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 Teacher Taught the Mamma (1 of 2)

When you are a preschool teacher with no children there is a phrase you hear on a regular basis. It is not said with disdain but it is said with confidence. Uttered by the mothers (and fathers) we work along side, the single teachers among us hear the phrase and secretly think they know better. It goes something like this…

“It is different when it is your own child.”

I admit that when I heard it I always thought something along the lines of “Yeah, but I’d still never let my child do [fill in the blank with some undesirable/socially unacceptable action]” but guess what? It is oh so different when it is your own child.

Years and years and YEARS of teaching preschool, directing preschool, nannying and babysitting couldn’t ever prepare anyone for becoming a Mamma. Being a Mamma isn’t being pregnant, it isn’t setting rules or just wiping noses and buns. It is so much more and no one else will ever be able to be your child’s Mamma.

As I grow into my Mamma self what I thought I knew has fallen away like a discarded cheerio. My teacher self has grown alongside my Mamma self as I view the world of children in a new, brighter light. There are large parts of my teaching history that have informed my parenting thus far and my parenting style has begun to change my teaching for the better. This is the first in a set of posts where I will attempt to reflect on the major ways each side has influenced each other.

What the Teacher Taught the New Mamma:

  1. Environment matters and it matters a lot. The Reggio Emilia teaching philosophy calls the environment the third teacher. I respect that notion in my classroom and my home. From the youngest age children need a simple selection of open ended toys that they are able to access and work with towards mastery (of the toy or a particular skill they are working on). When setting up an art activity, sensory exploration or playing with play dough keep in mind how easily the children can reach the materials to be used. Do their feet touch the floor, can they adjust themselves easily? How are materials presented? Try to imagine everything from your children’s perspective. Things like lighting, noise, and temperature of a room can enhance or interfere with a child’s experience. This goes for all times of day or parts of your child’s schedule. Calm music, dim lighting and a warm room go a long way to a relaxed sleeping baby.
  2. Modulate your voice Using your voice properly can be your best parenting or teaching tool. Speaking in a soft whisper can inspire a room of twenty two year olds to gather, stop and listen quietly. Or it can inspire your own child to focus and listen more closely to what you are actually saying to them. Turning directions into a song can get shoes on more quickly and children out the door. Firmly and evenly expressing that a behavior is inappropriate has a much more meaningful effect than yelling ever could. If you are yelling in a effort to get your child(ren) to calm down it usually has the opposite effect. Children feel before they listen. If they feel heightened energy in the room they will respond in kind, if they feel happiness they will join in the activity (even if it is cleaning up!) if they feel calm they will slowly calm down too.
  3. Children need structure and flexibility and they need them at the same time. Structure or schedule without the room for a little extra time spent chasing an ant up a tree or finishing a block tower puts limits on a child’s natural desire to follow their curiosity, learn, explore and play. All children, however, deserve an environment that (on most days at least) is predicable, safe and helps meet their needs. I see it as schedules without stress. Let your child guide you, they will show you if they need an earlier nap, are hungrier than usual or if they are learning so much from digging in the sand they need an extra ten minutes.
  4. If you feel like something isn’t working, its not You carefully plan an art activity but your toddler would rather throw collage materials on the floor. You sit down for snack and your child repeatedly asks to get down, smooches food around and throws it on the floor. If something is too hard, stop it. Let it go. Give up your idea of how things should have gone and give it up quickly. There is no point in trying to convince a child they are hungry or trying to get them motivated to do an activity they are not interested in. Move on or in the case of an activity let them show you what the activity was supposed to be in the first place.
  5. Actions speak louder than words Whoever first spoke these words was most likely working with children. If you tell a child from across the room to clean up while standing still, hands on hips staring at them its likely you’ll get the same in return. If you begin walking towards the toys and hand them a box to put them in they’ll start throwing toys in. You need to put yourself into action. Speak with your body, your eyes and your heart.

While we try to teach our children all about life, Our children teach us what life is all about. ~Angela Schwindt

“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.

The storm within-Dealing with a toddler’s emotional self

In an earlier post I spoke of being honest with my own emotions. I think that it is deeply important we are honest about our feelings in a simple and age appropriate way with the children that inhabit our lives.  They deserve to see that we have bad days too.  They have much to gain from watching those they love in their lives grow and recover from minor or major emotional issues in life.

