turn taking

Discipline Language for Grabbing Toys

Two young boys fighting over a scooter

Young children grabbing toys from each other is a common exchange. If your child grabs toys often, it’s good to be prepared. There are ways to best address this behavior before, during and after it happens. While I wouldn’t expect a parent to use all of the ideas below at once, some combination of several should be helpful.

Be proactive – Proactive techniques are to encourage wanted behaviors and stay ahead of unwanted behaviors.

  • Setting Clear Boundaries – This is a pep talk that you might have before your next playdate arrives. The language here starts with setting one goal, “today on our playdate, I need you to take turns with the toys.” Next provide ways your child can be successful, “you may ask for a turn, you may wait for a turn, find toys to trade or ask for help.” Then you might remind them of the logical negative consequence (explanation below), “if you grab a toy, you may not play with it for 10 minutes.” Finally, you might prompt them to participate, “so how do you ask for a turn?”
  • Catch the Good Behaviors – Once the playdate starts, the idea is to catch and encourage the good behavior as it happens. This is saying, “you asked for a turn, that was nice!” and, “you waited for a turn, you were patient!” Describe the behavior and label.
  • Positive Directions – This is a reminder to state your directions in the positive.  Negative directions start with “no,” “don’t,” and “stop.” Positive directions tell children what to do and are far easier for children to follow. This is saying, “ask for a turn,” or, “wait for a turn,” rather than, “no grabbing,” or, “don’t grab.”

Discipline in the moment – The steps of positive discipline are meant to provide a framework for moving through a discipline exchange. Once the grabbing happens, some combination of the skills below should help you move through in an effective way.

  • I messages – I messages allow you to voice your or the victim child’s emotions and lay blame on the behavior. This might be, “I am frustrated, people are grabbing,” or, “he is upset. He wasn’t finished with that.” I messages are also to avoid you messages which blame the child. A you message, which you want to avoid, are, “I am upset with you, you are always grabbing.” You messages make the listener defensive.
  • Empathy – This validates the child’s emotions and why they are feeling that way.  It lets the child that you are about to discipline know that you are still understanding how they feel as you move forward. Empathy might be, “I know you are frustrated, it is hard to wait.”
  • Positive intent – Positive intent is recognizing the good intention behind the behavior. It’s shifting how you view the behavior. Positive intent might be, “I know you really want a turn,” rather than, “you are so rude.” In this case, positive intent might be reminding yourself you are talking to a three-year-old.
  • Choices – When offering a child choices, remember to offer to positive choices about how, when or where they can do the behavior you want them to do. This might be asking, “do you want to give it back to me or to him?” or, “do you want to play with this or this while you wait for a turn?”
  • Natural consequences – Natural consequences are what just might happen in life if the child does or continues the behaviors. This would be, “if you are grabbing toys, he might not want to play with you.” These start to be more effective closer to four-years-old.
  • Logical positive consequences – Logical positives are if the good behavior happens, then there’s a good related outcome. This might be, “if you can give that back nicely, I will be sure you get the next turn,” or, “I will play with you while you wait.”
  • Logical negative consequences – Logical negatives are if the bad behavior happens, then there’s a bad related outcome. This might be, “if you are grabbing toys, you will have to play separately,” or, “you may not play with the toy for 10 minutes.”

To read more about the steps of positive discipline, read my related blog posts at https://parentingbydrrene.com/?s=steps.

Coach out of the moment – If you are repeatedly disciplining a behavior, it is time to start coaching. Coaching is more actively teaching about and encouraging the good behaviors.

  • Avoid lectures – Most children are either too young to listen long, or old enough to tune you out. Be more engaging.
  • Tell stories – If you are at all creative you can make up stories related to turn taking and sharing. When our girls were little, I told Amy and Catie stories. If the girls had a big upset at the swing set, that night Amy and Catie would have a remarkably similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should model good problem solving and emotion management.
  • Role play – Go back through the scenario to find better ways to manage. The child can be themselves or the other child as you go back through.
  • Puppet shows –  This is often an engaging way to teach children about behavior.  You can use puppets, doll babies or action figures to model better behaviors.
  • Hypotheticals – This is asking “what ifs…” when all is well. Plan to do this over lunch or driving to preschool. In this case, it would be asking something like, “what would you do if you got to the sand box, and you really wanted to use a shovel, but there were only two and other children already had them?”
  • Draw pictures – This is drawing pictures of it going well. You or they can draw pictures of them asking for a turn or finding something to trade.
  • Play games – In this case, you might introduce easy board games and talk a lot about waiting for a turn and taking turns.
  • Art projects – In our preschool, we practice turn taking by sitting six children down to a glue and mosaic art project with only two bottles of glue. We prepare them by explaining they will have to share and talk about how to ask for a turn and what they can do while they wait before we start. We coach them through and add a third glue bottle a few minutes in.
  • Read stories – Good related storybooks include:
  1. The Mine-O-Saur by Quallen
  2. Mine, Mine, Mine by Becker
  3. Rainbow Fish by Pfister
  4. Share and Take Turns by Meiners
  5. Sharing is Fun by Cole
  6. The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share by Reiss
  7. I am Sharing by Mayer
  8. It’s Mine by Lionni
  9. One for You, One for Me by Albee
  10. Martha Doesn’t Share by Berger

