Toddler Tug-of-War; Why the toy is only half the battle

Two tiny toddlers make circles around the table, clomping in their oversized heels.  Around and around they go until one’s heel slips off.  The other one curiously leans over and picks it up, clomping on.  Upon noticing the loss of their shoe the other one throws her self on to the floor in tears. Out of curiosity the clomping buddy returns only to inadvertently begin a loud, tear filled shoe tug of war.

What exactly are toddlers looking for in this situation? What do they need from us as caretakers?

Many of us have been in the middle of a toddler tug of war.  More often than not we operate on instinct doing what is ‘right’ in an effort to keep everyone happy.   We often become right fighters, taking toys away or labeling children with abstract words like nice, friendly, mean etc.  Particularly with toddlers these attempts to impose what we see as socially accpetable behavior leave them confused.  The actions we hope will teach them confuse them often leaving them feeling deeply misunderstood.

So what are toddlers looking for from us when they are embroiled in an emotional tug-of-war?   They need us to stay calm first and foremost.  This can be really difficult if you see what seems like an egregious act of toy stealing.  We have to remember that toddlers are always examining the world and with it all manners of cause and effect.  What we see as “mean” or “aggressive” is simply a toddlers expression of their curiosity.  It may also be an outward manifestation of a difficult to manage emotion.  In any case all toddlers involved in the situation deserve to be heard and respected.  Our job isn’t to fix the situation but rather to help both children get back to a state of emotional equilibrium.

In a broader sense we have the responsibility to use these opportunities as teaching moments.  We can do this by talking through what we see.  By avoiding judgements and narrating the scene in front of us.  In the moment it can be hard to let the judgements go especially if one of the children is your own.  Everything inside of you screams “That was so mean! He was playing so nicely with that! How COULD you?!?” But if cooler heads prevail you will be able to give your child, as well as the other child, a better sense of how to properly handle themselves in future situations.

You will find that what toddlers really crave is to be understood.  If you can reflect back what happened to them and how you think they may be feeling this can calm the storm faster than grabbing a toy and handing it back.  When they are on either side of the emotional turmoil what they really want is for you to speak what they are feeling.  Not give them a toy. 


What the Mamma Taught the Teacher (2 of 2)

A little while back I wrote a post on how my expertise in early childhood education has been able to help me as my mother-self begins to emerge.  While it is true that there are many advantages to having such a history with children every mom knows there is nothing like being someone’s mom.  I had never before been so connected to another.  Never had I see the world so clearly through someone else’s eyes.  I can feel my own childhood through my son and I can feel everything he feels as he grows.

Yes, teaching informed my mothering but becoming a Mamma shifted my internal compass.  When I first starting teaching I had little to go on except my intuition.  I used a combination of culturally accepted ways of viewing children, ingrained models of parenting practices and what remained of my early childhood education (which I hardly remember but strongly feel affects me to this day).  I was gentle, I was kind but I was also overly set on order and control.

Here is what I have leared (so far!) :

