some notes on toddlers.

For the past two years I have worked at Hope Montessori Infant/Toddler Community as an assistant teacher. Next week I’ll be moving down the hill to the preschool to work with 3-6 year olds instead of 1-3 year olds.
Before I go I thought I’d jot down a few tidbits I’ve learned about caring for toddlers and maintaining an environment that fosters positive growth and development. And sanity. [for the toddlers and myself.]
-Set consistent limits. 
  Distinctly setting limits and providing myself and the toddler with valid reasons for these limits is hugely important for this age group. Setting limits mainly consists of continually expecting the toddler to listen to what I’m asking her to do when I’m certain that she understands. When I ask her to do something and she refuses, I will offer her help in doing said thing. If she continues to refuse, I will help her complete said thing. If this makes her upset [it will] I help her to a quiet place to calm her body. A toddler will push and push and push again and so long as this limit and remains set, she will learn that limit is solid. And after pushing several dozen or so limits over and over and over again, she learns that I maintain solid limits and will expect that in the future.
Keep emotions out of it. [At least the negative ones.]
This is the most [seemingly] simple and the most difficult part of my job. Toddlers are brilliant and will immediately learn where you hide your buttons and exactly how to push each and every one. Knowing that they’re just looking for reactions and that I don’t need to take anything personally does not keep me from forming future gray hairs on a daily basis. But becoming emotionally involved in a difficult toddler situation makes the difficult infinitely bigger. Every time. Emotions feed on each other. Frustration does not recognize age or the boundaries between one human and another. It will not be reasoned with. It will only get bigger until you give it space and time to dissipate.  So when a toddler stares me in the face while pouring his milk on the floor for the seventeenth day in a row, I take a breath and calmly respond.
Enjoy quiet times.
These can in fact happen in a room of twelve toddlers. And actually happen fairly often.  Humans are hardwired to learn. When they are placed a room free from outside distractions and full of materials specifically targeted to capture their attention, toddlers will sit and focus intently sometimes for hours on end. Watching twelve toddlers silently working like the tiny little people they are gives me goosebumps every time.

-Clear communication of the expectations within a classroom from both teacher to teacher and teacher to student is vital.
 I was super lucky to have been able to work for a while under the guidance of two wonderful Montessori teachers, and have had the pleasure of working with a couple other great assistants throughout my time here. As a team we maintain high and consistent expectations for the children in the class. This cuts down on the whole ‘mommy said no so I’m going to go ask daddy’ routine and minimizes the toddlers’ confusion about what sort of behavior is acceptable in the classroom. Also, there are an infinite number of situations that can arise when you put twelve toddlers in a room together for eight hours a day. And each one is entirely unique. The ability to discuss an appropriate response to any given situation [while the situation is actually occurring] with other knowledgeable adults has been incredibly helpful.

High expectations are also key.
 Working at Hope has me continually astounded by what these tiny people are capable of. Children will live up to what you expect them to do. But at the same time, it’s important to remember that they are just children. Learning can be incredibly quick but a single day in which I repeat ‘Please use your nice words’  forty-seven times can make it seem just the opposite. Really, it’s not. A 36-month old has been functioning on this earth for 36 months. In that time, she has learned how to maneuver her body through space, maneuver her mouth to form auditory symbols to express what she encounters in the world, maneuver her bladder and bowels to release on the toilet [for the most part], maneuver adults to do her bidding, maneuver her hands to put food into her mouth, maneuver all sorts of different materials in the world to perform various tasks, and maneuver her vocal chords to scream when she reaches a breaking point. Which is often. There’s a lot of information here, folks.

Having high expectations is sometimes conducive to high frustration. Learning can be a rip-out-your-hair process when you witness a person intentionally choose to perform a task incorrectly over and over again.

But that IS learning.

How often has this worked:

Step one: realize a truth about life.
Step two: alter your patterns accordingly.

For me, it often looks more like this:

Step one: realize a truth about life.
Step two: realize that truth means it would be beneficial for me to alter a certain pattern I’ve developed.
Step three: try the old way a hundred or so more times.
Step four: guess that’s not going to work.
Step five: try that new thing I’ve discovered.
Step six: SUCCESS! Step seven: repeat steps 3-6 a few dozen more times.

Patterns are patterns because we’ve done them over and over and over and over and pulling ourselves up out of a groove that’s been worn thousands of times takes a bit of an effort.

When everything is fresh, learning can take place in a snap but it doesn’t always happen that way. There are all kinds of factors involved: was the toddler attached to the old way of doing things is he receiving some sort of reward for this behavior elsewhere has a tiny detail within the environment changed in order to distract or confuse him is your paying attention to the fact that he just learned this thing going to make him want to pretend he needs to learn it again in order to get your attention again did he perform that action consciously or did it just sort of happen without any real memory of the thing.

Learning happens best when we are given the space, both emotionally and physically, to make mistakes, both emotionally and physically. We have to experience the results of our actions in order to truly understand them. Education works best in an environment in which children [and humans in general] are able to safely make as many mistakes as they need.

-Toddlers will bring out the best and the worst of you.
They will make you laugh and cry and want to scream and throw things through windows. They will make absurdly profound statements. They will tell you their penis is making dinosaur noises. They will shove a friend down for no particular reason. Later they will stop in the middle of an intense game involving some sort of monster to run over and check on that very same friend. They will grow incredibly quickly and bring you along for the ride, whether you like it or not. Working with toddlers has taken me to the depths of frustration and the peaks of joy. I’m infinitely grateful for my past two years at Hope Montessori Infant Toddler Community and all of the wonderful people who have helped me along the way.

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