Trying to Understand Toddler Behavior

I’ve been doing a lot of posts about working with my son, so I thought I’d sneak one in about toddlers. My daughter is 2 1/2, so she’s nearing the end of the 0-3 cycle. Still, much of the work we do could be considered 0-3, and definitely many of the behaviors she exhibits are 0-3!

Now that I’ve had two kids of my own, I do have to look back and laugh about some of my misconceptions about toddler behavior when I was first starting out as a teacher. I remember one little boy, in particular, who had just turned 3. One situation that stands out in my mind was when he did the handwashing work. He got everything out with no problem, poured the water in the basin, washed his hands with the soap, and then just as he was ready to clean up, he completely lost it and threw the basin of water to the ground.

I remember being baffled – I asked the directress if there was something wrong with this little boy. Now I chuckle when I see my daughter do a work perfectly on her rug, and then rather than cleaning it up and putting it away in the same manner, she throws the cards/basket/beads/puzzle off of the rug. Why does this happen?

There can be several reasons. One is that the child faces inconsistency in different environments. Perhaps at home (or grandma’s), they don’t have to clean up their own work. So when they are expected to do it during school time, they have a meltdown. Also, at this age children are very easily frustrated. They may be relieved to be done with the work, and unable to summon up the emotional and physical energy needed to put it away.

The important thing is to be consistent in your expectations and clear in your directions. When my daughter is frustrated, I give her two options: putting the work away herself, or letting me help her. But not putting it away at all is not an option.

When she is especially fussy, I try to remember what a friend of mine – a wonderful 0-3 directress – told me once. She runs a beautiful toddler class at a school where I once taught. But at the beginning of the year, especially, there would be a lot of fussing and crying coming from her classroom (it was an all-day program and the children took awhile to get adjusted to it). I asked her once how she could put up with it. She replied that rather than focus on stopping the crying, she focused on trying to figure out why they were crying – and solve the underlying problem.

I think of this often when my daughter is frustrated or fussy. It’s not random – there’s something going on that she’s trying to express through her tears. I’ve found that a gentle “Can you tell me what’s wrong?” works much better to stop the tears than “Please stop crying”. The first question makes us partners in solving the underlying cause of her frustration.

I had intended to share some sources of toddler manuals and materials, but that will have to wait for next time!