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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 him 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.

The Many Levels of Behavior

With child behavior, there is almost always much more than meets the eye. Because it occurs on so many different levels, child behavior that seems simple and routine can often be much more complex and meaningful.

For example, a toddler's chronic pattern of getting into cupboards, drawers and closed rooms, even after being told not to, could easily be perceived as simple mischief. When the toddler's parents view the behavior on that level, they see it as unacceptable and worthy of discipline. But the behavior also could be viewed on a more complex and meaningful level as child exploration. At that level, a child might soldier on to achieve future discoveries even when he regularly encounters an angry parent who gives consequences to make the behavior stop. When parents are able to see that the child's behavior is not mere disobedience, but is born out of natural curiosity (a good trait), they are more likely to accept and appropriately monitor it. And although the behavior may merit cautionary responses to ensure the child's safety, it is less likely to lead to discipline.

There are countless other examples. A young child taking a goldfish out of its bowl may on the surface seem like just a mischievous behavior. But it also could be the child's innocent attempt to express physical affection to a pet.

The point is that child behavior often can appear to be oppositional, selfish or generally unacceptable if viewed only at its very basic level. However, the same behavior also can involve something broader and more meaningful. This doesn't mean the behavior should be ignored, especially if it is inappropriate. But by looking at the bigger picture of a child's behavior, parents can gain a fuller understanding of what they're dealing with and exercise more flexibility in how they respond.

Teaching Activity

Walk in Their Shoes

Put yourself in the shoes of your toddler this week. Focus very hard on trying to understand why he or she does things. Spend your free time actively playing with your child. Do what he or she is doing without interrupting, and let your toddler explore and figure things out on his or her own. Keep an eye out for specific misbehaviors during the week and correct them with as few words as possible. Pay particular attention when your toddler misbehaves, and try to determine if your toddler is using the behavior to get a need met at another level. Then address the behavior by teaching your child another way to get the need met in an appropriate way.

Social Skills

Accepting "No" for an Answer

This is one of the best social skills your child can learn because it is one he or she will use often! The steps are simple:

  • Look - Look at the person.
  • Say - Say "Okay."
  • Calm - Stay Calm.
  • Later - If you disagree, ask later.

It helps to write down the steps of this skill (or any skill you are teaching) and hang them on the fridge. When you are teaching, you can walk over and read the steps aloud as you teach your child how to accept "No" for an answer.

Coming up in Issue 4

The Ins and Outs of Using Time-Out


Practice Time-Out


Introducting Yourself

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