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Understanding Toddler Behaviour

By Toni Whiteacre (Muriwai Room Leader and Eduplay Curriculum Leader)


The Toddler years are a time of rapid growth and development, with a flood of new skills, emotions, and behaviours. It’s essential that we recognise that challenging behaviour in this stage is not only expected, but also a crucial part of their developmental journey.


Toddlers live their day entirely in the present and do not look into the future or the consequences of their actions.


As adults, it is natural for us to perceive things through our own perspectives and experiences so when we learn that our children have been hurt or had a disagreement with another child, the term "bullying" might quickly spring to mind. However, two-year-olds do not understand the concept of bullying.


Toddlers do not exhibit bullying tendencies because there is no deliberate intention to harm. At this stage in their development, toddlers are highly egocentric.


If they spot something they desire, they expect their wants, needs, and wishes to be fulfilled immediately (their entire experience to this point validates this expectation).


During these early years, toddlers are focused on exploring and experimenting with the world around them, and have yet to develop the capacity to see situations from the perspectives of others.


Toddlers experience a range of emotions and express themselves in many ways. It's normal for children to test the limits and boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Typically, around the age of two, we see children experience a surge in their cognitive, emotional, and social abilities as they navigate the world around them.


One of the primary challenges they face is learning to manage and express their emotions.


At this age, they are absorbing and learning to process their feelings. Tantrums, hitting, kicking, and biting often provide an outlet for the frustration and confusion they may feel.


Te Whāriki, the New Zealand Early Childhood Curriculum, recognises the significance of emotional well-being in children's development. It emphasises the integration of emotional competence into early childhood education, acknowledging that children need to learn how to understand and process their emotions, as well as academic skills.


Challenging behaviour in toddlers can stem from various sources, with social and emotional factors playing a significant role.


Toddlers are still navigating social skills, such as turn-taking and sharing.


The process of acquiring new skills involves trial and error, which can result in disagreements. These can lead to frustration as they struggle to express themselves and understand the emotions of their peers.


Research from He Mapuna Te Tamaiti, the Ministry of Education resource on positive guidance, highlights the importance of recognising and addressing the underlying causes of challenging behaviours. This means understanding the stem of a child's frustration or distress and ensuring that caregivers and educators can tailor their approach to support the child effectively.


Within the Muriwai room, we promote the use of social skills with an emphasis on recognising and beginning to learn about feelings. We encourage play skills and problem-solving. We give the children tools and strategies to help them learn about self-regulation and how to express this in times of need.


Another essential part of managing challenging behaviour is understanding that toddlers are often limited in their verbal communication – there is a gap between their thoughts and emotions, and their ability to verbally articulate. This can result in frustration. Within our environment we encourage the development of non-verbal and verbal communication skills paired with visual aids, such as books or displays, to help the children to communicate how they are feeling.


One of the most effective strategies for managing challenging behaviour is the implementation of positive reinforcement.


Rather than focusing on problematic behaviour, we focus on reinforcing positive behaviour. This helps toddlers understand expectations and enhances the development of desired behaviour. We also apply the strategy of drawing the attention away from the child who has become frustrated and showing attention to the child who has been hurt. This allows the child to understand that when we are not kind to others, the attention will not be focused on them but on the child who is upset. Our goal is to build empathy towards their friends and others.


Another important strategy is ensuring that our routines are clear, consistent, and predictable, allowing the children to understand what is acceptable and what is not. Our expectations are reinforced daily through the language we use, social stories and role play.

As teachers and parents, our role is to provide support as the children develop and learn to manage their own emotions. Te Whāriki recognises that teachers will allow children to learn about boundaries of acceptable behaviour, allowing teachers to provide a secure and responsive space for toddlers to express themselves and show agency, while also providing choices.


The next time you have a conversation regarding your child being in a disagreement with another child, we encourage you to remember that this is normal behaviour. With the right strategies it will just be a passing phase that your child will overcome as they learn more about the world around them.


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