Updated: Oct 3
Since a toddler's brain develops approximately one million new connections every second, it only makes sense to be intentional about what they see, hear, and experience during the first few years of life. These things make a huge difference in how they perceive and approach the world.
During this important time, their brains focus in on the connections that regulate mood and aggression. This takes place in the part of the brain called the amygdala. The skill that develops during this timeframe is often called self-regulation.
That's why you are so important to those toddlers and why your self-care and self-awareness matter so much to their development. Young children mirror what you do and they mirror your emotions. They learn social skills and attitudes from you. Their brains are setting up for a lifetime of learning. They are, essentially, learning to learn.
We, as caregivers, are responsible for the way that they feel about learning. This includes all forms of learning including cognitive, bodily, and social-emotional.
It’s my goal to make the clearest and most usable developmental strategies available to you, the interested parent, and/or provider. You deserve these. The children you care for deserve them, too!
There are many articles on the internet about boundaries, discipline, and toddlers. Some give great advice from experienced and trusted professionals. Please consider the source before you rely on advice from strangers, though.
*My resources are listed below this article for reference.
Setting boundaries with curious toddlers is almost never easy. But it is necessary for both adults' and children’s mental health.
Here are some ideas from my experiences as a parent and a teacher.
Use a daily schedule to set easy limits that kids can adhere to without much trouble. Use that schedule to introduce different sets of choices to our toddlers. Include large blocks of time for non-structured play.
For example, you might play in the living room before breakfast with books, soft blocks, and cars, then play in the playroom with a climber and a kitchen set-up until you go outside. When you come inside, you eat and get ready to rest. Before restime every child gets to choose a story to listen to and takes 3 books with them to rest.
Human beings are creatures of habit and a daily schedule helps children to feel secure and to accept a balance of power as well as the fact they don’t always have unlimited choices. This helps set the stage for all learning.
Make sure to include lots of sensory play in your schedule such as swinging, rolling, running, water play, sand, etc. because those things can actually help your child learn and behave better.
Here are some concrete examples of words that work for setting boundaries with a schedule.
Do it the safe way!
Five more minutes and we'll clean up the room to go outside.
You don't want to go outside? You still have a few minutes to finish what you are playing.
I hear that you don't want to go so I'll see if I can make it a shorter time but we will go. Outdoor time is important for your health and I want to keep you feeling good.
Sometimes parents/teachers decide.
You can learn more about boundary setting for toddlers and preschoolers here.
Strategy # 2
Make book time part of your schedule every day and use it to your advantage. I gave one concrete example of how to do this above but there are as many ways as there are libraries to visit. Here are some examples.
Give a toddler a book in their highchair while you get some food ready for them.
Set a time in your family or childcare schedule where everyone reads or looks at a book for 10-20 minutes every day.
Ask children to look at books while they’re waiting for anything. Set up a blanket with some interesting books to choose from.
Have screen-free time for the whole family or childcare every day and stick to it.
Use laptime to teach inclusion, communication, and emotional skills.
Resilience to Bullies and Bullying
Good toddler and preschool teachers as well as parents teach their children non-violent communication skills. They use laptime with books and pictures as a door to emotional
Laptime is time spent reading or talking about emotions in close physical contact with your child. It's time spent together, looking at books or magazines, reading and speculating how characters, ourselves, or others in the world might feel.
It's also chatting about facial, body, and language expressions that help us know what others are experiencing outside of ourselves. It's based on this premise that all feelings are OK, all actions (and words) are not.
Laptime is a time for questioning and wondering about human interaction in the presence of a non-judgemental and trusted person. It's an awesome way to teach emotions to kids ages 0-8+. It's a time to be curious.
And it gives them the information they'll need when it comes to talking about bullies. They'll eventually need to be able to "read" people well in the world they'll be growing up in.
Toddlers learn, first about their own feelings, then about yours, then about other people’s.
This helps them to learn to get what they want without harming or infringing on the rights of others. This includes physical and emotional harm. These are the skills at the core of non-violent communication. And yes, toddlers can and do learn them!
If you want to about ear learn more about early childhood, check out our homepage, here.
Early Childhood Rocks is a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the world through early childhood education
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.
A Guide to Discipline, Galambos-Stone, Jennette, National Association for the Education of Young Children (January 1, 1969)
Derman-Sparks, Louise, et al. Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2020.
“Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 4 Dec. 2017, https://developingchild.harvard.edu/.
Shore, Rima. Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development. Families and Work Institute, 2003.