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Our three-year-old daughter doesn't listen and misbehaves in school. How can we improve her behavior?

Writer: Laura Phillips, PsyD, ABPdN

Clinical Expert: Laura Phillips, PsyD, ABPdN

en Español

Q Our three-year-old daughter does not listen to almost anything we ask her to do. She does not heed even as simple a request as, “Please come here.” While she's mostly well behaved at home, at school, she does not listen to her teacher, does not pay attention in class, throws her bag and books, etc. How can we change her behavior for the better?

The first thing that we really want to do is to understand what’s causing the behavior. Maybe she’s not listening because she’s having trouble understanding what people are saying to her. Or it could have something to do with her motivation to follow the directive.

The fact that this behavior is taking place across settings is a sign that there might be something happening with language comprehension. You’ll want to make sure that your daughter doesn’t have difficulty understanding language. You can start with a speech-language evaluation to make sure that language functioning is intact.

If there’s not an issue with language, then the next thing to consider is motivation. Toddlers are very aware of the fact that they are independent beings. By refusing to follow directions, your daughter might be trying to flex her autonomy, so you’ll have to think about how to incentivize her to comply.

First of all, you want to be very clear about how you provide directions. I have this problem with how I talk to my children all the time. I might say, “Should we clean up our toys now?” A kid will hear that as a choice rather than an instruction, and if they don’t want to do it, they won’t. So, you want to be very specific with directions. It helps to get down to their level, look them in the eye, and say clearly: “It’s time to put away our toys right now.”

Then, you want to give them an opportunity to respond. And if they respond appropriately, then you need to reinforce that. The idea is to “catch them being good.” As soon as your daughter responds in a way you want to see, even if it’s not the exact instruction, give her lots of enthusiastic, specific praise: “Great job looking at me while I’m talking to you!” Heaping positive attention on desirable behaviors and paying less attention to ones you don’t want to see will make her more likely to repeat those positive behaviors.

Another strategy to try is telling your daughter what to do rather than what not to do. We often assume that if we tell a child not to do something, then they’ll know what they are supposed to do instead. But they don’t. So, saying something like, “Please put your book on the shelf,” can be much more helpful than saying, “Don’t leave your book on the floor.”

For kids who are really struggling with behavioral compliance, working with a behavior therapist can be helpful. They can help you through a set of interventions called behavioral parent training, or BPT. You’ll learn how to clearly define the behaviors you want to change and reinforce them appropriately and consistently. This usually involves creating a formal behavior chart that will help you consistently provide a token for an appropriate response to a directive.

An outside perspective really helps. If a behavior therapist is too expensive or inaccessible to you, a social worker at your daughter’s school can guide you through defining the behaviors, developing a plan, and sticking to it.

This article was last reviewed or updated on June 12, 2023.