6 Terrific Tips for Working with Toddlers

A little while ago, I wrote a post about the effectiveness of logical consequences. In it, I mentioned that logical consequences generally don’t work with very young children (say, under three), because they don’t yet understand cause and effect. Several people contacted me to ask, “What should we do, then, to guide young children towards good behavior?” This is a great question.

Here are a few of my ideas; please chime in at the end with your own!

1. Give Them Plenty of Good Choices

If there’s nothing constructive to do, it’s too easy for them to start misbehaving. Making sure there are always age-appropriate, interesting activities available keeps it easy for them to channel their energy in creative ways.

One good friend of mine who ran a lovely Montessori toddler classroom kept baskets up on high shelves around the room with activities in them. Anytime she noticed someone was at loose ends, she pulled a basket down and did a simple presentation. The children did of course have materials down at their level, but this kept things fresh since not everything was out all the time.

2. Set Simple Limits

If you make too many rules, it’s difficult for kids to remember and follow them. Keep them simple and clear. Repeat them often. As much as possible, try to state them positively; “Use a quiet voice” is better than “No yelling!”.

3. Turn to a Higher Power

You may certainly find yourself saying a quick prayer when one child bites, hits, or kicks another. I know I did! But in this case, the higher power I’m referring to is books. Books are wonderful and magical, and authoritative simply on the merit of being printed and published. Even very small children sense that the words in books carry weight.

Reading a story, with pictures, can illustrate correct behavior to a child in a way that no amount of instruction from a parent or teacher can. The book removes the interpersonal tension from the situation. Stories have been used to teach moral lessons from the beginning of time; it’s ’cause they work.

Book recommendations? Actually, there are too many to list; here’s a whole slew of books for kids about dealing with social situations, misbehavior, and emotions.

4. Control the Environment

In Montessori, we are very familiar with the concept of the prepared environment. Materials are carefully chosen and arranged to provide maximum interest and accessibility for the young child. In the same way, we are careful about what we keep out of the environment. By making sure that all the choices are good ones, the child is gently guided to work that benefits the community rather than detracting from it.

5. Find Other Ways to Say “No”

I was talking to another friend of mine who works in a Montessori toddler classroom, and I asked her what the hardest part of her day was. She paused for a second, and then said “Finding ways to say ‘no’ without using the word ‘no’.”

I was fascinated by this and asked her to explain. She said that kids hear ‘no’ so often, it loses its meaning. It also begins to trigger an automatic response of defiance. By finding other ways to state it, you’re able to convey ‘no’ without all the baggage that ‘no’ usually brings.

Examples include saying “Danger!” when a child reaches for a wall outlet, or “Not for _____ (child’s name)” when a child tries to grab some candy. Other options include:

“We treat others nicely.”
“Let’s see if we can find a better way.”
“We’re going to do this right now instead.”

The next time you’re about to say “no”, try rephrasing it. You may be amazed at how different the response is.

6. Show Respect for the Mind of the Child

We know very well, in theory, that the first six years of the child’s life are the foundation on which the rest of their life rests. A child’s distinct personality asserts itself long before those six years are over. What seems like frustrating behavior, on the surface, is simply the child’s attempt to break out of the cage of babyhood and move towards independence.

Maria Montessori often spoke of the awe and wonder that adults should have when working with young children. It’s easy to lose that awe if we focus on the negatives rather than the positives. I love the fact that in Montessori, we empower children to do daily tasks themselves.

The more respect we can show them for their own choices and actions, the less conflict there will be. From the dressing frames to snack preparation, we’re removing barriers to the child’s independence. We’re basically saying to them, “I think you can do this!”

Rethinking the Terrible Twos

In writing this post, I reflected back on my own kids and the time they spent as toddlers. While I’m not sure I could rename this time the “terrific twos”, as I’ve heard it suggested, I do see now just how necessary and vital it was that they asserted their independence after spending babyhood completely dependent on adults for everything.

I firmly believe that the Montessori method gives us that elusive key to understanding and encouraging children through the toddler years. Let’s use it!