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Toddler email series - issue​​​​12345

​​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.

The Ins and Outs of Using Time-Out

Time-out is a way of disciplining your child for misbehavior without raising your hand or your voice. It involves removing your child from the good stuff in life for a short time immediately following a misbehavior.

Time-out for children is like a penalty for a hockey player. When a hockey player misbehaves on the ice, he has to go to the penalty box for two minutes. The referee does not scream at, threaten or hit the player. He merely blows the whistle and points to the penalty area. During his penalty time, the player is not allowed to play, only watch. Hockey players don't like penalties because they would rather be playing hockey than watching.

Keep this hockey comparison in mind when you use time-out with your child. Children usually do not like time-out because it keeps them from doing the things they like (playing, doing puzzles, having fun with you). Over time, children decrease or stop using negative misbehaviors so they can avoid time-out and continue doing the things they enjoy.

Here are some tips for effectively using time-out with your child.

Where should the time-out area be located?

  • You do not have to use the same area each time; just make sure the location is convenient for you.
  • Whatever spot you choose, a chair, a step, a footstool, a bench or a couch, will work.
  • Make sure the area is well-lit and free from all dangerous objects, and that your child cannot watch TV or play with toys.

How long should time-out last?

  • The upper limit should be one quiet minute for every year of your child's age. So if you have a 2-year-old, aim for two quiet minutes.
  • Your child probably won't like going to time-out, so keep in mind that it may take some time to get him or her to stay quiet for those two minutes. This is especially true when you first start using time-out and your child doesn't quite know the rules and cannot believe you are doing this to him or her.
  • Remember, discipline works best when you stay calm.

How does time-out work?

  • Immediately following a problem behavior, tell your child what he or she did and take him or her to time-out.
  • For example, you might say, "No hitting. Go to time-out." Say this calmly and only once. Do not reason or give long explanations to your child. If your child does not go willingly, take him or her to time-out, using as little force as needed. For example, hold your daughter gently by the hand or wrist and walk to the time-out area. Or, carry her facing away from you (so that she does not confuse a hug and a trip to time-out).
  • Avoid giving your child a lot of attention while he or she is being put in time-out. Say nothing! Do not argue with, threaten or spank your child.
  • Begin the time when your child is calm and quiet. If your child is crying or throwing a tantrum, it does not count toward the required time. If you start the time when your child is quiet but he or she starts to cry or tantrum, wait until your child is quiet again and then start the time over.
  • Once the time is up, your child must be seated and quiet to get out of time-out. Using a timer can be helpful but it's not necessary. If you use one, remember the timer is to remind you that time-out is over, not your child.

What counts as quiet time?

  • Generally, quiet time is when your child is not angry or upset, and is not yelling or crying. It's up to you to decide when your child is calm and quiet.
  • Fidgeting and "happy talk" should usually count as being calm and quiet. For example, if your son sings or talks softly to himself, that counts as quiet time.
  • Some children do what we call "dieseling," which is the quiet sniffling that usually follows a tantrum. Since a "dieseling" child is usually trying to stop crying but cannot find the off switch, this also should be counted as quiet time.

What if the child leaves the area before time is up?

  • Say nothing! Calmly (and physically, if necessary) return your child to the step or chair.
  • For children who are 2- to 4-years-old, unscheduled departures from the chair are a chronic problem early in the time-out process. Stay calm and keep returning the child to the chair. If you tire or become angry, invite your spouse (or any adult who is nearby) to assist you as a tag-team partner.
  • If you are alone and become overly tired or angry, retreat with honor. But when help arrives or your strength returns, set the stage for another time-out.

What if my child misbehaves in the chair?