Teaching Them How to Share

I think learning to share starts with learning to take turns. Taking turns is more concrete than sharing. The child knows, “I have this to myself. When the timer dings, or you tell me, it will be their turn. If I ask nicely and wait, I will get another turn.’ This can make sense as early as 18 months to two years old. Sharing is, ‘we might all touch it at the same time. I may not get this to myself.’ This can be a more complicated issue and can be managed more easily as children get to be three or four years old. At any age, if they have difficulty with sharing, focus first on turns. When there is difficulty, think of empathy and coaching before discipline. This is a social skill that can take a lot of time and practice to learn. It’s more than a specific behavior.

Turn Taking

If your child is having difficulty with turn-taking, you might more actively practice. If he is playing at the train table when you come in the playroom, you could pick up an unused train and say out loud, “wow! The green engine. I am going to take a turn with this train.” If he wants the green one immediately, you can say, “oh, you would like a turn? I am taking a turn, but will be done in just a minute, and you can have the next turn.” Role the train for just a bit longer, and then say, “I am done; you can have a turn now.” You might add, “when you are done, can I have another turn?” Then when he is done, if he remembers to give it back you, gush a little, “you remembered I wanted a turn; that was thoughtful!” If he forgets, you say, “Oh, remember I want the next turn,” and prompt him to hand it to you. If he does, gush a little. Again, this can take some time. (this paragraph from a previous post)

Talk them through these steps with similar language every time they are in a situation of turn taking. Turn Taking may be easier when it is about an activity like waiting to bat in a t-ball game or waiting for a turn on a slide. Use similar words to talk through these times. Also, talk about it when you are waiting for a turn at the grocery store or at the doctor’s office.

Playing board games, even cooperative board games, is a nice way to introduce and practice turns. Cooperative games like Snails Pace Race and Things In My House give an opportunity to practice turn taking without the added pressure of learning to lose.

Sharing

Again, talk about sharing whenever you see it. Talk to them about how we share pool toys with neighbors and how we share a metro ride with strangers on our way to the zoo. Talk about how well they shared the sandbox at the park. Work to share something with them everyday such as a bowl of ice cream or space in the chair when you are reading to them. The idea is to make sharing a common event and highlight the times it is going well.

It’s often more difficult to share things such as a shovel in the sandbox or a puzzle task with classmates. When you can be proactive, prepare them for the sharing that’s about to happen. In our preschool, before we take out a big floor puzzle, we talk to the children about how we are going to all work together to share the task, how we can ask each other for pieces and should listen to others’ requests. We end up reminding them to share the pieces and the space throughout the activity.

It may be a good idea to have a similar conversation about sharing before playdates. Let your child know that friends are coming over, and they will be sharing their toys. If this is difficult, you might allow your child to put away a few toys that they are not ready to share with the understanding that what is out is for everyone to use. Be ready to give reminders throughout.

Read About It

  • The Mine-O-Saur by Quallen
  • Mine, Mine, Mine by Becker
  • Rainbow Fish by Pfister
  • Share and Take Turns by Meiners
  • Sharing is Fun by Cole
  • The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share by Reiss
  • I am Sharing by Mayer
  • It’s Mine by Lionni
  • One for You, One for Me by Albee
  • Martha Doesn’t Share by Berger

Teach Turn Taking thru Role Play

At any age, if your child is not yet good at turn taking, it can be helpful to role play the process. This means to approach them when they are playing alone and happy at, say, the train table. Pick up the blue train that is not being used and say something like, “wow! The blue train. I love this train, it’s the best train on the table.” Then play with it. If the child wants it or even just looks up, say something like, “oh, you’d like a turn. Sure, I’ll be done with my turn in just a minute, and I’ll be sure to give it to you.” Then feel a little silly while you play with the train. Soon say, “I am done with my turn now. Here, you can have a turn with the blue train. Please remember that I want the next turn when you are done with it.” If they remember to give it back when they finish, gush a little. Say, “you remembered I was waiting, that was kind. Thank you for giving a turn.” If they forget, just gently remind, “hey, can I have the blue train back in my hand? I was waiting for another turn,” and gush when they give it, “you are giving me a turn, thanks!” Do this a few times a week and the child is gradualy learning the language and process of turn taking when it isn’t a fight or high emotions.