  1. Control is only an illusion (and power struggles aren’t worth your time)  Very quickly after my son was born I was hit with the realization that he was his own person.  Complete even in his soft, floppy, newborn-ness.  Never would I be able to make him sleep, make him eat or make him stop crying.  I could do my best to set the environment most conducive to calming and sleep but the task was up to him.  As he has grown I have been shown that team work is what works.  In my classroom the children (remember they are only all of 18-20 months old) are my partners.  We work together to clean up, help our friends, calm our bodies for nap.  Raising my voice backfires every time, and even when it works it is so very short lived.  Letting go of control is difficult for me but I am not in this profession to be ‘in charge’. I am here to supplement the lives of the little ones in my care, here to help them be them.
  2. Crying is okay! Yep, I said it.  Children were not born with the ability to express themselves.  They were born with one tool of communication and it is crying.  When I was a teacher (pre-Mammadom) I felt it to be my job to “Shhh”, quiet or otherwise ‘fix’ every child in my care.  This is simply unfair to children, plugging emotions up only cause them to leak out elsewhere.  Instead, now I offer empathetic touch and verbalization.  Perhaps a child may cry harder when I comment on how difficult it is to see a parent leave but more than likely the rest of their day will be free of such distress.  Overstimulated babies often need to be gently held while they diffuse all of the goings on of the day.  I’d like to clearly state that I am not an advocate of cry-it-out or leaving babies to cry alone.  Now I see crying as communication and expression that deserves to be listened to.  You can not really know a child until you can sit with them in their most difficult moments and come out the other side.
  3. Children are who they are (despite their parents efforts)  This relates back to what I said in number one.  Your child is not a possession to be controlled.  They are individual human beings with thoughts, feelings and intrinsic motivation from the very beginning. I know we are all guilty of holding specific wishes for what our child will be, how they will behave or what type of temperament they will show us as they grow.  As teachers and parents our aim must be to know the child we are working with and adjust to the paradigm he sets before us.  Let your child guide you to where they need to be.  In the classroom this is reflected by rules that are flexible depending on the needs of the child. Contrary to what one might think, all the other children do not expect rules to change for them.  If they feel their needs are met they have no problems with other children getting their needs met, in fact they encourage it.
  4. Punishment is of no value  In the classroom it is my job to teach.  To guide children to where they desire to be.  Help them to understand society’s rules and structure while they learn to operate in it.  As a Mamma I have the same goal.  I do not desire to frighten my child into submission.  Punitive measures like time-out or yelling are frustrating and unhelpful to all parties invoved. In our home we have a harmonious environment where clear boundaries give Collin the ability to explore the world without fear.  In the classroom I attempt to build the same feeling.  Children know what is expected and they rise to the occasion.  Acting out (hitting, biting, etc) is treated as a learning experience.  In the case of significant behavioral issues there is always an underlying cause, always.  Children are not born bad, we just haven’t figured them out yet.
  5. Everything is a phase  Sometimes children go through phases that we won’t ever understand.  There may be a bout of biting, a period of time where someone doesn’t want to eat lima beans or wakes up every hour of the night.  As a parent it has been helpful for me to remind myself (often) that this too shall pass.  They will continue to grow and change.  This reminder makes it easier for me to support my son through any developmental phase he (we?) may encounter.  Maybe I will never know the why but I know the how and I can support him in this moment.  In the classroom I am significantly more aware of children’s phases.  It is easier for me to be supportive of a child who may suddenly become excessively whiney when I can put it in the context of a phase.  Sometimes I can narrow down the reasons (mom out of town? nearing a develpmental milestone?) other times I can’t.  It just helpt to know that what they need is support, not puishment.

I realize many of these theories overlap.  The major change for me has been my view of the child.  My respect for what a baby, toddler and preschooler can accomplish if given the proper support has multiplied daily as I watch my son grow.  The gift of parenting drives me to know all children like I know my son.  I know it is not possible to know their hearts as deeply as I know Collin’s but I also know that they deserve a teacher who tries her hardest to understand them. All children deserve the love and respect of someone who accepts them for who they are and while I would hope most children get this at home I will do my best to offer it at school.

As always thanks for reading! Teachers, Mammas please share your knowledge below.

“Don’t bang that chalk” and other things I DIDN’T say

Everyday in the classroom I fight against some ingrained notion of how things should be done. I fight against my need for cleanliness, order and control. I fight my own unrealistic expectations in order to allow my class the freedom to have power over their own learning.
I have always had a deep appreciation for play based learning but in the past I felt it was also my role to direct children in the proper way to move about the classroom.
Now we have one basic rule. Respect. Respect the materials. Respect your friends. Respect yourself. In a toddler classroom this is exhibited in daily interactions with those around us, gentle care of books and more fragile toys as well as having the space to say “No!” or “Stop it!” when needed.
For me this means thinking before I speak. Remembering the rule of respect. Respect for exploration. Respect for child led play. Respect for a toddlers needs, even if I don’t know what those needs are.

