How to Babysit Preschoolers
(Child Needs, Discipline & Common Mistakes)
Kids of different age groups have different needs when it comes to babysitting, and preschoolers are no exception.
How do you babysit preschoolers? A big part of babysitting kids in this age group is giving them independence. Let them try to do things on their own to build up confidence and autonomy. Kids at this stage of development crave information and want to feel heard, so expect lots of questions. You'll need to learn effective discipline strategies for dealing with temper tantrums, or ideally, you'll be proactive in order to avoid unwanted behavior before it happens.
In this article, you'll learn how to babysit preschoolers. I'll share what preschoolers want and need, and what's important to them. I'll also share some common mistakes to avoid.
Preschoolers are kids between the ages of 3 and 5 years.
They're fun to babysit because at this age they're really starting to become little people with their own thoughts and opinions.
Preschoolers can also be a bit intimidating for newer babysitters, though, because they're full of energy. They're often ready to test the limits of all authority figures in their lives.
But, with a positive attitude and willingness to dedicate your attention to the child for a few hours, you can enjoy babysitting preschoolers and become a better, more experienced babysitter as a result.
Get To Know The Child's Needs
Before you start babysitting a preschooler, you will want to find out all you can about the individual child.
Kids at this age are still developing and may have problems like anger management issues. They may still have some trouble speaking and communicating their ideas. They might have potty-training issues or diapering needs, as well.
Learn more about age-related child development in our babysitter’s guide to child psychology.
You will also want to be aware of any health issues like allergies, epilepsy, or asthma that you may encounter while babysitting them. You'll need to know about any procedures you might need to perform if such medical issues arise.
Getting to know the child's likes and dislikes is important too. Ask parents for information like what they do to distract their child, what their bedtime is, what snacks they're allowed and which foods they prefer, any fears they have, and anything else you can think of.
What to Pack for Babysitting a Preschooler
When you're going to any babysitting job, I recommend bringing along your babysitting binder. This holds important documents like your babysitting handbook and other relevant information, plus some fun items.
If you don't have your own babysitting binder yet, check out my article: The Ultimate Babysitting Binder to learn how to put one together.
Besides your babysitting binder, it's essential to bring your cell phone for emergencies. It can also be useful when you need to call or text parents to get answers to questions that aren't urgent but still important, like what to do if the child will not settle down to bed. Your phone can also double as an alarm to remind you when it's time to make dinner or put the kids to bed.
Check with parents first to see if you're allowed to bring your own activities or snacks. Some parents have specific preferences for their kids and would rather that you use what's already in the house.
If they say it's okay, bringing some of your own toys can make things more interesting for the kids you're babysitting because they get to play with something new. A small treat they don't usually get to have can be used as a good incentive for them to behave, as well!
For a more complete list of items to bring, see our guide: What should I bring to a babysitting job?
Give Preschoolers Some Independence
While preschoolers still need help with a lot of things, they're capable of much more than you think. A big part of babysitting preschoolers is helping to foster that sense of independence.
Encouraging independence will help build a preschooler's confidence and make them more able to do things by themselves in the future.
Kids have a tendency to live up to our expectations. At many preschools, they are expected to hang up their jackets, put away their plates after a snack, and to take care of other basic tasks on their own.
While you are babysitting, try to avoid doing things for a preschooler that they can likely do themselves. Sure, it's probably easier and quicker for you to just get it done. But that won't help a child grow in confidence and learn to become independent.
Give preschoolers a chance to solve simple problems on their own before you step in. If they're trying to get a book off the shelf or put together a toy but seem to be struggling a bit, give them a few minutes along with some encouragement. As long as the undertaking is safe, let them try to figure it out on their own.
Avoid fixing things that a child has tried to do. If you get a preschooler to make their own bed, don't smooth out the sheets if they haven't got it exactly perfect. You don't want to redo what the child has already worked on unless it's completely necessary. Otherwise, you might make them feel that the job they've done isn't good enough, which could discourage them in the future. This can be really hard if you're a bit of a perfectionist like me, but kids need a chance to experience success, especially when they’ve given a good effort.
If you're not sure the child is up for a task, you can ask them a question like, "Do you want me to help, or can you do it yourself?" This tends to appeal to a preschooler's sense of pride because kids at this age usually want to try to do things for themselves.
Don't feel guilty about assigning minor chores to preschoolers. This is good for their development. They can be involved with little tasks like helping to make their lunch or cleaning up the dishes afterward. A preschooler is perfectly capable of putting their own ingredients in a sandwich, although you'll want to cut it for them. They can pour a glass of water or milk for themselves with some supervision. Don't be afraid to get a bit messy!
