Toddler Acting Out at Daycare? What You Need to Do

Is your toddler acting out at daycare? This can be a challenging and frustrating situation for both parents and childcare providers. Learn some helpful tips and strategies to address this behavior and create a positive, peaceful environment for your child.

Toddler Acting Out at Daycare

Disciplining at home is hard enough, but what do you do when you’re not there to manage your toddler’s behavior?

No parent likes to hear how her child has been acting out with other caregivers. As normal as it might be, getting that dreaded teacher’s note or the, “Can we talk for a minute?” request at pickup can cause distress.

Thankfully, there’s still plenty you can try. You’ll need to communicate and work with the daycare staff since you’re not there. But with everyone on the same side and working toward the same goal, you’ll have better luck managing her outbursts in daycare.

Here’s what you and the teaching staff can do with your toddler acting out at daycare:

Talk to your toddler respectfully

We adults tend to have a biased view of our relationship with children. The minute we see kids doing something they’re not supposed to do, we launch into “discipline mode,” ready to dole out consequences left and right.

Instead, hold a real conversation with your toddler. See what’s bothering her and ask for her suggestions instead of going straight into timeouts and consequences.

Avoid the “I’m warning you” tone of voice so many of us assume is the only way to get kids to comply.

For instance, you can say, “The teacher noticed that you hit another child at circle time. What happened?”

You can then share why hitting others isn’t appropriate, while showing empathy explaining why. “We don’t hit other people. It wouldn’t feel good if someone was hitting or biting you, right?”

Ask for her input as well. “What do you think you can do besides hitting if someone bothers you?” If she’s tight-lipped, you can make suggestions. “Maybe you can tell the teacher if someone bothers you.”

And finally, explain what has to happen (the “consequences”) if she continues. “The teachers can’t let you hit other people, so you need to tell us if something is bothering you. Because if you hit, we’ll have to have this conversation again.”

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Toddler Discipline Strategies

Don’t do timeouts

Does your toddler disregard timeouts at daycare? Maybe he laughs or goofs off the entire time and doesn’t take it seriously or ignores the impact they’re supposed to have and goes right back to misbehaving.

Well, I don’t blame him: timeouts don’t work.

You see, he’s not learning anything from the experience. Even if he ties his behavior to getting timeouts, he doesn’t understand why. He develops no empathy for others and instead feels like he’s the victim for being “punished.”

During timeouts, he’s channeling his frustration toward the enforcer (the teachers) and fuming at the unfairness of it all. He misses out on better ways to communicate and doesn’t understand why his behavior isn’t right.

Some might think that not doing timeouts means letting kids get away with their behavior. But letting them get away with it is allowing them to continue kicking and hitting and not addressing the behavior at all.

What if, instead of timeouts, the teachers can take him aside and do a “time in.” They can:

  • Show empathy for his emotions and acknowledge potential triggers for his behavior
  • Point out the effects of his behavior on others, like not letting other children learn and play
  • Teach him better ways to behave, like shaking the wiggles out if he feels confined at circle time

He won’t learn any of these valuable skills if he’s sent straight to timeout.

Praise your toddler’s positive behavior

For many kids, daycare or preschool is their first experience with sharing adult attention with their peers. And with more kids to contend with, your toddler can feel overlooked. He may act up just to get noticed, which can explain why he behaves this way at daycare and not at home.

After all, kids will do what it takes to get attention, whether positive or negative.

Ask the daycare staff to acknowledge the times when he is behaving, no matter how simple. Maybe that’s waiting and standing in line, keeping his hands to himself, or fetching his snack. At home, praise him for the skills he has learned as well as for being a helper.

You see, it’s more effective to nurture and praise positive behavior than it is to correct challenging ones. He’ll relish feeling recognized for doing a great job, which encourages him to continue the behavior you want to see.

Nurture a relationship with the daycare teachers

Your toddler is learning to develop a new relationship with his daycare teacher. This can include testing his boundaries to see if she responds the same way as his parents do. Other times, he wants to know how vulnerable he can be and whether she’ll love and accept him no matter what.

Nurture that relationship so he feels safe and comfortable with her. For instance, you can:

  • Begin the day by getting excited about the fun things he’ll do with his teacher
  • Have him help you make or pick out a gift for his teacher (both on special occasions or “just because”)
  • Ask him what he likes most about his teacher

Then, ask her if she can do the same with him. Maybe this means sitting next to him when they paint or giving him an extra warm hug when he arrives and leaves.