Sometimes I have found that it is far easier for me to be honest about my emotions than to let the children around me express theirs freely.  This can be for many reasons.  Sometimes I see myself prejudging their experience, “Oh you’re okay!”, even though I should know better.  Other times I just find myself trying to fix things in order to help keep my toddler happy or calm, again…I should know better.  Finally, at the end of a long week when the kids around me are worn out, sick of being away from home and need more than I can give (I know every preschool teacher has been there) I just lose the patience to tune into each individual emotion.  In those cases I just want to do ANYTHING to get them to be quiet.

An article by Janet Lansbury that describes a small girl’s emotional expression of grief as she comes upon a squished snail got me thinking about how frequently we cut children’s emotions off at the core.  Especially with toddlers.  With their less than stellar language ability, lack of self-control and healthy lungs it can be difficult to let a toddler’s emotions run the gamut on a daily basis.  For those of us that work with toddlers we often mistakenly use tools like distraction to halt emotions in their tracks.  In many ways it is what we have been taught to do. Keep our babies ‘happy’.  There must be something wrong with a crying baby.  With the best of intentions we try to quiet the emotional storm that is attempting to work itself out inside the mind of a toddler.  This work is born of love but is it the best we can do for our babies?

I would argue that it is not.  In this article on toddler’s grief the toddler is allowed to go through their own process of feeling for the snail (who probably seemed like a friend to them).  This included an obvious period of cathartic toddler tears.  Then the toddler, allowed to work though things on their own, helped heal herself and move on. This toddler must have had many chances to feel through the issues and struggles that weave their way through her daily life.  If she can do this now (and I know many of us still have issues with processing pain, loss and grief in an effective way) how much easier will her path be as an adult? What then does this mean for children who aren’t as lucky?

In our ever changing society we need increased resilience to life’s many challenges.  As parents and caregivers it is our responsibility to trust children from the very beginning in the knowledge of their emotions.  The phrase ‘You’re okay!’ should be wiped from our collective memory.  Instead I would like to replace it with a sensitive adult who will sit by with quiet empathy as they go through what they will.  I don’t want to confuse the issue by in any way implying that children should be left alone with their emotions.  To the contrary I feel that children, especially young toddlers and preschoolers, should be well supported during emotional stresses.  We just need to be careful we aren’t stopping them in their tracks.

I aim to sit on my hands, bite my tongue and take deep breaths as I let Collin (and our daily troupe of buddies) reach into the deepest parts of their emotional selves.  Even as every bone in my body might tell me to just get that baby quiet, or as strangers stare in a public place.  I WILL give him the freedom of emotion he deserves because he deserves it now, and because he will better handle emotions on his own one day if he knows freedom now.

Just jump in!

I ‘started’ this blog a few weeks ago and today I will write my first post. I don’t know what was holding me back exactly. Yes, I am a full time working mom of a toddler. Yes, I cook a home cooked meal most nights of the week. Recently I have become magically better at keeping up with laundry (is this as skill that just grows from within once you give birth?) Did I mention that I teach toddlers, all about the same age as my son, ALL DAY LONG?

But that isn’t what was holding me back. It is a fear or insecurity from deep within. Something that tells me “Oh no! What if you do it and it isn’t perfect?” or *gasp* “What if you do it and people think it sucks?”
Watching my son and his buddies play today I was inspired to let it all go. They know nothing of this world. Just tiny 18,20 and 22 month old babes. Giggling, running around the room with crepe paper ‘tails’ singing, dancing and falling all over themselves. As I joined in laughing and smiling right along with them I felt free. This is why I love my profession, why I love my life, why I feel so blessed to watch my beautiful boy grow up. Not one toddler in the group stops to wonder what another might think. To the contrary they are constantly pushing limits to see what happens. Why can’t I?
They jump in and explore the tastiest parts of life. The most exciting, the deeply emotional, the physical and the challenging. So WHY CAN’T I?

In honor of my son, Collin, the joy of my life. I will put fingers to keyboard. I will document our lives together. I will throw caution to the wind. No more won’ts or can’ts.
This is me learning to be a mommy, guiding many little hearts through the day and hopefully getting dinner on the table on time. Oh! I forgot the laundry! 😉