A preschooler can get themselves dressed, take clothes out of the dryer, put their toys away, and other basic tasks that will really help to build their confidence. Just be sure to make it a reasonable task that doesn’t involve too many steps.
If you give a preschooler a job to do, it should be real work that actually contributes in some way. Even a preschooler can tell the difference between an actual task and just giving something to keep them busy!
7 Tips For Disciplining Preschoolers
As a babysitter, you need to respect the wishes and discipline style of the parents. But here are some tips to help calm down preschoolers when things start to get a little out of hand.
1. Redirect Them to Something Else
If a preschooler is pulling their sibling's hair or jumping on the couch, try to distract them and redirect them to something more productive. For example, ask them if they want to read a story together or draw a picture.
2. Hold Them Responsible
If a preschooler is capable of doing something wrong, then they're usually able to help make it right too.
When they knock down their brother's tower of blocks, get them to help rebuild it. Make it into a game of who can create the tallest building.
Did you catch them coloring on the walls? Get them to help you wash it off before their parents come home. (That one is probably partially on you for not watching them closely enough!)
3. Avoid Tantrums When Parents Say Goodbye
Some preschoolers have separation anxiety and will freak out when their parents leave.
If the kid you're watching is anxious about their parent leaving, get the parent to give them something to remind them that they'll be back. It can be a picture of them or even a tissue that the parent has kissed and given to the child before they leave. Just having a physical object to hold on to can help make preschoolers feel less nervous and may prevent a full-blown temper tantrum.
It’s also a good idea for the parent to leave with a quick goodbye and brief word of reassurance that they will be coming home soon. There’s much more opportunity for the preschooler to get overly emotional when the parent makes a long drawn out departure while the child is crying. Just smile like it’s going to be a fun game and say, “Let’s go look out the window and wave goodbye. Do you know how to blow kisses? Bye-bye –see you soon!”
4. Don't Delay Discipline
If you're going to discipline a preschooler, you want to do it right when you catch them misbehaving.
At this age, kids have trouble understanding consequences in the future. So it's not very effective to say you won't take them to the park next time you babysit them if they don't behave now. To the preschooler, the punishment will seem random and undeserved, and won't prevent further behavioral problems. By the time the punishment comes around, the child will have totally forgotten what they originally did to deserve it.
So any discipline you give to preschoolers should be immediate. That way, the cause-and-effect relationship of their actions will be clear.
5. Avoid Time-Outs
Time-outs used to be a popular way to discipline bad behavior in kids, but that isn't the case so much anymore.
Time-outs are certainly an improvement over the previous option, which was physical punishment.
Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, explains in his book No-Drama Discipline that kids experience time-outs as a rejection, even if you give them kind words and hugs afterward. He states that time-outs basically convey to children that they'll have to handle any mistakes or difficult feelings all by themselves.
Time-outs are unlikely to stop misbehavior in the future. In fact, studies have shown that children are more likely to repeat a negative behavior after the time-out is over. Plus, it leaves the child feeling anxious, confused, and upset.
6. Use Time-Ins Instead
Time-ins are similar to time-outs. But the important difference is that you stay with the child during a time-in and support them until they calm down.
That way, they'll feel like someone is there to help guide them through it, and they don't need to do it alone.
During a time-in, it's still a good idea to leave the area where the misbehavior occurred and go to a different room to sort of "reset" the situation. A time-in can just be sitting together on the couch, talking about the situation and how both of you feel, or even just a long hug.
Time-ins tend to take longer than a time-out, but the child will leave it feeling calm, safe, and ready to listen again.
Is the child you're babysitting still being a nightmare even after a time-in? Check out my article: How to Babysit a Difficult Child for other effective discipline strategies.
7. Give Second Chances
Sometimes a great way to correct unhelpful behavior in a child you're babysitting is to stop it and ask the child to try again.
When kids are acting out, give them a chance for a "do-over" to make a better choice before resorting to discipline. If the child doesn't seem sure of what a better option would be, that can be a great teaching opportunity.
When kids are too upset or overwhelmed, it's better to start with a time-in. After the time-in, you can teach a better choice and give the child a chance to try the situation again.
Still need some help with an upset child? See our 17 strategies for How to Calm an Upset Child.
Five Things Preschoolers Need to Thrive
Follow these five tips, and you'll have a happy preschooler (most of the time.)
1. Make Sure They're Getting Enough Sleep
Preschoolers will sometimes resist nap time. But if they don't get enough sleep, they will get cranky and unable to act rationally.
See our handy guide: How to get kids to bed when babysitting for helpful bedtime tips that can also work at nap time.
2. Give Them a Little Control Over What They Eat
You can decide what foods you'll prepare for a preschooler, but the amount of food they eat needs to be their choice.
