Answers to Typical Two-Year-Old Struggles

Recently I got an email from a mom with several questions asking how to respond to several of her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s behaviors. The start to each of the answers was, “this is common at two…”  I am going to write a paragraph about what it is to be two-and-a-half years old, and then answer the specifics in turn.

At two-and-a-half years old, most children move through a stage of saying “no” all day long and are driven to do the opposite of the things you request. This struggle stems from their developing sense of self. They are learning they can voice an opinion and are testing the power that opinion has. As challenging as it can be, you want your children to move through this. They are also starting to realize independence and how to speak up for themselves. At two-and-a-half years old, they are starting to experience bigger and more complex emotions such as fear and jealousy. They are starting to have broader social interactions such as sharing space in a busy preschool classroom. All this while lacking a real ability to deal effectively. Their thinking is big, but their language, size and skills are limited.

1. When I am speaking on the phone, texting or emailing, she will act like she is hurt, cry and make other loud noises.

Answers: First, if you can, save the texting and emailing for when she is asleep or otherwise occupied. If there is a 30 minute stretch of a tv show, that’s the time to text away. I get things can’t always wait, but when they can it’s a nice practice. Second, plan for distractions. If you know you are going to be on a 20 minute call, run some water in the sink and let her “wash dishes” or break out the play-doh set that she can mush for a while. Third, teach her how to politely interrupt like standing in front of you waiting or touching your hand quietly. I wrote notes on how to teach that in this blog post: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/teaching-patience/.

2. At times she will say she wants something like a stuffed animal. When I give it to her she says, “I don’t want it,” and backs away from me and it. Then I will move on to do something else, and she will jump up and down saying, “no, I want it! I want it!” When I try to give it to her again, she backs away. Now I am mad. How do I break this cycle?

Answer: Recognize she is still learning the power of words and how these social dynamics work. The answer is to see it coming as best as you can. When she backs away the first time say, “I can see you changed your mind, and you don’t want it now. I am going to leave it out for you right here in case you change your mind again,” and then just leave it. If she starts to jump around say, “it is okay to change your mind. You are welcome to have it,” just avoid picking it up again. The key is to stay completely calm and disengage yourself while allowing her to make decisions.

3. One day a week, my parents watch her. They mentioned that all goes well during the day, but when I pick her up at 5:00 p.m. she acts totally different. She gets clingy to me, whines, forgets all their rules and runs amok.

Answer: This is totally normal from grandparents, babysitters or preschool teachers. Children tend to be better behaved for others. The silver lining is just that, they are better behaved for others, so their time away is a bit smoother. First, be ready for it. Let your parents know it’s normal and have a plan to spend the first 10 minutes you are there giving her undivided attention. Yes, greet your parents, but let her talk with you about her day and show you anything important, maybe play a quick round or two of hide’n’seek. Many children at this pick-up transition long for a bit of realtime. If it’s given, they can relax a bit, so you can then more peacefully speak with your parents. Second, distract her from it by giving her a job or challenge. As you walk through the door, ask her to be the door locker and then your shoe untie-er or ask if she can quick find grandpa and kiss his cheeck five times. Third, make a quick exit. Ask the grandparents to put everything by the door, call them from the car to have any necessary small talk and whisk her away as you open the door.

4. When we are in the car I usually play children’s music. She likes to sing along. Sometimes I like to sing too, but when I do she says, “no mommy, don’t sing.” My reply is along the lines of, “that’s not nice to say, Mommy wants to sing too. We can both sing together.” I’ve also tried taking turns singing, but then we get stuck on a song two or four times.

Answer: Several options here. First, say, “oh, you want to sing alone? Okay,” and then really enjoy her singing. Second, offer to take turns, but just play each song twice, so you don’t lose your mind. Third, offer empathy and then sing along. This sounds like “oh, I hear you want to sing alone, but right now I’d like to sing too. It’s fun to sing with you,” and then sing. In each case, you are letting her know you’ve heard her and then moving forward. Overtime, and while there may be some upsets, you are teaching her to be flexible to others as well which is a good skill in life.

