Providing Guidance for an Infant or Toddler Without Losing Your Mind

Guidance is often a topic of concern for childcare professionals. Working with infants and toddlers is the most rewarding, tiring, enjoyable, frustrating, challenging, happy, sad, funny job you will ever love. How is it that such a small human being can evoke so many opposite emotions in her adult caregiver? Is the child really trying to push your buttons, make you angry, or make you crazy? How are you expected to maintain control in your teaching environment when you are not allowed to punish children for misbehaving? What is the caregiver supposed to do with those extreme emotions that sometimes result?

Life for a young child is one extreme or another, hot or cold, black or white, with no room for grey areas. It is the grey areas that cause the problems: if it is not always wrong to bite, when is it ok to do so? If it is ok for me to run in the classroom sometimes, why did I just get in trouble for chasing my friend? In order for a child to thrive in his environment, there must be immovable but appropriate boundaries or expectations and consistency and fairness in maintaining them. It is the job of the adult caregiver to offer guidance and meet this need just as the teacher meets the child's needs for food, water, shelter, and love.

With the very young child, these boundaries are a matter of setting routines, and when the child fights against those routines, an appropriate guidance strategy could be to offer simple distraction followed by calmly performing the routine. As the child becomes more mobile, the boundaries will need to expand to incorporate matters of safety. Distraction and redirection can keep the child playing in anappropriate area, but the wider the safe zone, the better for the child as she begins to explore her environment. This takes planning ahead of time in order to have an appropriate play area that is free from hazards for the child. Such planning also provides the caregiver with some built-in guidance strategies.

As the child becomes more independent, you, as the caregiver must have realistic expectations of yourself and the children in your care. Remember that your job is to teach the child self control and self discipline. If you expect appropriate behavior to be “common sense” and that it just happens naturally, you are setting yourself up for frustration and setting up the child for uncertainty in his environment. However, if you understand that guidance consists of continual “show and tell” by modeling appropriate behavior in your interactions with others, being proactive by anticipating the child's actions then intervening before an incident, and explaining what is expected of the children in your care, you will enjoy the resulting stable environment in which all children will thrive.

Another important guidance strategy is to understand the developmental stages of the child. Basing expectations on appearances will again create problems. For example: a child that is taller than others his age is not necessarily more capable of independence, nor is a smaller child less capable. A caregiver that “babies” the one child, while at the same time expecting the other child to accomplish tasks without assistance will be interpreted as showing favoritism by the children. The wise caregiver will create an environment that ensures success for every child regardless of size or ability.

With realistic expectations, appropriate freedom in the environment, and planned guidance strategies, the early childhood educator can set the behavioral boundaries that every child needs. This can be set forth in one or two simple rules that encompass all behavior. For example: “This is to be a fun and safe place for you to stay while your family is away for the day,” or “We are to keep ourselves, our friends and our things safe,” or even “It is not ok to hurt our friends or our toys.” Every behavior can be addressed by asking if the behavior was in keeping with the rule. When she hit her friend, was she keeping her friend safe? Is it safe to be in a place where people throw toys?

The real challenge for the caregiver begins when the child pushes against the boundary that has been set. To the child, this is a matter of ensuring that the boundary is the same as it was yesterday (or 20 minutes ago). The worst thing that the caregiver can do at this point is to either ignore the behavior or get angry that she “just told you that is not ok to ____ (whatever the behavior was), and how many times do I have to tell you to stop ____?” The best guidance strategy for the caregiver to use is to firmly but lovingly stop the behavior and repeat the expectation. Remember, teaching requires practice and repetition before the skill can be mastered, and self control and self discipline are no different.

“Natural consequences” will help the child to learn what she can or cannot do, and when they are explained and reinforced by the caregiver, the teaching becomes relevant to the child. When two children are fighting over a toy and the toy breaks, that is a natural consequence. When the provider talks about how sad it is that no one can play with the toy anymore, he is reinforcing the lesson. The children learn that it is better to take turns with a toy than not to have it at all. While these simple guidance strategies will work sometimes, there will still be those days that the caregiver will become frustrated or even angry at the behavior of a child. These are some of the most critical moments of all. The children are watching to see how the caregiver handles her own emotions for two reasons: first, to be sure that they are still safe, and second, to learn to act the same way.

When an adult is angry with a child’s behavior, the first thing to do is to STOP! Do not move any closer to the child and do not say another word without thinking it through. It is better to tell a child that you are angry and need to calm down before you address the situation, than to continue in anger. If necessary, remove yourself from the situation and get help. In a center environment, call for another person to step in while you take a few minutes to calm down. If you are a home provider, you need to have a plan: whether it is to call a friend to talk about your feelings, or ask the next door neighbor to pop in for a minute, or put yourself in “timeout” where you can still see the children. Once you are calm, your next steps are vitally important. The caregiver must make it clear that she was angry about the behavior, NOT THE CHILD! Then, continue with the preset plan for upholding the boundaries.

Above all, treat every child in your care with respect. Observe the entire situation carefully before reacting. Consider the possible reasons behind the behavior that is being presented. Plan your reaction to be the most effective as a teaching tool. Then teach the child how to manage his emotions and behavior appropriately within the setting.

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