Preschoolers need smaller and more frequent meals throughout the day. But avoid letting them just snack constantly all day.
When it comes time to eat, give preschoolers a bunch of healthy foods to choose from. Then, let them decide which ones they want to eat and how much. Preschoolers will naturally choose to eat healthy foods as long as there isn't candy or other junk food options available.
By offering a variety of healthy foods, you can feel like you're doing the right thing no matter what they pick. And even picky eaters should be able to choose from multiple options.
One of my favorite tricks is to make animals from fruit and salad by arranging items on the plate. This always makes eating healthy food much more fun for kids, and they often don't even realize they're being “tricked!”
Never make a child sit until they've completely emptied their plate. Enforcing that kind of idea can lead to obesity later in life. Instead, ask them how they feel when they're done and make sure they feel full. If there is enough to save, put leftovers in the fridge for later. Even if you waste a little food, it’s worth it to maintain the child's future body image and physical health. Just make sure to ask parents if they’re ok with wasting food!
See our complete guide to Babysitting food safety.
3. Give Them Structure
Kids thrive on regular routines, and preschoolers are no exception. A structure for how things are done helps to make their lives feel safe and more predictable.
Try to follow their regular home routine as closely as possible to avoid throwing preschoolers any big curveballs. Keeping their meal times and bedtime routines close to normal is particularly important.
You can have an orderly structure to the day while still maintaining a fun and calm atmosphere.
4. Let Them Be Heard
Preschoolers ask a ton of questions. Many of them often start with "why" something is a certain way.
Kids at this age are craving information. They love that they can now communicate their thoughts, and just want to be acknowledged.
If you're getting hit with a barrage of "why" questions, it might be that the child wants to feel heard and get a chance to tell you what they think. So try to turn the question around and ask them what they think the answer is to the question they're asking. You can first see what they think about the situation, and then help fill in any missing information after giving them a chance to respond.
Another issue with preschoolers is whining. Kids whining is usually a sign that they're bored, not getting their needs met, or having difficulty processing a particular emotion.
Don't give in and reward whining, because it will reinforce them to whine more to get what they want in the future.
Instead, look at the root cause of the whining and try to solve that. Are all of the child's basic needs being met like having enough food, exercise, rest, or emotional connection with you?
You can often preemptively deal with whining by ensuring that the preschooler is getting lots of positive attention before they get to that state.
5. Avoid Too Much Screen Time
A preschooler's brain is still developing. Too much time playing with a tablet or watching television literally changes the way the brain develops and can shorten a child's attention span for the rest of their life (source).
So, while it seems like an easy solution to just put kids in front of a screen in the short term, it can really have some detrimental effects in the long run.
Try to save screen time for when parents are home and need to keep kids distracted for a little bit. As a babysitter, you're getting paid to keep them interested and motivated, so don't rely on electronics to do that part of your job for you.
For my kids, I only allow screen time when someone is cooking. This works out great for multiple reasons:
- It keeps kids out of the kitchen when the stove is hot and dangerous.
- It gives you a chance to cook without too much distraction from the kids.
- When dinner is ready, it's easy to get kids to turn off the TV or screen because there's yummy food to eat!
Kids can be mentally stimulated by all sorts of things. Even just going for a walk around the block and seeing different things like big trucks and people on bicycles can keep their interest and help them learn. Crafts or activities are fun, too, and will aid in the development of fine motor skills.
Instead of resorting to screens, try some of our recommended kids’ activities for babysitters. We have over 200 to choose from for all ages, including preschoolers!
Six Mistakes When Babysitting Preschoolers
Here are some common mistakes to avoid when babysitting a preschooler.
1. Don't Stray from Routines or Follow Them too Rigidly
Both following routines too closely or getting too far off track can create problems when you're watching a preschooler.
It’s not a good idea to overschedule by having something arranged for every single minute of the day. Kids need some downtime just to relax and unwind a bit too. Unscheduled time has more potential to stimulate their creativity and imagination.
Packing too much into your routines can cause problems when it comes time to get the kids to bed. You may have had a lot of fun doing activities with them throughout the evening to tire them out before bedtime. But kids usually need some time to calm down and unwind before they'll be able to get into bed and fall asleep.
If you think you might be overscheduling, try to specifically fit in breaks for downtime between different activities. Usually, I just call this "free play" when the child can quietly play with toys or chill out. Leave a gap of time to relax with relaxing activities, like reading a story before naps or bedtime, so that kids don't have to go straight from actively running around to lying down.
The opposite of following your schedule too rigidly is to stray from it too much. If you're not consistent with a preschooler's daily routine, they tend to get confused, which can lead to temper tantrums and acting out.
