peacefully.
  • Avoid the trap of arguing with the child. Often you will find that they will try to change the subject or argue with you. Do not let this happen.
  • Always try to provide the children with a safe, loving environment which makes them feel secure.

Setting Expectations and Limitations

It is very important that a child knows what is expected of him/her. So how do you do this?

Make sure the children have a clear understanding of exactly what is expected of them. Misunderstandings happen when the child is confused about what is expected. Confusion may arise through either not knowing what is expected or when he/she is expected to do the things required. Now you may say, but young children do not have a clear idea of time, however they do learn about the sequence of events from an early stage.

The first step is to talk to the parents about their expectations of the children. Plan out routines; for bedtime, bath times, meal times, chores etc. Involve the children and let them know about what is expected. Try to give the children warnings about routines “We have 15 minutes until bed time, what would you like to do before then? Read a story or play a bit?” Be clear about decisions e.g. “Its bed time now so you can have milk or water, but not soda or juice because they contain sugar and can cause us to be restless at night”. Remind the children of the rules and why they need to do certain things.

By involving the children in setting the limits, you will give them a chance to say what they think and feel about certain things. When they are helping to make the rules they are more likely, firstly to understand why the rules are there and more importantly will be more likely to obey them. Keep in mind, that just because they are involved and do voice their opinions, does not mean you have to agree with them and change the rules. Even with the child’s involvement, at the end of the day, you and the parents must work together to set the limits and enforce them. Lastly accept their feelings, but continue to stick to the limits. Ensure that they are fair and well conveyed.


  • Start with only a few basic guidelines and rules. Once the behaviour you require through these rules becomes more natural to the child you can add a few more.
  • Prioritize the rules you make in the order of:
    • Behaviour that may endanger the child. Safety is always the first priority.
    • Behaviour that harms property or people
    • Behaviour that is not condoned i.e. tantrums, interruption in conversation etc.
  • Be very clear about limitations. Say what you mean, try not to be vague on issues of rules and expectations.
  • Be sure that you know why you are saying no. Explain your reasons for saying no and be sure the child understands as well.
  • Understand that the children may not like the fact that there are limits, and will probably not be at all happy in the beginning when you stick to these limits. Do not be upset by this as at the end of the day they will like you more for it.


Praise should be used as a reward. That does not necessarily mean that you should continuously reward them with praise for everything that they do that has been asked of them. If you were to continuously do so for everything, the praise given will loose its value to the child.

Reward is something that should be given after a child has done something. Never bribe a child to do something e.g. “If you do this I will give you this sweet”. That is bribery and not only will it, not work in the long run, but it will teach a child only to do something if there is some form of upfront promise or reward offered. They will loose respect for you and your authority. This is not behaviour to encourage, in any child.

The point of both praise and reward is to encourage the child to repeat patterns of good behaviour on their own. If the child knows what is expected of him or her and is praised just a few times for a certain pattern of behaviour, you will see it repeated and the child will learn to feel good without the reward, whether praise or otherwise.


There are a number of penalties that can be used to help in creating positive self discipline in a child. For example taking a time out when a child is having a tantrum is an excellent way of resolving the situation. As an au pair it is your duty to remember that you need to remain call, firm and clear in your expectations at all times. Withholding privileges is another fantastic means for effective positive discipline especially for older children. Remember to always match the consequence to the behavioural transgression. Knowing what the children enjoy most is important, use these privileges e.g. TV, computer games etc. as those that will be removed as a consequence for misbehaviour.

Effective Age-appropriate discipline

2 years- 4 years

  • Be clear when stating boundaries whilst remaining calm and explaining why they should or should not do something. Ensure that you maintain eye contact. The child is less likely to question something if it has been explained to them than if you simply said “No”. Once you have explained something to the child ask them why they feel you are right.
  • A child of any age will always question and try to negotiate with you. It is up to you to be consistent and not to debate issues with the child or children.
  • Reinforce your expectations positively by focusing on good behaviour instead of bad behaviour.
  • Time out is an extremely successful method to stop bad behaviour in its tracks. The first step is to remove the child from the situation. By placing the child in a quiet area away from toys and distractions, you give him or her a chance to calm down. Generally the child should only need 1 minute for each year in terms of age e.g. 2 years old = 2 minutes. Time out should never be longer than 5 minutes for children in this age group. Once they have calmed down. Speak to the child about why what they did was wrong, explain how they hurt your feelings by acting the way they did and ask them to apologize for the behaviour whilst reassuring them that you still love them and are only upset with their behaviour. Thank the child for the apology and give him or her a big hug. • Distraction can also be very effective. Distract the child with an activity and chat about the problem a bit later.

