This subject came up in a facebook feed a little while back. An early years practitioner was asking what to do about the behaviour of the children in the 2 year room as it was out of hand. When this happens, the wee ones are often crying out for a change in their environment. Whether you’re a parent of a two year old or have a whole roomful of two year olds in your early years setting, you’ll know that their behaviour can be challenging! However, I get really upset when people call it the ‘Terrible Twos’, because they’re not really being terrible, they are just learning about boundaries. Anyone knows that we check learning by testing. Two year olds are great at testing boundaries. It’s how you react and respond to those tests that can help them explore and understand the world in a more enjoyable way for everyone.

So if you have a two-year-old who is struggling to understand boundaries, these tips will help:

  1. Remember their developmental level; Are your expectations too high? Remember, 2 year olds have short attention spans, so if you are new to 2 year olds (as many school nursery staff are at the moment) re-visit the developmental norms for these children and make sure that their activities include lots of movement, exploring and intrigue – it’s what they are best at! Don’t forget the cuddles too-  they are still working out how to form attachments with new adults.
  2. Feed the bear; many 2 year olds are grazers. So if a little angel has turned into a little demon, maybe they are hungry – or tired. It took me a while to work this out with my own little angel; we wold avoid complete melt-downs once we realised that the number of tantrums were directly proportional to the fullness of his belly.
  3. Apply the two-word rule; use simple language – some two-year-olds really only understand the last two words in a sentence, so if you say “you have to tidy up all the toys first, then you can have your Paw Patrol DVD”, guess which words they hear? So that’s all they can focus on. But we call them terrible? For focusing on the last two words of an instruction!
  4. Get their attention first; do you feel like you’re repeating yourself over and over and no-one ever listens? Two-year-olds have single-channelled attention, so if they’re focused on something other than you, you need to get their attention – and that doesn’t mean yelling across the room – actually walk across the room, put your hand on their shoulder, say their name and wait for them to look at you.
  5. Support transitions; some children get really upset when they’re moved from one activity to the next, especially if they’re not understanding mega-long instructions. They’re not being terrible, they just don’t know what’s going to happen next – support their understanding by using gestures, signs or pictures.
  6. Time in not time out; if we put children in time-out when they are struggling with their emotions as toddlers, then guess what? When they are teenagers they will learn to put themselves in time-out; isolating themselves when they need our support the most. So next time your toddler – or any child for that matter – is displaying behaviour you want to discourage, simply affirm the behaviour you’re after (“we use gentle hands, Charlie”) and then use the next strategies. No long explanations about why you don’t want the behaviour or going through the excruciating and time-wasting debacle of getting them to say sorry (they’re toddlers – they don’t understand the concept yet.)
  7. Distract; because toddlers are fickle like that. Just move them onto something else. Too many times, behaviour is prolonged because the adult keeps banging on about their behaviour. [Remember who the grown-up is and just move on].

Notice none of these strategies include saying “no” to the toddler. I’m not saying never say “no” – try it, see how it’s like a red rag to a bull and then revert back to these strategies.

Above all, it’s your job to be the calm and relaxed influence on these amazing little beings as they navigate their way through new and alien waters. Here’s wishing them a peaceful journey!