Want Kids to Listen? Stop Repeating Yourself!

It’s an all too familiar scenario…

Mom is almost ready to leave, children are still coloring in the kitchen. Mom says, “hey, time to get your shoes on, and could you turn off the tv, please?” Mom keeps moving to put the breakfast dishes in the sink. Children ignore mom’s request and keep coloring. Mom walks over to gather her things, turns off the tv herself and says, “really, get your shoes.  We gotta go.” Children continue coloring. One child looks up briefly, sees mom looking through her purse and checking her phone, so back to coloring. Mom, without looking up says, “shoes.” Mom, putting on her coat snaps, “shoes now! (five seconds pass) That’s one….(five seconds), two….(five seconds), do you hear me? I am counting! GET YOUR SHOES!” Crayons drop, kids move towards shoes. 

Parent asks child to do something. Child ignores request. Parent repeats request. Child ignores. Parent escalates. Child ignores. Parent, who was initially calm, loses it and yells. Child listens and moves into action. Parent is frustrated that child doesn’t listen.

The unfortunate thing if you are in this cycle is you are actually teaching your child to NOT listen. By repeating the request, you are directly teaching them to tune you out. The child is learning that, when you start talking, you are going to say it two or three more times, so they wait. They learn that they have at least a few more minutes from the first request before they have to listen. They learn you are unpredictable, sometimes you really mean it, and sometimes you just don’t, so they watch.

To break the habit of repeating yourself, you have to make a new habit. The idea is to say it once, and then expect them to listen. Accept that at least initially, you may have to move into action and help them to listen. You may have to help them at first because together you’ve created the pattern of tuning out. So let’s say you buy in, and starting now, decide to say things once and expect children to listen. For starters, the new pattern is going to fail. Tomorrow morning, you get their attention and very clearly say, “it’s time to go. Put on your shoes, please.” They are not likely to listen as listening the first time is not the familiar habit. Rather than repeat and frustrate yourself, move into action. Take child to shoes, or take shoes to child, and get them started. You can still give them choices about which pair of shoes or which step to sit on. You can give them a challenge to put them on before you sing the alphabet. You can still be polite and say please. The point is, you can still talk, just avoid the repeated asking them to put on their shoes again. Hopefully you will be less frustrated. Even if you have to stop what you are doing to help, at least you only said it once.

Have faith that you are building a new and better habit. It should only take a few weeks before a six-year-old starts to realize, “oh, you are only going to say things once. You actually expect me to listen.” With a two-year-old, it can take until they are three, but it is a far better habit to be in as a parent, to say things once and expect listening than to start down the path of repeating to be ignored.

We had a mom in class who said, “I get this, but it’s crazy. I must say 16 times every morning, ‘put on your shoes.’ No one is listening to me, but I”m making four lunches, and I’ve got four boys running amok, and you want me to stop making lunch.” Yes, I either want her to stop making lunches and help them listen, OR, better yet, save her breath and wait until she is done making lunches, and then gather everyone to ask them to put on shoes. Wait until you are in a position to move into action and expect listening. In her current habit she is directly teaching them to tune her out 16 times, making the rest of her day that much harder. Clearly there is a need to change the habit.

Teach Self-Evaluation and Work Review

Self evaluation is another good skill for children to have, and it’s a piece of teaching self control. This is being able to go back and review their own efforts or their own products. The goal is to have children slow down and consider their work. We do this in our Look, Listen and Learn class over a sequence of days by having children draw three of the same shapes, later three of the same objects (like a house), then write their name three times. After each effort, they are guided to review their work and decide which is the best and the worst, then to describe why they choose each and what could they do to improve on the worst to make it more like the best. We then ask others to (nicely) state why they agree or disagree with the child’s own review. This is a task designed to have them thinking about their own process as they approach tasks and to encourage them to give their best effort. It is also foundation for teaching them to review their academic work later. By second grade, children should be encouraged to review their homework before it goes in the back pack each night. This can be as simple as having them tell their parent one sentence about each assignment. As they get older, it is more detailed including re-working 2 math problems or reading a writing assignment aloud.

