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10 Top Tips for Teaching Toddlers

The 10 top tips for teaching toddlers are best revealed in the top 10 statements of the under-3 set. Discover 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-coaster-like 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.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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 storylines. The progression of attention eventually makes it easier for a toddler to focus on longer stories and, in time, chapter books.

4. Let’s Pretend!

During Sunday dinner one little guy told his mother that in Sunday school they talked about Jesus and Batman. Toddlers believe easily in fantasy or the supernatural. These young minds freely accept that dogs talk, that Jesus walked on water, and that hairy monsters hide under the bed. Illogical thinking or believing imaginary things is what toddlers do. In this make-believe world, they feel powerful, because in reality they know they’re vulnerable. We must respect this susceptible stage by carefully wording how we teach. For example, it’s better to say the Holy Spirit than Holy Ghost. Don’t use metaphors that the concrete-thinking toddlers can’t understand. In speaking of death, say the person died rather than “he went to sleep” or “she flew up to heaven.”

5. Play With Me—Not!

It’s easy to observe toddlers and insist that they’re playing with each other. They copy one another’s words, respond to questions, or imitate each other. This is healthy intellectual development, but it’s not playing together. Toddlers play beside—not with—each other. Toddlers are actually learning by observing and imitating. They’re playing in the group, but they’re playing individually. As toddlers move toward their third birthday, they cooperate in mutual play. You may see more sharing of toys and playing “house.” Around this third year of life, they even seek out same-sex playmates. You can see the boys-against-the-girls mentality.

6. No!

Words are quickly taking on meaning for toddlers. However, words aren’t toddlers’ primary tool of communication-behavior is. Young toddlers get frustrated with their inability to express words so they throw tantrums, bite, and scream with frustration. By using the few words they recognize, toddlers gather information. They ask simple questions; “Why?” is a favorite. Questions become a way of communication.

All toddlers are eager learners but due to language limits, they often learn better from experience than from adult explanation. Toddlers often say words without understanding the words’ meanings. They might say “no” even when they mean “yes.” When you talk to this age group, use simple words and phrases. Usually, two- or three-word sentences are right for a 1-year-old, while four- to six-word sentences work with older toddlers. Some toddlers, especially if they’re the firstborn of the family, have amazingly advanced conversation skills. And girls tend to use more words than boys.

7. I Don’t Understand!

Toddlers are concrete thinkers; they can’t developmentally think of abstract things. So everything must be visible or touchable to make sense to toddlers. When teachers say, “After a while, we’ll go outside,” a toddler doesn’t comprehend. His mind might question, “Is it ‘after while’ time yet?” It’s better to give children something to see rather than a lot of words, so instead say, “When I raise my hand, we’ll go outside.”

8. Please! No Timeout!

I hear well-meaning adults claim, “He minds because he knows better!” Toddlers don’t mind because they “know better”; they mind because they fear punishment. Toddlers’ capacity to weigh right and wrong isn’t in place yet. Toddlers act without moral judgment. They refrain from a certain behavior by having learned that they get a negative response from it. To a toddler, right is “what gets me approval,” while wrong equals punishment. Around the third birthday, a sense of morality begins to develop. Understanding the rightness and wrongness of a behavior is a process. Therefore, ethics such as honesty, loyalty, and integrity require many years of consistent teaching from ethical parents and other adults.

9. It’s a Picture of You!

Toddlers’ control of their hands and fingers is still developing. Most toddlers can’t color in the lines. Therefore, to expect toddlers to stay inside lines—or even on the paper—is disrespectful of their young muscles. Rather than giving them a coloring book, it’s more appropriate to offer blank paper. Fat chalk, jumbo crayons, and large pencils are easier for chubby fingers to grasp. Then stand back and watch toddlers scrawl. Their work doesn’t have to mean something. Let them be creative. When a toddler proudly shows you her work, rather than asking what the picture is or trying to interpret it, simply describe a concrete aspect of it, such as “I see you used green.”

10. Let Me Do It!

Toddlers’ need for autonomy can drive teachers crazy. One minute toddlers want your help; the next minute they resist. Most toddlers want to feel independent by putting on their own coats or getting a drink. Yet they may need an adult’s help to accomplish the task. I teasingly remind parents that independence doesn’t begin at 12 years, but at 12 months. Your best attitude is to be available when you’re needed and out of the way when you’re not needed. The ambivalence of wanting freedom and needing help can cause a toddler to have emotional extremes. Sometimes they’re on an emotional joy ride, and the best adult response is to remain seat-belted and stable.

Toddlers need legitimate limits to feel secure and loved. As they seek autonomy, give them supervised guidance. They can’t do everything they want; that wouldn’t be healthy, safe, or realistic. But allow toddlers to do many things for themselves so they begin to feel independent.

Remember, your responsibility and privilege to influence a child for God begins with respecting the process of maturity that God designed. To some terrific toddlers who come through your class just once, you may be their only image of church or of God’s love.

Brenda Nixon is the author of Parenting Power in the Early Years (Winepress Publishing). 

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2 thoughts on “10 Top Tips for Teaching Toddlers

  1. Kobina Quashie-Asiedu

    Good reading and skill development material

    • Children's Ministry Magazine

      We’re so glad you’ve found this helpful, Kobina. Blessings to you!

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10 Top Tips for Teaching Toddlers

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