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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Coping with toddlers joyfully

I know, I know. If you've actually GOT a toddler of your own, you're shaking your head with a cynical mouth and saying 'yeah, RIGHT!'

Toddlers can be incredibly trying. I've been reminded of that by the last two weeks. I've been working full-time in a toddlers' room in long day care, and now here it is Saturday and I'm exhausted! Pity the poor mum and dad who don't get weekends away from Toddlerland.

The best I can do is pass on some stories from the last fortnight, to explain why I'm smiling with joy  through my exhaustion, rather than 'shaking my head with a cynical mouth'.

Let's start with 'Jakob'. Jakob, who is nearly 3, was running full-bore around the yard with a push-along Tonka truck. Heaven help anything that got in his way, including the other 15 toddlers present.

I asked him to be careful not to crash into the other children, and he immediately interpreted this as 'hmm, I've got her attention!' Toddlers do that, especially when you're busy. He started crashing the truck into other kids' trucks.

He got my attention, alright! I walked over, crouched down and held onto his truck to stop him running, which of course made him look at me and put me at his eye level. I took a deep breath to make sure my 'calm, controlled' voice came out (instead of my 'this is day 6 of irrational destructive behaviour and I'm OVER IT' voice).

'Jakob, STOP. I won't let you break our toys.  If you crash into things I'll put your truck back in the shed.'

He did it again, crashed into another truck- not as hard. You could almost hear his thoughts... 'Testing! Testing!' as he looked over his shoulder at me.

Repeat performance from me; I usually give a chance or two as long as they're not in danger of serious injury to themselves or others. 'Jakob, the truck will go in the shed next time you crash with it.'  Calmly but firmly.

Bash! into the climbing frame.

I prised his fingers off the truck and put it in the shed. He roared with rage, then burst into loud tears.

I sat down beside him and spoke quietly to him. 'I know you're angry and sad because I put the truck away, but I won't let you hit with it.' He continued to sob. 'It's okay to sit there and cry if you're sad. Now I'm just going over there to watch the kids in the sandpit.'

After about three minutes he stopped crying and found something else to do.

The next day he did exactly the same thing, and so did I.

The day after that- the same thing. You have to give him marks for persistence.

It happened nearly every day for two weeks. Sometimes he ran the truck into another child, in which case I went straight to Step 3- truck in shed- and 'I won't let you hurt the other children'.

So what's so special about this story? I seemed to make no progress in changing Jakob's behaviour.  But I was able to monitor the real effect on Jakob by paying attention to his attachment behaviour instead of his annoying behaviour.

I had started out as a 'new' person in his room, and at first he wanted very little to do with me. But by day 3 of our relationship, Jakob was turning to me for his positive activities- he wanted me to be the one to read him a story, he wanted me to help him make a car ramp, he wanted me to cuddle him when he was sad at the end of the day because other kids' mums were arriving and his hadn't appeared yet. Despite me constantly taking his truck away, Jakob identified me as a positive resource.

Can you imagine how heartwarming it was for me, when that little hand slipped into mine at the end of the day after all our battles? This is the relationship you want with a toddler- he tests you, you stay calm but firm, he chucks a paddy, you acknowledge his feelings but stay firm, and then he acknowledges you as his guide. There is nothing sweeter.  The 'calm CEO' approach, explained here by Janet Lansbury, is foolproof if you do want to stay friends with your toddler.

Another trying behaviour is the whole 'chaotic mess' thing. Toddlers are really fabulous at making messes and really terrible at cleaning them up. One day I had half a dozen of them systematically throwing buckets, cups and shovelfuls of sand OUT of the sandpit onto our paths, whence I would have to somehow return it to its rightful home at the end of the day (oh joy; one really feels like shovelling sand at 5pm after a day of caring for 16 kids under 4. Not.).

This is where it pays to get smart, not angry. I went to the shed and got the biggest shovel I could find, which happened to be a proper adult, metal one, and started quietly scooping the sand back into the sandpit.

'Let me do it! I want to do it!' Suddenly I had six enthusiastic helpers, all wanting a go of my real shovel.  Children love real tools- just ask Teacher Tom (this post of his is all about two-year-olds in his care using real hammers and nails- true!!).

I only had one real shovel, and it was a big one.  'This shovel is too tall for you, see? But you could use those ones' (pointing to the largest of our plastic shovels).

