I've been an infant/toddler/preschool teacher with a degree or two in the field for the past 40+ years. A good day is when I'm busy, the 3 toddlers I care for are busy and there are many positive and fun interactions happening between us.
Of course, even on a good day, we're occasionally interrupted by problems or frustrations which we remedy and move on.
Maybe a finger gets stepped on or a head bumped. Maybe two children want to play with the same toy and they can't work it out without adult help. Maybe someone is hungry or tired. That's on a good day. We have to expect at least a little bit of crying or unhappiness every day with toddlers.
On a not-so-good day, we have more whining, crying, and frustration than usual. But we still move on. We still celebrate the happy moments and laugh. At one point in my career, over 35 years ago I was so stressed I had to keep a journal in which I only allowed myself to write down the positive things that happened each day.
I'm not so stressed in my current situation but over the years, my job remains the same and a
big part of it is to set boundaries without crushing their young spirits. In an ideal world, just loving, paying attention, and speaking with young children about their actions should be enough. But most of us know that's not the whole picture. Behavior is complicated.
Occasionally, I see a child cover their ears when another child cries or call a younger child a crybaby. That's when I try to recall the following developmental truth.
Babies cry a lot. That's because they can't talk. As we get older, we cry less and less often. We learn to talk and communicate in other ways, but we all cry sometimes, even adults.
Here's a recap of 3 major things about whining I learned over the years as an infant, toddler, and preschool teacher.
Tone of Voice Matters
As adults, we need to model the tone of voice we wish to hear from children. That's because young children rely on their mirror neurons to learn about the world.
That doesn't mean faking a sweet, sappy voice when we're not happy with what they're doing. Good childcare providers and parents use "I" messages to tell others how they feel without using blame. They separate the child from the deed by saying, I still love you but I don't like what you chose to do.
The simple truth is that teachers with more than a few toddlers or preschoolers would go bananas if they were to let children whine at them all day long. So they find a way to only respond to a certain tone of voice. The one they want to hear.
In order to save time and avoid a long-winded explanation about boundaries, I'm just going to say this. Parents and teachers need to set a developmentally appropriate schedule and stick to it. That schedule has to include proper rest and sleep for everyone, parents included or no one will be happy.
Children get to make choices within the limits of that schedule. The schedule should be predictable, but not rigid.
The Words To Use
These 3 sentences are essential.
I see you.
I hear you.
I understand you.
Say these words often and from the heart. Everyone wants to matter, be heard, and be understood. Remember, repetition is one major way young children learn.
Sign language can help young children with positive communication and can also be a lot of fun!
Many of the same communication principles work for children and adults, too. I find the classic book, Non-Violent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg to be the resource that pulls it all together.
All feelings are OK, but all actions (and words) are not.
Here are a few more phrases that have helped me along the journey to teaching kids to be assertive instead of aggressive.
I think maybe you're feeling unhappy because your face is looking like this. Am I right?
I don't answer to that whining tone of voice. Try again in a few minutes. (set timer)
That's not working for me. Try it like this "Will you help me get some water?".
You have a choice, you can wear your green top or your pink top but you still have to go to school today.
Sometimes parents decide.
My ears don't hear that tone.
I understand that you don't want to stop playing but we still have to catch that bus.
You can play with this more before dinner. I know you love your building blocks.
Later. Before dinner. I'm not going to change my mind because the bus won't wait.
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Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! (click on the word) She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.