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Toddler email series - issue​​​​1234​5

​The ​More We Talk… The Less They Learn.

If children learned primarily through listening, child behavior experts would go out of business.

Adults talk on and on to children, thinking they're teaching them how to behave. But most of what is said goes in one ear of a child and out the other. Children learn mainly by doing and by experiencing the results of what they have done. For example, they are much more likely to learn and understand why they should wear a coat on a chilly day because putting one on made them warm when they were cold than because they heard countless warnings from their parents about catching cold if they don't.

A child's brain can't always grasp adult concepts. It's important to discipline them at their level of understanding.

Another reason excessive talking doesn't translate to child learning is because children don't understand adult language as well as we think they do. For instance, children have difficulty seeing that two things that don't look alike can be similar. Adults can easily tell that a birthday cake and a loaf of bread have similarities (e.g., both are made with flour, both have been baked) while young children usually cannot. So telling a toddler he is being disciplined for a misbehavior that is "just like" a misbehavior that got him in trouble last week may confuse him because he doesn't understand they are similar. All he knows for sure is that his mom or dad is mad at him — again.

Another kind of adult talk that can get in the way of a child learning involves time-based concepts. For example, a dad who learns that his toddler daughter is having behavior problems at day care may try to tell her she won't do well in kindergarten if she keeps acting that way. But a toddler can barely think about what's going to happen the next day let alone something that is months or years away. Using these extended time-based concepts to get through to a toddler usually goes nowhere.

Teaching Activity

Short and Sweet Statements

For this week, keep your statements short and simple when teaching your children a positive behavior you want them to use or a negative behavior you want them to stop using. A good rule to follow is limiting your explanations to one or two words for every year of the child's age. For example, if your toddler is 3, try to describe a positive behavior in no more than six words. When you're just talking to your child, providing important information or just having fun, there really is no limit to how much you can say. But for teaching moments, make excessive and hard-to-understand language off limits for the week.

Social Skills

Building Listening Skills

The steps for teaching your toddler how to listen better are pretty easy. They are:

  • Look - Stop what you are doing and look at the person who's talking.
  • Say - Say "Okay" so the person knows you are listening.

You also can let your child know when it's time to "actively listen." Use catch-phrases like "1, 2, 3… look at me!" or "Give me five… minutes of your time!" to let him or her know it's time to pay attention and listen. You can even help your child come up with other catch-phrases they like.

Moving from Control to Self-Control

Self-control is learned behavior, and all ​parents would like their children to have more of it. In order to learn self-control, however, children first must learn to let their parents control them. Following instructions is a good example. First, children have to learn to follow their parents' instructions. Over time, they then learn to follow instructions they give themselves. The same holds true for following rules, which are just "formal" types of instructions.

Here's an example of how this process works: A parent teaches his toddler son not to touch the DVD player by using a small amount of discipline like a brief time-out every time the toddler touches the player. The toddler's behavior won't change right away; in fact, he will probably touch the DVD player many times and spend a lot of time in time-out before he learns the rule of not touching the item. But with enough repetition, the toddler will eventually make the connection.

Then the toddler might approach the DVD player, but veer away without touching it. Being close to the DVD player has begun to make the toddler feel uncomfortable because he associates it with the discomfort of time-out. Now he is following his own instruction not to touch the machine. The same thing happens with appropriate behaviors, too. A parent praises a child to make his or her child feel good about doing the right thing. The child eventually begins to feel good about using the behavior and does it even when the parent is not around.

So when a parent teaches a child to follow a simple instruction or rule, there is a lot more going on. In short, parents who successfully manage their toddlers' behavior through teaching and discipline are laying the groundwork for their children to use self-control — managing their behavior on their own.

Teaching Activity

Working on Misbehavior

Spend the entire week working with your child on one misbehavior you would like him or her to correct. Come up with a small but manageable consequence you can give the child every time he or she displays this behavior. Consistently address the behavior and give the consequence throughout the week. Also, be sure to praise your child when he or she doesn't use the behavior. Hopefully, you will start to see some self-control emerge in your child as he or she learns the misbehavior-consequence connection.

Social Skills

Following Instructions

The steps for teaching your toddler how to follow instructions are pretty easy. They are:

  • Look - Look at the person who is talking to you.
  • Say - Say "Okay" as soon as the person is done.
  • Do - Do what you've been asked to do right away.
  • Check Back - Check back when you're finished.

Play the game "Simon Says" with your toddler and start with fun tasks to help him or her practice following instructions.

Coming up in Issue 3

The Many Levels of Behavior


Walk in Their Shoes


Accepting "No" for an Answer

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