Today I didn’t say:

Stop banging that chalk on the paper!

Instead I evaluated what was really happening, despite the quite deafening sound of six toddlers banging sidewalk chalk on paper. They were exploring all parts of the chalk. Some gently rubbing their fingers in the chalk dust left behind. Others testing out different rhythmic patterns. Some just enjoying the mimicking of a friends behavior and the power of making such a loud noise. Not one was doing it to irritate me, they didn’t seem to have me in mind at all.

Puzzle pieces go in the puzzle. This is how the puzzle works.

This quote is part of my repertoire of quotes I say despite myself. It drives me nutty to see pieces all over the classroom. There are really lots of neat things that can happen for a toddler when they are allowed to explore with those pieces. They match like items by category, color and shapes(early math skills anyone??). Fill up purses and bags (hello spatial awareness) Use them to feed babies and other animals (yay for ALL that comes along with dramatic play!!)
Not to mention when I go to show the child how to use the puzzle it almost inevitably ends up with me doing the whole thing while they move on to something interesting to them.

Please stop whining, you are fine

Alright, to be honest this one crossed my mind but I rarely say things like this anymore. I will admit I used to, in an attempt to control the noise level of the class. Now I have a better grasp of what it means to let children own their emotion. I also believe deeply that this is an essential life skill. Even if it might irritate me in the short term, they have a right to feel what they feel.
I was put on edge by the fact that my Collin was having a particularly needy day even though I felt I was being very responsive. I wished for just a moment that I could ask him to knock it off and that he actually would. Then my compassion for his tiny emotional self flooded back and I knelt down to just hold him. As I hugged him and rubbed his back before nap I was able to put the dots together and surmise he may have been getting sick. Sure enough he woke up with a fever. What if I had dismissed his feelings or worse yet yelled at him when he was actually trying to show me something?

I feel as though everytime I close my mouth the children teach me something. The children and I would both have missed a bunch of great opportunities had I tried harder to control the order in the classroom. I also may have missed connecting to my son while he was coming down with something and really giving him the gentle words and cuddles he needed. I feel grateful for the training that has helped me learn to teach outside the box. I am also grateful to my class who forgive me when I do say the wrong things so I can try again tomorrow.

Naps in Toy Land

There is a time of the day that is slowly becoming more and more difficult for me. Naptime. This is not your normal “toddler resisting nap” story. This is the story of one woman, six toddlers and some new challenges.
In the past I have always been somewhat proud of my ability to gently calm a group of toddlers to sleep and keep them asleep for 2+ hours. That was before my son was in the mix.
Now most days I struggle to get him down around noon when the others sleep and am lucky if he gets a good hour and a half sleep.
This struggle is two fold. My boy is a great sleeper at home. Through gentle sleep techniques we have helped guide him to a place where he puts himself to sleep and sleeps comfortably. We read books, give cuddles and say night night. He talks himself to sleep most days saying good night to the experiences and people he has come in contact with through the day. School days consist of a totally different routine. It is eat, lay down on your mat, go to sleep. For a child who hasn’t slept while out ‘n about since about four months this is a most difficult task! It is quite a struggle for me to stay calm and consistent with the message that it’s time to lay down, calm our body, rest our voice.
I also feel an internal struggle as I pat his back everyday. I love that he knows his body so well and is able to get himself comfortable, I hate feeling like I am interfering in this process. Somedays (like today) he needs more help to calm his body down and that means I take some of this control away from him. I also know he would love more of a calming routine prior to nap but how can I fairly read to him while telling others to lie down? Personally I couldn’t sleep in a room full of light and exciting toys so I am empathetic to the difficulty he has. In a perfect world we would have more control of our napping situation.
In many ways we are an anomaly. He and I in the classroom together in center based care. Having to be responsive to many children’s and teacher’s needs. Without the freedom to change much. The burden is on me to stay consistent and calm. To model appropriate behavior and do what’s best for all of us. Here’s hoping…