If you want to know how to teach toddlers and build a positive environment where they can learn and thrive then read on…
When we talk about ‘teaching’ we tend to think of more formal activities.
However, there are many organically occurring experiences that provide amazing opportunities to teach toddlers new skills.
As a preschool teacher and now home educating parent, I thought I should put together a post about how to teach toddlers…or how we do it anyway!
The truth about toddlers…
I think toddlers get a bad rap!
I’ll never forget being told that my sobbing two year old was “just trying to manipulate me” as he lay in a heap on the floor.
We use words like “tantrums”, “manipulation” and “control” to describe baby and toddler behavior.
We’re raising babies in a society that isn’t really wired to empathize with kids.
Despite how it feels sometimes, our toddlers don’t wake up each morning determined to push our buttons.
Being a toddler is hard work…teaching a toddler is hard work too but we can make it easier on everyone involved by following a few simple steps!
Without these steps, I doubt I’d still be so keen to home school!
So, let’s take a look at the first of our 11 tips on how to teach toddlers:
1. Be aware of developmental stages.
Most toddlers (if not all) will have tantrums, meltdowns and get overexcited often during their preschool years.
How you handle these situations will directly influence your toddlers response and relationship with you.
These incidents of overwhelm happen because a toddlers brain doesn’t function like an adults brain…it simply can’t!
It is undeveloped, emotional and impulsive.
You may wonder what tantrums and meltdowns have to do with a post about how to teach toddlers BUT they are huge learning and bonding opportunities.
Our job is to support and guide our toddlers as they navigate their emotions and to build trust so that they will continue to come to us when they need help.
So, how can we support our toddler through a meltdown…?
Let’s imagine that you’re at Playgroup and your 3 year old is laying on the floor screaming because he wanted the toy that someone else was playing with.
In the heat of the moment your toddler hit another child who’s run off to find his parent.
a) Is everyone and everything safe?
If your toddler is hitting, kicking or throwing then you may need to move him to a quieter space.
As you do so try to remain as calm as you can and say something along the lines of “I won’t let you hit. I’ll put you down when we’re somewhere safe.”
b) Name those emotions and empathize.
A young child may not be able to express how he is feeling so when he’s calmed a little, help him to name those big feelings.
“Wow you really wanted that toy! You are so upset that you can’t play with it right now.”
c) Offer comfort.
We all want to be comforted in different ways and in our own time.
At the moment, our boys both hate being touched while they are upset.
If I approach them to physically offer comfort the meltdown will escalate again.
What works for us is a quick “Mummy’s here if you want a hug.”
99% of the time they’ll stop screaming and collapse onto me for a cuddle.
With trial and error you’ll get to know what works for your toddler and what doesn’t.
d) Talk about it.
After things have calmed down talk about what happened.
Make it clear which aspects of his behaviour were not acceptable.
“You got upset when G wouldn’t give you that toy. It’s OK to feel upset and angry but it’s not OK to hit.”
Practice alternative ways he can use to calm himself when upset or angry. I tend to avoid encouraging punching cushions and stick to suggesting fist squeezing.
You could also suggest having some quiet time, deep breathing, counting to 10…whatever works.
I wouldn’t force my child to apologize for his behavior but rather I would apologize to the child who was hit.
What we need to remember is that meltdowns are normal in the early years.
Punishing, shaming, distracting and bribing a toddler who displays developmentally typical behavior may work in the short term but it will not teach a toddler how to recognize their emotions and express them appropriately.
2. Make sure their needs are met.
Have you ever tried to study while anxious or listen to a conversation when you were tired or hungry?
It’s not easy.
Base your day on how everyone is feeling on that particular day.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve been on Pinterest all night and found four different activities that you wanted to get done today…pin them for later and adapt.
Don’t take an already exhausted toddler on a three mile nature hike (unless you’re carrying them all the way!)
Feed them, let them nap, cuddle on the sofa.
Don’t worry about what you should or could be doing.
We avoided regular playgroup for an entire year because my son didn’t enjoy it.
Choose an activity that suits you and your child at the time.
3. Don’t force learning…make it fun!
This one is so so important if you want to foster a love of learning.
It’s actually a big reason why I had enough of teaching and chose to home educate our boys.
Yes, you CAN teach a two year the alphabet and a three year old to read.
I am 100% certain that I could have taught my 3 year old to read…I’m also 100% certain that it would have put him off reading and distracted him from learning the name every dinosaur in his National Geographic book!
Forcing a child to learn what we think they should know will be far more of a struggle than waiting until they are ready.
Research has shown time and time again than children who learn to read later not only catch up with their peers but also maintain a higher level of enthusiasm towards reading.
If they’re into it great…go with it. If not, just wait until they are ready.
Choose a topic they love and explore it together…read more about what to teach here.
4. Create a “yes” environment.
You know when you go for tea at your Aunty Jan’s and have to stress for two hours about whether little Billy is going to smash the vase or the teapot first…that’s not a “yes” environment.
When you have toddlers it is a good idea to avoid environments where you know you’ll have to use the word “no” frequently.
You don’t need to forcibly teach your toddler to sit still and listen to his Great Aunty talk about who’s lawn needed mowing that week.
If things aren’t going well we always head outside for a run around.
So, you’re “yes” environment should be a place where toddlers are free to explore, create and move freely.
5. Model the behaviors you want to see.
Children learn from the adults around them.