  • Say nothing and ignore everything that is not dangerous to child, yourself and the furniture.
  • What do we mean by nothing? We mean not anything, the absence of something, the empty set, the amount of money you have when you have spent it all, the result of two minus two or what zero equals. Nothing.
  • Most of your child's behavior in the chair is an attempt to get you to react and say something, anything. So expect the unexpected. Children may spit up, wet themselves, blow their nose on their clothes, strip, throw things, make unkind comments about your parenting skills, or simply say they do not love you anymore. Do not worry. They will love you again when their time is up.

When should I use time-out?

  • When you first start, use it for only one or two problem behaviors.
  • After your child has learned how to "do" time-out, you can expand the list of problem behaviors.
  • Problem behaviors generally fall into three categories:
    • 1. Anything that is dangerous to self or others
    • 2. Defiance and/or noncompliance
    • 3. Obnoxious or bothersome behavior
  • Use time-out for "1" and "2" and ignore anything in category "3." If you cannot ignore something, move it into category "2" by issuing an instruction (e.g., "Take the goldfish out of the toilet."). Then if the child does not comply, you can use time-out for noncompliance.
  • Use time-out as consistently as possible. For example, try to place your child in time-out every time he or she uses a targeted behavior. It's impossible to do this 100 percent of the time, but be as consistent as you can so your child learns the connection between his or her behaviors and the consequence of time-out.

What do I do when time is up?

  • When the time-out is over, ask your child, "Are you ready to get up?" Your child must answer yes in some way (or nod yes) before you give permission for him or her to get up.
  • Do not talk about why the child went to time-out, how the child behaved while there, or how you want your child to behave in the future. In other words, do not nag.
  • If your child says "No," answers in an angry tone of voice, or will not answer all, start the time-out over again.
  • If you placed your child in time-out for not following an instruction, repeat the instruction. This will help your child learn that you mean business. It also gives your child a chance to behave in a positive way that you can praise.
  • If your child still does not obey the instruction, then place him or her in time-out again. In addition, add in a few other easy-to-follow, one-step commands. If he or she follows them, praise the performance. If not, the child stays in time-out for the required time.
  • Use these opportunities to teach your child to follow your instructions when those instructions are delivered in a normal tone of voice without being repeated.
  • Generally, try to end time-out with praise for good behavior. Once time-out is over, reward your child for using the behaviors you want him or her to use; catch your child being good.

Should I explain the rules of time-out to my child?

  • Yes. Before using time-out, simply explain the rules to your child once during a time when he or she is not misbehaving.
  • Tell your child what problem behaviors time-out will be used for and how long it will last.
  • Practice using time-out with your child before you actually use it in response to a negative behavior. While practicing, remind your child you are "pretending" this time. They will still go ballistic when you do your first real time-outs, but you will have done your part to explain the "fine print."

Teaching Activity

Practice Time-Out

Practice time-out using these steps:

  • Choose time-out areas.
  • Explain time-out to your child.
  • Use time-out every time the problem behaviors occur.
  • Be specific and brief when you explain why your child must go to time-out.
  • Do not talk to or look at your child during time-out.
  • If your child leaves the time-out area, return him or her with no talking.
  • Your child must be calm and quiet to leave time-out once time is up.
  • Your child must politely answer "Yes" when you ask, "Would you like to get up?" after the time-out is over.
  • If you wanted your child to follow an instruction, give him or her another chance after time-out is over. Deliver a few other easy-to-follow commands so your child clearly learns who is in charge and who is not.
  • Catch your child being good and give praise when you see it.

Social Skills

Introducing Yourself

During the time-out section of this course, you will probably need a break from learning about how to discipline your child. Practicing the skill of "Introducing Yourself" is a fun activity to do with your child. Here are the steps:

  • Look at the person and smile.
  • Use a pleasant voice.
  • Say, "Hi, my name is…".
  • Shake the person's hand.
  • When you leave, say "It was nice to meet you".

You also can practice this skill with members of your family and model it for your children when you are in situations where you are meeting new people.

Coming up in Issue 5

Making Rewards Valuable


Catch Them Being Good


Accepting Compliments

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