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How to Motivate a 4 Year Old

by Melissa Lewis, studioD

"I don't want to!" "I forgot." "Do I have to?" If these are typical responses you hear from your 4-year-old, you're not alone. It's not unusual to hit the mother-load of resistance whenever you try to get your little one to do something. Even though your request might be as simple as picking up some toys, your kiddo might react as though you were asking him to clean the entire house. The good news is that at 4-years-old, it's still easy enough to motivate your child to do what's right, play nicely with others, follow rules, be creative and respect authority. Since all children are different, however, you might have to use some trial and error until you find a motivation strategy that works for you.

Praise more and criticize less because gaining your approval and making you happy are great motivators for a 4-year-old. Make your praises genuine and whenever possible, be specific. You should say, "You did an excellent job picking up your toys, and you were super fast," rather than just a plain, "Good job." You can also give nonverbal praises, especially when you can't give him a verbal praise at the time. Smile a big smile and give him a thumbs-up when he's behaving well or when you see him make a good decision.

Model the behavior you desire. Don't just "tell" your child what she needs to do, but instead, get right in there and "show" her what to do. For example, if you want your child to keep her room clean, show her how you tidy up the house -- and show her where she needs to keep her toys when she's not playing with them. If you want your child to use her imagination more, suggest an activity that involves imagination -- and join right in. For example, you might say, "Let's pretend we're wild animals in the jungle" -- and then get on the floor and roar like a lion. Your kiddo will likely join you on the floor making animals sounds in a flash. Then ask your child to come up with an imaginative game for the two of you to play. If you want to spark your child's creativity, suggest art projects you can do together like decorating the house for a special event or holiday. Give your kiddo some direction, but encourage her to come up with her own ideas as well -- and by all means, incorporate them into your decor even if they're not quite up to your decorating standards.

Reward your little one to motivate him, but don't reward everything. There's a fine when it comes to rewarding a child. After all, you should expect good behavior -- and don't want your child to expect a reward for just being good. However, if he has difficulty doing something in particular like sitting still during story time, you can reward him after he exhibits self-control and remains still and quiet while the librarian reads a story. Afterwards you can say, "You were good listener today and didn't distract the other children. How would you like to go to the zoo to celebrate becoming a good listener?"

Create a reward chart to help motivate a 4-year-old to develop certain learned and expected behaviors, such as making his bed. AskDr.Sears recommends making the chart simple with the time between rewards short. You can also pass out tickets or pretend bucks when your child is doing what is expected of him -- and take them away when he exhibits less than desirable behavior. One to three times a week, let your little one cash in his tickets or bucks for a prize, such as an ice cream cone or trip to the library. Tell your child what the prizes are ahead of time, so he knows what he's working towards.

Give consequences for less than desirable behavior, even if it's inconvenient. Children must learn that bad behavior and choices sometimes result in bad things. If your child, for example, throws his toys, you might say, "You decided not to take care of your toys today and one of them broke. To help your other toys stay safe, Mommy is going to put them away for the rest of the day."

Items you will need
  •  Rewards
  •  Reward chart
  •  Tickets or pretend bucks


  • Remain calm -- even when your child is misbehaving.

About the Author

Melissa Lewis is a former elementary classroom teacher and media specialist. She has also written for various online publications. Lewis holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Photo Credits

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