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Those Terrific Toddlers

Brenda Nixon

The top 10 statements of the under-3 set -- and why these traits make teaching toddlers such a joy... and a challenge.

Exasperating," "entertaining," and "extraordinary" are among the words used to describe toddlers. In fact, toddlerhood is probably the most hair-raising, roller-coasterlike time on earth -- until the teenage years!

Teaching a room full of toddlers can bankrupt your energy reserves. Yet the hilarious stories you gain can fill a book. More importantly, though, is the influence you have over a young child. Your investment of time and energy toward toddlers' understanding of God and their self-worth yields great rewards.

Developmentally speaking, a toddler is 12 to 36 months of age or in the second and third years of life. While there's a huge maturity gap between a 12-month-old and a 36-month-old, these years are clumped together due to a cluster of traits. To be a better teacher, it's helpful to review why toddlers act as they do. The following are toddlers' age-specific characteristics -- in their own words.

Mine!
For a toddler, it's all about me: my needs, my wants, my agenda. Toddlers interpret events in a very individual way. For example, a toddler who wants to leave the classroom and is stopped by a teacher will take it as personal harassment.

Toddlers are self-absorbed, naive people who neither want to share nor respect others' needs. This explains why they grab toys away from playmates. Because of their self-
interest, toddlers act in ways that seem offensive. They can scream in rage until their needs are met, bite another child out of anger, or knock down another's block tower. Toddlers don't recognize or respect much, so they freely touch people and watch others' bathroom behavior. Many people call these children selfish or insensitive, which is an accurate observation, but it's because they haven't had enough life experience to think beyond their own interests.

The worst thing an adult can do is belittle a toddler with "being a brat." Remember, we originally emerged from a perfect environment where every need was met. Learning to satisfy our needs in an appropriate way took years. To empathize, or see from another person's view, is a slow process as well. Because you have a room full of self-seeking people, power struggles between you and them or between each other are common. Skillful teachers don't take a toddler's behavior personally, and they don't insist that toddlers share. To avoid eruptions, always provide duplicates of the same toy or book.

What Boundaries?
Toddlers are the embodiment of energy with no thought for safety. They climb, ram, throw, jump, touch, run, and push. They put everything in their mouths. They resist any restraints, either physically or verbally. Their mighty muscles and new nerve endings literally need physical stimulation to properly mature. Yet these children can't predict behavior that causes injury or death. Driven by curiosity and newfound motor skills, a toddler's behavior can exhaust you. Therefore, teaching toddlers isn't for the faint of heart.

Often teachers tell me they hesitate to take their classes out to play because "the kids go wild." This age requires tremendous supervision. A supervision rule of thumb is one teacher for every five or six toddlers. And here's a secret to prevent accidental poisonings: When a toddler gets access to a "no-no," quickly cup your hand over his mouth, rather than attempting to pry the item from his hands.

Move Over!
Toddlers dart from one activity to another. And they can't sit still during storytime. Although kids this age have an increasing interest in television and books, they usually sit still for only a few minutes. A toddler's attention span isn't fully formed, and toddlers need an assortment of brief activities. It can be frustrating to corral a group of toddlers to the craft table only to have one jump up with, "I'm done!"

As toddlers mature into their third year, and with the help of loving adults, they'll be able to sit still for more detailed activities. Attention span is like a muscle: The more it's used the stronger and longer it grows. This is why reading aloud to a baby is a good start. Read short, simple picture books. Then gradually move up to ones with single words. In the toddler years, read books with easy story lines. The progression of attention eventually makes it easier for a toddler to focus on longer stories and, in time, chapter books.

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