The point wasn't that they got all the sand back in the sandpit- of course they didn't. But they stopped throwing it out, which helped me keep my temper; they identified my job as a 'real' job they wanted to do too (so changed task of their own free will), and they had a heap of fun as well as still developing their muscle strength and co-ordination.

Time to clean up? Make it a game. Pick up a teddy and get teddy picking up the toys for you. Talk to a doll about what you're doing. Say to yourself, 'I think I'll pick up all the red bits of Duplo', and watch the child join in with their favourite colour.

And if they still won't co-operate? Walk away, defuse the situation, don't sweat the small stuff. It's not life threatening. Deal with it later, when you're not cranky and have more resources.

My last little tale is about playing with toddlers.  It's all about what interests them right now. You're pretty safe to guess that anything that relates to their own daily existence will interest them, but you might be surprised at how seemingly pedestrian the sources of fascination can be.

Like, for example, the whole toilet-training thing, which can be such a source of frustration and grief to both you and your toddler if you let it. I can assure you that I feel your pain, after cleaning up daily 'accidents' when children who were 'in training' refused to go to the toilet before going outside to play or going to sleep at nap time. You can end up angry and frustrated, and toddlers can feel like failures.  Even toddlers can feel embarrassment, you know.

But you can defuse a lot of that bad feeling by incorporating toileting into play. We were dressing the dolls, and one child pointed out that the doll didn't have a nappy on- and presented me with an ordinary pair of doll knickers as a 'nappy'.

'That's not a nappy, is it?' I said. 'Hang on, I'll have to go to the shops and buy some nappies.' And off I zoomed in my imaginary car (cue sound effects) to get some paper towels and sticky tape from the high shelves.

As I made a paper towel 'nappy' for the baby doll, done up with sticky tape 'tabs', looks of recognition dawned on the faces of the little group.  Other children came over to watch (you don't always have to make noise to attract toddlers' attention- sometimes they will 'feel' the silence and go to investigate), and soon they were finding every single doll in the room and demanding nappies for them all.  Some even brought their cuddly sleep time toys for a 'clean nappy'. As I worked away at 'changing' all the dolls, we talked about toilet training in the most casual way; situations that can be loaded with emotions in real life are defused when you use toys as a medium.

Soon the children were experimenting with taking the 'nappies' off, of course, and then trying to do them up again. The room leader came over to see what on earth had caused about 13 lively toddlers to sit down on the floor, totally engaged, for nearly 15 minutes. Meanwhile I was explaining the cutting edge of the sticky tape dispenser to some of the children, showing them that it was sharp; no-one cut their finger, though it was available to all of them down there on the floor.

It's about interest. It's about recognition of care routines and empowering children- even very young children- to be active participants. Some took a doll with them to the nappy table when it was time to be changed, and demanded it be 'changed' too. I used dolls and personal teddies as a way of encouraging 'training' children to the bathroom, and let the child tell the teddy or doll what to do to use the 'real' toilet. It changed the game and took away the negatives and the pressure.

My last tip? The words I used the most in the last two weeks were 'Do you want me to help you, or can you do it by yourself?' When things had to happen- because this was a care centre, not a home, and often we had to conform to staffing and time-based parameters- that was the 'choice' presented to the children. Having a choice empowered them to do the right thing unassisted, and it was successful probably 80% of the time.

If you give toddlers agency and realistic choices, you might be surprised how often they choose wisely.


  1. Aunt Annie, so many heartwarming vignettes here! I was especially struck by "Despite me constantly taking his truck away, Jakob identified me as a positive resource." I have had this experience *so* many times in so many ways...with my own children and others. I'd be feeling a little bad about being the "strict one" for setting limits. But then, it would be proven to me that children truly perceive this as "she cares about me". Children feel safe and comfy with us when they know we are "on top of it" with them, don't you agree?

    Thank you for the shout-out...I'm a big fan of Aunt Annie!

  2. Thanks Janet; I know what you're saying about the fear of being the Big Bad Wolf who spoils the game. But I'm finding the more I use this strategy, the more confident I become- because it WORKS. And yes, Jakob certainly managed to express that he felt 'safe and comfy' with me setting limits for him- even if he couldn't say those words.

  3. Like Janet, I was also struck by your "positive resource" comment. It brought tears to my eyes, actually. I will be sharing your post with my husband. We're expecting our first and have had many great parenting discussions already. We're very much into keeping and enforcing respectful boundaries, and it was great to be reminded that this will result in trust. Thank you!


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