Teaching preschoolers expectations

Ways to guide your children to meet expectations in the classroom

There are three key elements that teachers should include in the process of setting boundaries and expectations for young children…

Explain, Rehearse, and Reinforce

These are not my words but the words of K. R. Victor. According to Victor (2001):

“Once you have created the plan you must teach it to your students.
When teaching the plan, keep in mind three things: Explain, rehearse, and reinforce.
Explain, simply put, means to create a lesson plan that teaches the rules” (p.25).

Victor’s words reflect my own views of guiding young children to meet expectations only I have used a little bit different terminology.

Let’s take a minute to look at Victor’s ideas…


Helping children understand expectations should be a part of the planning process in the early childhood classroom. Young children need boundaries and guidelines that are age appropriate, reasonable, flexible, and understandable. Guidelines and boundaries are based on teacher expectations as well. In order for children to understand teacher expectations, the teacher needs to include time for teaching expectations in the planning process.


Even for the youngest preschooler, there can be an assumption that the child should already know better. For example, when a preschooler throws a napkin on the floor rather than in the trash, an adult might think that this child just doesn’t care or isn’t a good listener. Instead, throwing the napkin in the trash needs to be looked as an expectation to be learned.

It is important to get into the practice of explaining expectations. Children need to be taught what is expected in simple, meaningful, and understandable terms. Just as we plan our lessons to teach the ABC’s or 123″s, we need to devise a plan for teaching expectations rather than just assuming the children should get the idea.

For example, I once had a group of children who would not lay on their cot without kicking their feet in the air. This got to be something that was funny to them and going around cot to cot was simply not effective. As soon as I got one set of feet out of the air, another set of feet popped up. It was like playing the gopher game!

So I decided to plan a lesson on laying down on the cot.  My assistant and I took out a kid’s cot and while my assistant gave me simple directions, I laid down on the cot and put my feet down. When my assistant would turn away – I dramatically kicked my feet up in the air. All the children laughed and then my assistant turned around and acted all surprised. She then explained to me why it was very important to keep my feet down and told me how she would be so proud of me if I could remember this rule.  So when she turned her back again, I  snuggled in with a blanket and bear and went to sleep. My assistant turned around again and gave me huge props for being such a big helper and a good listener.  The children loved this little play:)


After explaining an expectation to the child, the next step in the process is to rehearse the expectation. The child or children must then practice what was just explained.

For example, the teacher explains how to throw a napkin in the trash; then demonstrates how to throw a napkin in the trash; then lets the child take a turn throwing the napkin in the trash.  This allows the teacher to evaluate the child’s understanding of the expectation.

In the cot example above, my assistant and I had each of the children come and show us how to lay down on the cot all snuggly. We made a huge deal out of everyone as they eagerly showed us they understood the expectation.


Once an expectation has been explained and rehearsed, now the expectation can be reinforced. To reinforce an expectation, the teacher can…

Remind the child: “Don’t forget to throw that napkin in the trash can!”
Redirect the child: “Should we put the napkin in the trash can or just leave it on the floor?”
Praise the child: “I noticed you threw the napkin in the trash can all by yourself! That was awesome!”

In the cot example, we carried our message into naptime through a positive and praiseworthy approach. The children found it more appealing to show us how they could keep those legs down. We reinforced the positive results by stating over and over, “you look so peaceful and cuddly on your cot” or “I am so proud of how you remember exactly what to do.

Back to Planning

When you see that an expectation is just not being met then this is a sign to start back at the planning stage.

Perhaps time has gone by and the expectation has not been reinforced effectively or perhaps the child just wasn’t developmentally ready to grasp the expectation. It could be that the expectation was simply not age appropriate. Regardless of the reason, when a child is not demonstrating an understanding of an expectation, then it is time to start the process all over again: Explain, Rehearse, Reinforce!

Victor, K. R. (2001) Identifying effective behavior management in the early childhood classroom. B.R.E. Practical Bible College.

Deborah J Stewart

Deborah J Stewart

Every time I think I know everything I need to know about teaching young children, God says, "Hold on a minute!" and gives me a new challenge.

Let me tell ya...

With each new challenge that you overcome, you will find yourself better equipped and more passionate about teaching young children.

God didn't call wimps to lead, teach, or care for His children. Nope, he has high expectations, so get ready. You will have to give your very best but after teaching for over 30 years, I can tell you that it is a wonderful and rewarding journey.

Whenever your calling feels hard, just remember, 'He who began a good work in you (and in the children you serve) will be faithful to complete it.'

Subscribe to My Newsletter

Latest Blog Posts

P is for Pizza!

While learning about the letter “P” we decided to explore with pizza! Pizza is an all-time favorite food for many preschoolers, and activities involving pizza

Read More »