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Back to basics
Child guidance: Toddlers


Between the ages of 12 and 36 months, children explore, test, and insist, “Me do it!” As toddlers strive for independence, they benefit from the guidance techniques established in infancy. That is, adults anticipate their needs, childproof the environment, and use distraction, substitution, and redirection to support positive social growth and emotional self-regulation.

Walking and talking—important milestones in toddlerhood—are skills to celebrate and can bring new challenges to social harmony. As for all children, the first principle is safety. Supervise closely and arrange the environment and activities so that you can see all the children all the time. Be alert to potential dangers: If Abby starts to poke a crayon into Joshua’s ear or Henry is teetering too close to the edge of the slide, act immediately.


Set clear limits
Think of guidance as education. We teach children what the limits are and help them learn the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The job is to help children develop a sense of self-control and self-regulation.
Make short, simple rules. Avoid long explanations.
Respect the toddlers’ developing memory. Give frequent reminders and expect to show the acceptable behavior again and again.
Avoid insisting on sharing—something few toddlers can understand or execute.
Arrange the environment to communicate your expectations about behaviors.
Provide duplicates of toys and materials to avoid squabbles over possession and territory.


Give choices
Help toddlers develop a sense of their own power (and emotional self-regulation) by offering choices when you can. Ask, for example, “Would you like applesauce or pudding?” or “Would you like the flower puzzle or the animal puzzle?” Make sure either option is safe, and acceptable to you. Communicating your preference with body language or through manipulation defeats the purpose of the choice.

Sometimes you’ll need to state a directive rather than offer a choice. When it’s time for a diaper change, for example, say, “Time to change your diaper,” rather than “Do you want me to change your diaper?” The first phrase establishes a behavioral expectation, while the second invites negativity and a power struggle. This is not a situation in which compliance is optional!


It’s how you say it
Children learn acceptable behavior by interacting with other children and adults. Use these guidelines when you’re negotiating behavioral missteps with toddlers.
Get close to the child instead of calling across the room. Kneel down so that you are at the child’s eye level. Speak softly and directly.
Make sure you have the child’s attention before you state the limit. “Daniel.” (Wait until Daniel looks up from his drawing.) “Keep the crayon on the paper. Look, we’ll have to clean the red mark off the table.”
Translate don’t into do. Some rules like “No hitting” may be best stated in the negative. It’s forceful and communicates anticipated danger. Most rules, however, can be expressed in such a way that you’re offering children information on how to perform the acceptable behavior. Rather than “Don’t run,” your might say, “Running is something we do on the playground. Walk in the classroom.” Or “Andrea, when Oliver tries to take the wagon, say, ‘No, it’s mine.’”
Label feelings. Just as children learn names of objects and people, they need to learn names for feelings, both physical and emotional. “Chris, your droopy eyes tell me you’re ready for nap.” “Madison, your loud voice tells us you’re angry.”
Anticipate. Careful observations will tell you what’s happening before a behavioral misstep happens. Are the children sleepy, hungry, bored, or hot? Simple changes in the schedule or the environment may be the cure for biting epidemics, squabbles over toys, and tantrums.