Securing a strong relationship with her can help him feel safe and give him the positive attention he might be craving away from home.

Monitor the class

Managing your toddler’s behavior from afar is tricky because you have to rely on other people’s accounts of what happened. In that case, see if you can schedule a time to monitor his behavior in person. Ideally, you would watch discreetly without him seeing you, but even observing from the corner can be a huge help.

This might give you a better sense of the behavior issues he has with his teacher and the other kids. It won’t be exactly as if you’re not there (since he and the teacher know you’re watching), but you can get immediate feedback and suggestions.

For instance, you can observe what she has been seeing and reporting and can give feedback on ideas that have worked for you at home. Or you can talk about it with him at home, now that you’re able to draw explicit examples from your time observing.


Any parent would feel overwhelmed about her toddler acting out at daycare, especially because they’re apart. Thankfully, you can still do plenty, especially when you work with the daycare staff to find a solution. With these steps, he’ll feel less compelled to misbehave or disrupt the class—and circle time can be peaceful once again.

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Toddler Discipline Strategies

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  1. My biggest struggle is getting my 4year old to behave during daycare. He has become absolutely disrespectful to his teachers. I feel it is him trying to get attention in the most extreme way possible. We have been trying to keeping a calm voice, but I am at my breaking point with his disrespectful behavior at school.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Corrie! It’s definitely rough when our kids misbehave in other places where we’re not there to witness, much less do anything about it right at that moment. One of the best things we can do is to enlist the help of the teachers and see what they recommend to curb the behavior. I’m certain they’ve seen everything, and that this isn’t the first time they’ve dealt with this behavior in the past. They can let you know what you can do at home to reinforce the rules that they might have at the daycare so that it’s consistent.

  2. Our 3 yr old has been in daycare 3 days a week since 8 months. We recently moved him from a daycare he loves to a new one (as we moved house) and no break in between. He also has a 7 week old sister. Due to me working from home, he’s spent a lot of time in front of TV when not at the daycare and in the last 2 months at his new one he is biting and kicking staff and children and not sharing. He’s never had to share and really struggles with the concept on the playground and in the daycare which then leads to kicking and punching when corrected and asked to share. Help!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Belinda! It’s so challenging making a move, working from home, and hearing about your child’s behavior at the daycare. It’s totally understandable why he’s behaving the way he is. Maybe see if the staff can give you tips on how to correct his behavior at home, or see if you can observe him for the day so you can witness how the situation is being handled.

      Screen time has been the norm for so many work-from-home parents. Perhaps there are other ways to keep him occupied, like simple games and activities he can do himself.

  3. My 2 year old is acting out at daycare. She is hitting and pulling the hair of her friends. She then kicks and hits teachers, then laughs at them as they try to do the time out. Like she thinks they are playing. I was even told that they sat her on their lap and used the hug approach to try and calm her down. It took over 20 minutes. She was so bad that today I was asked to pick her up for the day.

    I have changed her bedtime to 7pm. It was 8pm, but we get up at 6am. That seem to help for a little bit – but now we are right back to where we started.

    She doesn’t act this way with me. I say her name in a stern voice and she just melts, like I’ve broken her heart. However daycare describes her as a terrible mean child.

    How can I discipline her for something I wasn’t there to see? or for something that happened earlier in the day? I’ve tried talking to day care and they are pretty set in their ways of handling things when they happen. Told me they are “Tried and True.”

    I’m just at a loss and am embarrassed. I really need help.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I know all too well what you mean about the difficulty of disciplining when you’re not even there to do anything about it. It can be hard to talk to our kids about their behavior that had happened earlier that day, and when they didn’t see us being there in the moment.

      One thing you can try to do is see if the school would be willing to have you sit in the class to observe. The goal isn’t to involve you when she behaves this way, but for you to see for yourself what they’re trying to describe to you. You can use the opportunity to take notes, see how they handle it, and better respond to your child.

      Time outs also don’t really work, and it’s unfortunate that the school is set in their ways and isn’t willing to work with individual families to see what works best for each child. I would try to have them acknowledge what had triggered the response, because often it’s not even anything “bad.” It can be her feeling like she didn’t get space in circle time, or she’s trying to make friends and thinks that getting a reaction by pulling their way is one way to do it.

      As far as at home, try to listen to what your daughter has to say about the day. I know it’s hard understanding what they’re talking about sometimes, but focus more on listening to what she has to say, as that can also shed light on what’s going on.