By the time a child has reached 2 years old they are beginning to realize they are separate people from their teachers or their parents. This means that they are driven to assert themselves, to communicate their likes and dislikes, and to act independently. Toddlers are also developing the language skills that help them express their ideas, wants, and needs. At the same time, toddlers do not understand logic and still have a hard time with waiting and self-control.
As a teacher, your job is to help your toddlers navigate the tide of strong emotions they are experiencing this year. This is no small task, because the emotional lives of 2-year-olds are complex. This year they are beginning to experience feelings like pride, shame, guilt, and embarrassment for the first time. Their feelings change drastically from minute to minute. They may be joyful when given fruit snacks at lunchtime but then throw a tantrum because the fruit snacks made their hands sticky. So toddlers really need your loving guidance to figure out how to cope with their emotions.
When you see challenging behavior, it usually means that the child can't figure out how to express their feelings in an acceptable way or doesn't know how to get a need met. What helps children learn is when your response shows them a different, more constructive way to handle these feelings. Although children won't completely master self-control until they are school-age (and practice it all their lives!), here are some ideas for helping your toddler begin to learn this important skill:
- TALK ABOUT FEELINGS AND HOW TO COPE
Read books and notice aloud how the characters are feeling: The dog is really happy that he got a bone. And share your own feelings: I just spilled your juice. I feel really frustrated! Will you help me wipe it up? Wow, it feels so good to have your help. When the child can label how he is feeling, it helps him gain control over his emotions and communicate them to others. Once a child has named his feelings, you can suggest what he might do to feel better or solve the problem. This helps him learn what to do in the future when he faces a similar challenge. For example, if he is sad because his dad is traveling for work, you can suggest looking at photos of him or drawing him a picture.
- OFFER IDEAS FOR HOW TO MANAGE STRONG EMOTIONS
Young children need guidance when it comes to figuring out how to deal with big feelings like anger, sadness, and frustration. So when a child is really angry, validate what he is experiencing: You are really angry right now because it's time to clean up. Then suggest that they cuddle up in a cozy area for alone time, paint an angry picture or some other strategy that you feel is appropriate. What's important is to teach the child that there are many options for expressing his feelings in healthy, non-hurtful ways.
- GIVE A VISUAL AID TO MAKE WAITING EASIER
Timers are great tools for helping children learn to share. Give them each a few minutes-using the timer-to play with a toy they both want, like the shiny new tricycle parked on the playground. It's also helpful to state the obvious: It's hard to wait sometimes, isn't it? If you need to help your children clean up after centers, use an egg timer so they can watch the countdown and see if they're able to beat the clock.
- LET CHILDREN MAKE CHOICES APPROPRIATE TO THEIR AGE
Some examples include: where to sit, what to eat first, what to play, or who to play with. This gives them a feeling of control and supports their growing confidence and sense of competency (the belief that "I can do it").
- LOOK FOR WAYS TO HELP CHILDREN "PRACTICE" SELF-CONTROL There are many daily moments when you can teach your children this skill. For example, games that require turn-taking are great for practicing how to wait and share. Rolling a ball back and forth is an example. This game gives children the chance to wait and control their impulse to grab the ball. Or try acting out a story. Pretend play offers many chances to wait, take turns, and negotiate as children decide how the story will unfold.
All of these strategies will help your children understand and manage their feelings in a more appropriate way and will help to reduce some of the behaviors we, as adults, find to be challenging.