They’ll pick up on both the good and the bad habits that we demonstrate each day.
It’s been well proven that behaviors like smoking are copied behaviors. If you smoke then your child is much more likely to start smoking.
It can be hard to hear, especially if you’ve been trying to give up for a while but the way we live impacts upon the choices our kids will make later on.
We don’t have to live like Saints 24/7 but we should decide what is important to us and model these behaviors as often as possible.
For me, living a healthy lifestyle is important. Making eco-conscious choices and not giving up on dreams or beliefs.
Our boys get this, already at four and two they understand what is important to us as a family.
I NEVER tell my children to say “please” or “thank you”.
However, our two year old does a pretty good job with “please” and “nanks” and our four year old has pretty much nailed it.
This is purely down to the fact that we use these words to each other, to them and to people we meet each day.
6. Set clear boundaries.
Kids need rules.
They need to know what behaviour is ♡
OK and what behaviour is unacceptable.
Set rules for things that are important to you.
Choose your battles though. If you’ve created a “yes environment” then you really shouldn’t need a tonne of rules.
When toddlers don’t follow the rules we set then resist the temptation to shout, threaten or shame them into listening.
If you have a rule that your toddler can’t climb on the sofa but she isn’t listening then say something like “we don’t jump o the sofa but let’s go and use that jumpy energy outside.”
Add a challenge “do you think you can jump as high as the trees?”
7. Be flexible.
I want to be clear that setting clear boundaries does not mean that you can never be flexible in your response to certain situations.
Having a rule that no-one jumps on the sofa is a rule that you should stick to if you set it.
However, if you tell your child that it’s time to leave the beach there is no reason why you can’t offer another 10 minutes if they aren’t ready to leave.
We can’t expect our toddlers to grow into confident, free-thinking adults if we insist that they blindly obey us all the time.
8. Consider whether a schedule would help.
For some children, a schedule can work really well.
It can help them to feel like they have more control and understanding over a situation.
The schedule doesn’t have to be rigid but a simple outline like breakfast, play outside, chill, nap, indoor play etc may help a child that struggles with transition.
I’m not a huge fan of schedules as I love to be spontaneous and have the freedom to change plans as and when.
Until more recently my first born really struggled with transitions and I actually found that he was worse when we tried a schedule.
He responded much better when I just said “Wow, let’s go chase that Diplodocus that went past the window!” Play is definitely the key to getting him onside and relieving his anxiety.
Find out what works for you and don’t worry too much. For our son it was just another passing phase.
9. Remember that behaviour happens for a reason…
As a preschool teacher I never had a problem teaching preschoolers.
Teaching preschool teachers however…that was a struggle! 😂
What those teachers demonstrated was that it’s not easy to listen to someone else all day.
Whether we’re tired from a late night, preoccupied after an argument or desperate to catch up with our friend who’s sitting across from us. Each of us are individuals and bring with us individual issues at any given time.
The thing is, as adults, we’re generally allowed to feel feelings. OK, I can’t throw my laptop on the floor when I loose something I’ve been working on all morning.
BUT, I am allowed to feel angry. It’s likely that I’ll have a colleague empathize with me and IT support try to help out.
If I’m really lucky then I may also get a cup of tea!
Compare this to the experience of a tired three year at a playgroup who’s happily playing with Lego just as a younger child toddles over and knocks over a stack of blocks.
As adults we may wonder:
What is all the fuss about?
Why is she reacting like this?
Why she can’t just share a few blocks of Lego?
Sometimes, our initial reaction is to punish the toddlers “over reaction” rather than to acknowledge her feelings.
To us that was just a stack of bricks but to the three year old it was a ladder to the moon or a tree full of squirrels.
OK, I get that the major difference between most adult and toddler reactions is that adults are generally better able to control their outbursts.
It’s not likely to go well for me if I walk over and hit a colleague every time he does something that irritates me.
However, the fact that a toddlers brain isn’t yet fully developed means that they aren’t yet able to control impulses.
Punishing them for this just doesn’t make sense.
If these behaviors seem out of character then try to establish what may be going on for your toddler.
Could they be tired from dropping a nap?
Do they have a new sibling?
Do they need a snack?
Are you feeling anxious?
My son has a mood change pretty much every three weeks. He’ll eat loads, then barely anything , then he’ll have growing pains for two days before going back to “normal”.
If you manage to pinpoint what effects your toddler you can attempt to support them through it.
10. Acknowledge feelings but limit some actions.
So, how could we deal with a situation like the Lego example above?
My almost four year old is often saying “feeling angry is OK but hitting isn’t”. I’ve obviously said it a lot! 🤣
More than anything our toddlers need our empathy.
The empathetic part of a child’s brain is triggered into developing when they are shown empathy.
It’s important that we stop a child from hurting anyone or anything but at the same time we must try to do ao as gently and calmly as possible.
So take a deep breathe. Ignore the glares and focus on your child/children. They need you more than anyone else right now.
I would comfort the hurt child first.
While doing so I would speak to the other child.
“I can’t let you hit/ push/ break xyz”
“I can see that’s really upset you/ made you angry.”
“I’m here if you want a hug/ to chat/ draw with me a while.”
Resist the urge to interrogate initially.
Did you push him?
Empathy is what matters right away.
There will be time to talk about it later..
Read this post for ideas, experiences and activities that will help to develop toddlers knowledge and skills.
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