4 years- 10 years

  • This is a good age to establish the rules. You will need to reinforce them continually until the behaviour becomes natural to the child.
  • This is an excellent age to start using a star chart. The first step is to sit with the parents and discuss yours and the parents’ expectations of the child. Write all of these down, e.g. when you get home you must put your lunch box in the kitchen, when you play with a toy in your room you must pack it away before playing with the next one, you need to complete your homework before you can play with your toys etc. Also discuss behaviour that is inappropriate, write this down as well. Make a chart with the days of the week on it and a list of all expectations, inappropriate behaviour and things that would or could count for extra stars.









Did homework=star


Put clothes in the wash basket=star


Finished supper=star


Room clean and neat = star etc


Tantrums etc=

-1 star/2 stars (severity based on action)


Extra stars:

Being extra helpful=1 star etc


  • Together with the parents, decide on some sort least of weekly and monthly reward for a full chart of stars. Maybe allow them to choose an outing if they keep their star chart full for the entire week and maybe allow them to choose something they like when they get four full weeks. Once you and the parents are happy with the model, discuss all the decided aspects with the child and include the child in making the chart. Take them on an outing to buy stickers and/ or gold stars to make it fun. Getting the child involved in this process is essential to its success.
  • Explain that all chores must be done every day, if the child misbehaves a star will be taken away, however he/she can catch up the star that was removed by earning extra stars. If even one star is missing or not caught up, do not be lenient, the child is full aware of the rules of how it works and therefore, should not be rewarded. Go through the chart daily, at half an hour before you leave or half an hour before bedtime. Include the child in helping you check that everything has been done. If it has, use positive reinforcement to praise the child and tell him or her how impressed and happy you are with them. If not, tell them that now is the time to do any undone chores. If they loose a star, explain why they lost it and how they can make it up. If this method is used consistently and fairly, you will soon start to reap the rewards. They will feel more responsible, have increased self esteem and make better choices in the long run.
  • At this age time-outs are still extremely useful. Remove the child from the situation. Allow the child to calm down and do not let them move from the time out area until they have calmed down. The trick with time out in this age group is to ensure that the child is fully aware of the rules and behaviour that will lead to them being put into time-out. Once they have calmed down. Speak to the child about why what they did was wrong, ask them to apologize for the behaviour whilst reassuring them that you still love them and are only upset with their behaviour. Once the time out is complete so is the punishment.
  • Withholding of privileges can also now be used to help the child realize that with privileges comes responsibility. Remember that no matter the age of the children, positive reinforcement should also play a big role in discipline. These techniques should not be used frequently, so as to maintain their effectiveness.

10 years - 16 years old.

  • Reinforcing and explaining the rules is very important during these years.
  • Use of positive reinforcement by paying attention to positive behaviour is essential and effective.
  • Time-outs however will no longer work. Grounding and with holding of privileges now play a major role and can be used to show the child that responsible behaviour leads to reward and that all actions have consequences. They need to know the benefits of obeying and making good choices and that not doing so will have negative consequences.
  • At this age particularly, deductive reasoning can definitely make a big difference. Have the child explain their problem. Discuss as many solutions as possible (the number of ideas is more important than how good the ideas are.) Discuss each solution together. Decide on the best solution; be sure that the solution ultimately decided on is one that you, the parents and the child will be happy with. Try out the solution next time. Monitor the results. If it works, fantastic, if not, start the process over again. Remember that no there is no problem so great that it cannot be solved and that you are responsible for your own behaviour.
Teach good and moral behaviour by displaying your own good and moral behaviours. Remember that children will mirror the behaviour of adults around them and you are one of those people. Teaching them to talk about their feelings without hurting other people is important. Discipline is how adults teach children to become well adjusted, happy, positive members of society. This is our responsibility as care takers. Raising children and teaching them to be responsible for their actions gets easier and easier as they get older if you are consistent with them. Helping children grow into responsible young people is one of the most rewarding things you can do in life, not only does it provide the child in a better place but will ultimately give you a sense of pride that you have helped in shaping who they will become.

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