Teach Children Goal Setting

Goal setting is identifying the successful endpoint of a plan. We talk about goal setting in our Look, Listen and Learn classes each week and then follow up to help children identify success as they play. Goal setting is easy to incorporate in daily life. Talk with children about the task at hand and what it would look like if it goes well. Talk through the individual steps that are part of the larger process, and then work to recognize if they are met. Take a soccer practice for example, success might be participating in every activity, beating their time for a relay and talking to one new friend. I know that is a lot to lay on a six-year-old who is just there to have fun, but it can teach them in a low key way to think more about their process and how to move through in a better way. Goal setting is another piece of teaching self control.

Teach Sequencing

This is a piece of attention span and impulse control that overlaps with the previous posts’ suggestions about listening, planning and organization. Sequencing is more about the follow through of listening and the organization of a plan. We practice this with Sequence Cards* where children are given pictures and asked to arrange them in a story that makes sense, and then tell their story. We also have them retell pictures books identifying the beginning middle and end as well as the order of smaller details if they are able. Our Crazy Directions game* and Robot game* both get at their ability to sequence. At home this may be ordering items (big, bigger, biggest blocks), talking through the beginning, middle and end of following a recipe, building a model, reading a book or playing a board game.

Sequence Cards* http://www.lakeshorelearning.com/product/productDet.jsp;jsessionid=PGNhxm1v8Ch2TpnnyxrXX1Ls2ggLTmvgLyXvVhD5J1JF1LWMHGtf!-2074226025!-769277136?productItemID=1%2C689%2C949%2C371%2C919%2C061&ASSORTMENT%3C%3East_id=1408474395181113&bmUID=1330023930245

Crazy Directions game* – Start with two steps then move on to three and four step directions. Make it fun. A three step direction might be, “find the dog, touch his nose and jump up and down. Ready, go!” If three is too many for them to manage, go back to two. If three is easy, move on to four.

Robot game* – Child is a robot, and you are the robot programer. You are giving step by step directions and they are following them, doing ONLY what you say to do. This can be a slow process, but they are practicing listening, following directions and going slowly through the process of an activity. For a younger child, it can be going over to pick up and return a book. For an older child, it can be making a PBandJ. It’s good to then change roles and have you be the robot.

Teach Organization and Scheduling

Reducing physical and mental clutter and other distractions can greatly benefit attention span and lessen distractibility. At home, this is getting toys and bedrooms organized. Make a plan with your child about how, when and where to store toys and other belongings. In our house, the toys all have a place they belong as do the backpacks, homework, art supplies and shoes. It is up to parents to provide initial set-up and expectations, and in the long run it’s a child’s job to follow through. Teaching the behvaior and then passing the responsibility may take a great amount of shared effort. At school this includes the teachers coaching the child to regularly clean out their desk, backpack and locker.

This also means getting scheduled. Most children with attention issues do far better when given a schedule. Plan with your child for a morning, afternoon and evening routine. The afternoons may vary based on extra-curricular activities, but have a plan that works before each day. It may help to build in 10 minutes of free time at the end of each routine. 10 minutes to play at the end of each morning or to read at the end of each evening. This provides a bit of a buffer and gives children something to work towards rather than against as discipline. It can also be helpful to make a visual of the schedule. This might be making a poster with pictures of the included activities or drawings of the clock for time spent at each. Have your child draw or copy the pictures or take pictures of your child moving through the activities. At school, this includes the child learning to use a calendar or homework notebook to manage assignments and studying.

