How Au Pairs can establish discipline and build good relationships with children

Au Pairs: Establishing Discipline and Building Good Relationships

  • Are you strict and expect children to obey your rules?
  • Are you the kind of person who is good at setting boundaries?
  • Are you a real softy who can’t say no?
  • Are you expecting the children to ‘just’ behave?
  • Are you upset when the kids don’t listen to you? 

As adults living within society we have learnt ‘ways of being’ for ourselves as well as setting acceptable parameters about the behaviours of others around us, and all the more so if we are caring for other peoples children! 

There are established patterns and predictions of behaviour that have been known about for years, gathered from hands-on practical experience and the professionals. The ‘bad or good’ behaviours haven’t changed much through the years but perhaps the way we, as professionals / parents/ teachers / au pairs etc handle them has changed considerably.  
Authoritarianism and corporal punishment is unacceptable, where as understanding the child’s personality, consistency, routines, boundary setting and discussions with explanations are the modern way of handling behaviours.  
We have seen through our many years in the family and au pair arena that children feel more secure within rules and boundaries. If we give them security they will grow to be self confident with high self esteem and be caring and respectful of others.
Each family is individual and different; each child of the family might need a different way of being handled. You might have a different approach that really works. 
Au Pair At Home strongly suggests that you consult the parents about their family values, beliefs and approach to child-rearing – it’s their children after all. Ask them for guidelines and if there are any books on the subject that they might recommend that you could consult. Consult us as well, as we at Au Pair At Home, have had many years experience both with our children and with our clients’ families. 
So how do you go about building this relationship? 
-It takes time, patience, trust, mutual respect and open communication to build a good relationship with the children in your charge.  
-Sometimes this happens fast if there is a good ‘click’ but if you are the new au pair and the children really loved their past au pair then know its going to take time and a bit of work to win them over but outright spoiling is not going to do the trick – kids are smarter than that.
-How children should be disciplined also depends on their age and stage of development. Thus it is important to have knowledge of what you can expect of their age group. Please discuss expectations of the child’s development with the parents, read up via books or online via the many websites available on the subject. Please also read our article on the summary of the different age groups
- Building your relationship is going to be an ongoing process particularly as part of your duties as an au pair is to guide their discipline and behaviour. Teaching them to be responsible, assisting them in learning to resolve issues and allowing them to develop skills they will use later in life. In short you are the positive role-model assisting their development of self discipline and control.  
-Have discussions with the parents re approach to discipline:

  1. Some parents might ask you to be stricter than they are – you might agree to this but ensure that you have their back-up. Find out why – as the au pair to the children, you are the supporter of their parental role and not the parent.
  2. Some parents have little to no discipline and it is harder for the au pair to manage the children unless the parents accept that you are going to set discipline by means of strict routine, at least. Do a bit of research and discuss with the parents your approach and why. If there is co-operation it is often easier for the au pair to set boundaries for the children that the parents can follow through.
  3. Parents feel guilty that they are not at home with their kids so if their children phone or nag they might say yes to something that was a clear no from you. For example – demanding sweets before dinner. Dialogue with the parents about consistency and try to explain that if they do not support you in front of the children you cannot possibly maintain a respectful relationship with the children.
  4. If the parents are not happy with how you handled their children they should speak to you in private – much the same as the mother and father would do with each other. 

-How you behave towards them will have direct impact on how the children respond to your disciplining them.

  1. Show the child that you respect them by listening to them, by including them in discussions and plans and that he or she matters to you. That they aren’t ‘just a job’.
  2. Communicate directly with them, going down to their eye level. Do so calmly and clearly. Never shout as they won’t be able to ‘hear’ you. Be mindful that discipline is often mistaken as punishment, so if you are unhappy about a behaviour, explain why. Don’t overreact out of stress and frustration.
  3. Consistency is vital as inconsistent discipline is confusing to a child of any age and will result in the children not respecting you. For example - giving into a tantrum rewards children for bad behaviour - it teaches them that negative behaviours gets them what they want and it more than likely to be repeated.
  4. If you are fair but firm the children will soon learn that there is no point in resisting. 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. By ensuring that the children know what the consequences of their actions will be you are establishing a good baseline for fair discipline.
  5. Give each child attention - factor in some quality time with each individual child as often as you can – even if its only in the car. Give the children lots of love, hugs and cuddles.
  6. Do tailor the discipline as what works for one child might not work for another. Each child is an individual and you will need to adapt your methods of discipline to suit each child.
  7. Always have a program planned for the week. You received a brochure on Au Pairing the Right Way and Setting up a Programme at your interview with us. If you have mislaid this, please request a copy. Plan activities that are fun, preferably discussing options with the children.
  8. Get physical. As part of the programme, ensure that the children have a lot of physical exercise daily.
  9. If they are angry or sad, try to understand why and support them – don’t be dismissive or their feelings. If they tell you secrets, ensure that you keep them.
  10. If you make a promise you must keep to it.  If you are unsure of being able to keep it don’t promise anything. The children will trust you all the more.
  11. Always focus on the behaviour you are not happy with and not on the child. Explain what is unacceptable.
  12. Be positive and praise good behaviour, be demonstrative whilst talking about the good behaviour. At the same time don’t overdo praise as it will lose its value.
  13. Try not to use bribes as it 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.
  14. Some quiet time is advised for young children to prevent over tiredness, tantrums and “bad” behaviour.
  15. Time-outs can work very well if they are used only when a child has lost control. Don’t use it for other unacceptable behaviours as it will lose its impact.  Rather find another discipline tool.
  16. The “What to Expect Nanny Handbook” suggests that to make the most of time-out also use its partner: The Time-in. We so often notice bad behaviour instead of acknowledging the good behaviour. They suggest that along the way you give the thumbs up to any good behaviour – not interrupting what the child is doing but reinforcing what she is doing. Feeling good about a behaviour will make it happen more often
  17. Distraction with something more interesting is most often the best way to prevent improper behaviour. 
  18. Always remember that you are the adult and although you are encouraged to play like a child, it is not appropriate to behave immaturely – for example don’t resort to arguing with the child. Boundaries will give way, as will the respect.