Siblings Both Wanting Your Attention

Dear Dr. Rene,

Thank you for the great class on sibling rivalry. My big problem now though is that my  one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half year olds are competeing for my attention, expecially physically. If one is sitting on my lap, the other wants to be there too. If I am holding one to comfort their crying, the other will often start crying too wanting to be picked up. If I walk out of the room (where I was sitting with my husband and both children) and one child follows, the other will drop what they are doing and follow too. Is is exhausting physically and emotionally. They do not demand the same of my husband and tend to not want to be with him in these moments. Please help!

Sincerely,

Betty, mother of two

Hi Betty,

It seems there is a short term answer and a long term answer here. In the short term, focus on teaching turn taking. Start by highlighting when they take turns with toys and when they have a turn with the preferred blue cup at lunch. Talk about how patiently the other is waiting for a turn. Coach them on how to ask for a turn and what they can do while they wait including finding something else to play with or do. With the three-and-a-half-year-old, try to introduce an exchange of turn taking at least once a day. When she is happily playing with her toys, sit beside and start to play with one of them, comment how you are enjoying you turn and ask if she’d like the next turn. In a minute, remember to give her a turn and then ask if you can have it back when she’s done. If she remembers to give you another turn, comment on how nice that was. Coaching can include reading books about turn taking and sharing as well as having puppet shows or role plays to illustrate the point. Here is a list of related children’s books:

  • The Mine-O-Saur by Quallen
  • Mine, Mine, Mine by Becker
  • Rainbow Fish by Pfister
  • Share and Take Turns by Meiners
  • Sharing is Fun by Cole
  • The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share by Reiss
  • I am Sharing by Mayer
  • It’s Mine by Lionni
  • One for You, One for Me by Albee
  • Martha Doesn’t Share by Berger

The idea is to teach the general social skill first. Once the kids have had this practice and coaching, carry that language over to taking turns on your lap or being held. I know it can be difficult to hear their upset while they wait, but there is benefit in learning to wait, have patience and to delay gratification. Do your best to give them empathy, but follow through and finish the turn you are on before moving to the next.

In the long term, be sure you and your husband are each getting some individual time with each child at least once a month. This can be as small as going to the grocery store together if the child is getting to help pick items and there is open, pleasant conversation.  You might also read Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish that lays out other guidelines to reduce sibling rivalry.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

>Teach Sharing

>Dear Dr. Hackney,

What are the best ways to foster sharing among toddlers? There is “taking turns” and there is taking the toy away if they can’t share it, but I’m wondering if there are other techniques as well.

Thank you!
Blog Reader, February 2008

Dear Reader,

Under three years-old, your best bet is to focus on turn-taking. Sharing is an abstract thing. No one really has full ownership, and everyone might all touch at the same time. This can be hard for toddlers to manage. Turn-taking is much more concrete – I have it to myself for a while, then you have it to yourself. If I am patient, I can have another turn when you are done.

If your child is having difficulty with turn-taking, you might more actively practice. If he is playing at the train table when you come in the playroom, you could pick up an unused train and say out loud, “Wow! The green engine. I am going to take a turn with this train.” If he wants the green one immediately, you can say, “Oh, you would like a turn? I am taking a turn but will be done in just a minute, and you can have the next turn.” Role the train for just a bit longer, and then say, “I am done; you can have a turn now.” You might add, “When you are done, can I have another turn?” Then when he is done, if he remembers to give it back you, say, “You remembered I wanted a turn; that was thoughtful!” If he forgets, you say, “Oh, remember I want the next turn,” and prompt him to hand it to you. Again, this can take some time.

Whenever you find yourself sharing something with your child, describe to them what you are doing. “Look at mommy! I am sharing my yogurt with you. I was eating yogurt, and you want some, so I am sharing!”

Sincerely,
Rene Hackney, PhD.
Parenting Playgroups, Inc.

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