Teach Planning and Reviewing towards Self-Control

Planning and reviewing skills are a piece of building attention span and impulse control.  In some of our classes, each week the children have to plan their 15 minute play time.  This includes choosing where they will play (only 1 center each day) and planning three activities to occupy their time.  Teachers check on their progress throughout and help children to meet each goal.  This is something you can easily incorporate at home.

At clean up time, sit for a minute and ask your child to plan the effort.  This includes details such as the order of the tasks and if they will work together.  Draw or write a check list and help them to stay on task.  At the end a pat on the back for completing the list.  A more fun example – ask your child to plan their next playdate.  Invite a friend over for an hour and have child (or children) come up with three or four activities they’d like to do during that time.  Help them manage the time and move through the activities.

It is also helpful to take a plan-do-review approach to outings or other activities.  If you are headed to the pumpkin patch this weekend, take some time to look at pictures from last year or visit their website, print the map and plan your trip together with your child.  Talk about all the things they are seeing and doing while their.  After, call a grandparent and encourage your child to tell them details about the trip.  Review again with your child when you print the pictures.

Teach Them to Listen

There are many ways to build listening skills. There are lots of good children’s books that introduce the idea and importance of listening. A few titles include Listen and Learn by Free Spirit Publishing, The Worst Day of My Life Ever by Julia Cook and the Amelia Bedelia books.

Many games practice listening skills including Telephone, 20 Questions, Robot, Eye Spy, Crazy Directions, Simon Says, Hullabaloo, Guess Who, Clue Jr. or Clue and Noodleboro’s Pizza Palace listening game. As children are older, there is Mystery Garden, Listening Lotto and Sound Bingo. Play games regularly.

We talk in classes about being a good listener by keeping our bodies still, our mouths quiet and our eyes on the speaker. You might check in with children after you speak or have given them directions by asking what you said, for the most important part or for what they should do first. When you ask them to give you words back about what you said, it’s better for it to be their own version rather than verbatim.

Challenge listening by reading slightly longer books with more words and fewer pictures as they grow. Challenge listening with verbal stories or books on tape. Occasionally, practice dialogic reading with your child. When they are younger it is asking questions about the pictures, such as “What is this?” As they are older, it is asking questions about the story such as, “what do you think will happen next?” or, “what was your favorite part?” The idea is to build open discussion around the reading as a habit to increase listening and comprehension.

Take Listening Walks, this is a trip around the neighborhood or on your favorite path with the idea of walking quietly and listening to all the sounds you can hear. Afterward list together all the sounds and talk about how different it is to really listen rather than talk and play.

Article on Teaching Self-Control

I just wanted to share a link to a great article from The New York Times titled Building Self-Control, The American Way by Aamodt and Wang.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/opinion/sunday/building-self-control-the-american-way.html?pagewanted=all

During the next week, I will post ideas and activities to support developing listening skills, planning, goal setting and follow through skills, sequencing, their attention to detail, attention span and impulse control. In agreement with the article, these will all be through play. Here are a few guidelines as you work and play to build new skills:

Avoid Lecture

When you are teaching new skills like goal setting, listening, planning and sequencing, you want to avoid lecturing as much as possible. The best way for children to learn these types of skills is through play and experience. This means if you are teaching listening skills you want to do this through things like puppet shows, role plays, hypotheticals, storytelling, movement games and art projects.

Gradually Challenge

Whatever the concern, start small and work your way up. When children are starting with puzzles, you start with simple patterns and a few pieces, and gradually work the way up to more challenging ones. It is the same with skills like impulse control and listening. These are skills that are best to gradually challenge and grow.

Highlight When They Do Well

With life skills, it can be easy to overlook when things go well. If you have an often impulse child, it can be easy to overlook when they happen to wait patiently in line at the grocery store with you for five minutes. It is those easy moments that you want to reinforce the behavior. Notice that they did well. It’s best to describe the behavior back to them, “you waited to quietly, that was helpful!”

Have fun and grow!

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