If they learn that sometimes they can watch television before bed and other times they can't, they won't understand the difference. They'll wonder why last time you babysat they got to do it, but this time they had to go to bed right away.
Consistency is best across the board when it comes to mealtime, discipline, or sleep habits. It doesn't have to be 100%, but it should be pretty close. Aim to be consistent most of the time and only make a few minor exceptions here or there when circumstances dictate a need for some flexibility. In those cases, make it clear that it is an exception, and that you will then be returning to the regular routine.
2. Don't Underestimate the Importance of Play
Playing might seem like just goofing around, but it actually contributes in a significant way toward how kids learn (source).
Play is how preschoolers attain most of their physical abilities as well as develop cognitive concepts, language, and social skills. Dramatic play, also known as make-believe or pretend, is an essential aspect of play for preschoolers.
Playing with puppets, dressing up, doing crafts, and completing simple board games or puzzles are all fun activities that create opportunities for learning.
Be sure to mix in a variety of play activities that stimulate a preschooler’s development in different ways. Mix more physically-oriented activities with ones that require them to use their brain actively.
Even doing housework can be transformed into an opportunity to play if the child voluntarily chooses to do it, and it's not a task that's assigned to them.
3. Don't Focus on Negative Behavior
It's easy to fall into the trap of reacting only to negative actions like temper tantrums while ignoring all of the good things that preschoolers do.
Kids just love attention and, if they don't receive recognition for positive behavior, they will settle for negative attention. So, if the only time you acknowledge them is when they do something bad, that's what they're going to continue to do.
Lots of babysitters focus on telling kids what not to do, and they don't make a concerted attempt to reward good behavior right when it happens.
Positive reinforcement can be done with verbal praise or by giving a big hug whenever the child does something positive or mature. You should reward all kinds of good behaviors from preschoolers like when they are putting their toys away, washing their hands, being friendly to other kids, or even just sitting and listening quietly.
Encouragement and positive reinforcement go a long way when it comes to preschoolers.
Learn more in our in-depth guide: How babysitters can nurture children to bring out their best.
4. Don't Overreact to Lies
Lying is something that kids start to do when they're preschoolers.
On the one hand, it's kind of scary that you can't believe everything they say anymore. But it's actually a sign of mental advancement.
If you catch a preschooler you're babysitting in a lie, don't freak out. Know that it's a natural part of their development. It's normal for kids at that age to tell a lie or two.
You don't need to get too hung up on the lie and try to get a confession out of them. Even if you know for sure they're the ones who threw the toys all over the room, there's no point getting stuck on it. It is a good idea to discuss the situation later in a way that acknowledges the truth, but calmly and without blame.
5. Be Proactive to Avoid Issues
Kids don't usually just blow up for no reason. There are typically warning signs when a temper tantrum is about to happen.
Once a preschooler is in the middle of a temper tantrum, it’s kind of like trying to rationalize with a drunk person, all hopes of reasoning with them go right out the window. But if you catch the problem ahead of time, you can anticipate when they'll be upset and distract them with another activity before it happens.
Some of the major culprits are boredom, hunger, being tired, and of course, not getting their way. If you notice a preschooler that you're babysitting starts to exhibit any signs of these, try to deal with them right away.
Try not to put yourself into situations that are setups for a tantrum. Before you take kids out to the playground or grocery store, be sure they've had a nap. And pack some healthy snacks to bring with you in case they get hungry.
6. Don't Get Distracted
Preschoolers are smart. They know when you're paying attention or not.
They might be able to play by themselves for a while, but ultimately they often still crave attention.
Don't be the kind of babysitter who gets distracted by their phone and sits on the couch while the preschooler plays alone. It will be much more engaging if you get down on the floor, stay off the phone, and play with them!
Even if you're preparing a meal or some other activity that you need to focus on, find a way to keep the preschooler engaged while you're doing it.
If something is going to need your undivided attention for a while, like changing their sibling's diaper or feeding them, try to give the preschooler a solid period of concentrated attention or play beforehand. That way, you'll be able to get other tasks done without too much whining.
Preschoolers come with their own unique set of babysitting challenges.
They're often full of questions and crave attention. They're also at a stage where you need to help build their independence by letting them do things on their own.
At this age, you might even start to catch them lying to you!
Being proactive with preschoolers will make your job a lot easier. Try to be aware of when they might be tired, hungry, or bored, as these often trigger unwanted behavior. Once a preschooler starts a temper tantrum, all hope of reasoning with them is lost, and you usually have to wait for them to calm down.
Despite some of the nuances and difficulties, preschoolers can be the most fun to spend time with. They have a sense of openness and an active interest in the world around them. Babysitters often find it rewarding to laugh, explore, and learn together with kids this age.
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