Setting Expectations and Creating Limits
-Be clear about what you expect of the children. Misunderstandings occur when there is confusion about expectations.
-Be very clear about setting limitations. Say what you mean, try not to be vague on issues of rules and expectations.
-Let the children know about all the routines and rules as they are happening for meal times, getting ready to go out , homework time, bath and bed times, packing up time etc. Make it fun but give the children reminders whilst adding in fun things in the mean time.
-Its great to get the children involved in setting the limits as you are all working as a team whilst they dialogue what they think and gain understanding as to why the rules are there and are thus more likely to obey them.
-More importantly, because you are building a good relationship with them, they are learning that although you are all good friends, they still need to abide by your rules, even if they don’t feel like it.
-Don’t get upset if they express unhappiness about having to stick to these limits in the beginning. If you have planned the process you will have enough tolls to see you through.
-If you are taking care of younger children start with only a few rules. Once those are established you can add a few more. Start with:

  1. Behaviour that might endanger the child, as safety is priority number one.
  2. Then any behaviour that harms people or any property
  3. Behaviour that is not condoned i.e. tantrums, interruption in conversation etc.

-Be sure that you know why you are saying no. Explain your reasons for saying no and be sure the child understands as well. Particularly with younger children try not to use ‘no’ too often. There are other words to get the message across.
Praise should be used as a reward. As discussed above, use the Time-in Concept to acknowledge good behaviour and reinforce it.
Children, like adults, behave according to the pleasure principle: behaviour that’s rewarding continues, behaviour that’s unrewarding ceases. The ultimate goal is self discipline – a child behaves because he/she wants to or because he/ she knows you expect good behaviour.
You can invent creative ways to motivate desirable behaviours with rewards as these motivators help the family’s life run more smoothly – “First one out the bath gets to choose the story”.
The natural consequences of good behaviour are not always motivating enough in themselves. So granting rewards and privileges are discipline tools to set limits and get jobs done.
Giving a reward is something that should be given after a child has done something – a way to entice a child towards goals you’ve made for him /her. Don’t get into a situation where the child expects a prize each time there is good behaviour.
The Good Behaviour Book suggests that for a reward to work, it must be something a child truly desires – so ask leading questions to get ideas:

  1. If you could do special things with me (au pair) or mom and dad what would it be?
  2. If you could go somewhere with a friend where would you go?
  3. If you had a little money what would you buy.

Reward Charts are very helpful and have a high success rate as the children can see their progress and participate daily in working towards achieving their reward.

  1. The charts should be interactive and fun – connecting dots, pasting on different stickers or stars.
  2. Some professionals encourage positive and negative entries as reminders of both behaviours. Others are adamant that the chart only display the good. The choice is yours but know why you are doing it.
  3. The chart should be displayed very visibly in a place where all can see – it is a testimony to good behaviour!
  4. The child should do an activity around what reward he/she wants – like drawing a picture of it. It can even be used as part of the chart – connecting dots around the picture as the rewards gets closer to attainment.
  5. Depending on the age of the child the rewards should not extend over to long a period. Dr William and Martha Sears suggest that a toddler gets end of hour rewards, for a preschooler - the end of the day, and the school-age child - the end of the week.
  6. For children the novelty wears off frequently so change the charts often – be creative.

We strongly advise you to read further on the subject or discuss discipline in depth with the parents as your approach to disciplining the children in your charge is the key to an enjoyable and successful au pair placement.
The “What To Expect Nanny Handbook” says “Mary Poppins had a point. One of the most effective ways to deal with children is to make whatever you are doing fun. No need for a real spoonful of sugar- just a real good sense of humour. Make funny faces when its time to give medicine, turn cleaning up into a game or stop a tantrum in its tracks with a joke. It works!”
Written by Lilian Hellerman
Murrkoff Heidi – What to Expect Babysitter and Nanny Handbook
Dr William Sears and Martha Sears – the Good Behaviour Book
Hands on Experience both personally and professionally