Great Teaching Techniques for Toddlers

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There is never any better time than the present to proactively focus on teaching your toddler new concepts and life skills. This is all the more true with many families around the country cooped up at home due to the coronavirus outbreak. In fact, we’d argue this situation provides an ideal opportunity to teach your toddler important life skills such as potty training and proper hand washing, which require repetition and intensely focused parental effort.

With this great opportunity for learning suddenly foisted upon us, we figured that we’d share some of our favorite toddler teaching techniques.

#1 - Answer The "Why" Questions

Toddlers often ask “why this,” “why that,” “why there” or just “why?” In normal times, parents are frequently tempted to brush off these questions with answers like “because I say so” or “because it’s always been that way.”

Brushing off these seemingly nagging questions, however, is not the correct approach. Instead, it's important to take the time to engage with your child and provide meaningful answers to their questions. This may take time and feel like a “root cause analysis” but the benefits to your child can be profound.

As the New York Times recently put it, 'by paying attention to this simple — sometimes annoying — phenomenon, parents may help shape their child’s development and better set them up for longer term success.'"

Specifically, while many experts and parents have long thought repeated “why” questions were stalling tactics or ploys for attention, recent research has shown that toddlers in fact tend to be legitimately curious when asking “why” questions. By taking the time to meaningfully respond to your child’s questions, you impart to your child a sense that those questions are valued thereby fostering a sense of inquisitiveness and desire for learning. Conversely, when toddlers have their “why” questions brushed off they sense this and may begin feeling that asking questions is futile.

And the benefits of taking the time to respond to the questions from your toddler can be profound. As reported in the same New York Times article, a 30-year study of children found that “kids who were especially curious and enjoyed learning scored higher on standardized tests, were more likely to stay in school, and were more likely to go to graduate school than their less curious peers.” Perhaps most importantly, the findings were “independent of IQ.”  

What all that means, is that taking the time to respond to your toddler’s “why questions” can shape their approach towards learning and have positive lifelong effects. So next time your child asks “why?” take the time to explain. And if they ask follow-on questions, take the time to explain those as well.

In a Nutshell - How To Answer All The "Why's?"

When to Use: Use this technique with theoretical-type questions (e.g. why is the giraffe so tall), practical questions (e.g. why is it necessary to wash our hands) or pretty much any “why” question posed by your toddler.

What to Do: Provide the actual, in depth answer to your child’s "why" question.  

When to Stop: The short answer is DON’T. Keep answering your toddler’s follow-up “why” questions as long as he or she asks—this may feel like a mini biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, philosophy or religious class. If you get to the point that you (or humanity) doesn't know the answer, explain so. This can sometimes go on for a long time, but in many ways, that’s the point. With this technique you are not only teaching your child but also showing him or her how much you value their questions. Of course, if circumstances don’t allow you don’t always need to be so in depth—in these situations make sure your child at least understands you value their questions and would be happy to answer another time.

#2 - Manual Instruction

This is a simple yet powerful teaching technique for your toddler that we rely on heavily in our (free) potty training guide, The Potty Proud Approach. This technique is useful beyond the realm of potty training, however, and is great for teaching your toddler skills such as getting dressed, using silverware and name writing.

Manual Instruction is a great and extremely simple technique for teaching your toddler nearly any skill that has a physical component. It's also great for when your child is acting up while you are trying to teach something—they’ll know you are serious when you start guiding them through the activity in a no-nonsense yet still pleasant manner."

So how does it work? Start by first clearly explaining to your child how to perform the task you are going to teach. Make sure to break it down into manageable steps your toddler can understand. For example, if you are teaching your toddler how to pull on his or her pants explain that it is necessary to first sit down, then put each leg through the leg opening, next pull the pants on as much as possible while sitting and finally to stand-up to pull the pants up and around the waist.

Next, have your child attempt the task on their own. Make sure to keep in mind that even simple tasks take toddlers much longer to perform—so be patient if your toddler is making any sort of progress.

Finally, if your child is struggling at any point, place your hands over theirs and "manually guide" them to complete the task. When you do this, make sure to explain exactly what you are doing and relate it to the steps you verbalized at the outset.  Make sure to use a degree of finesse—that is, start with a light touch, so that you can apply more or less guidance as necessary (or even back off entirely) while your child performs the relevant task.

In a Nutshell - Manual Instruction

When to Use: Use this technique for teaching activities with a physical component such as eating with utensils, drawing, getting dress and undressed and (of course) potty training. Pretty much any activity that requires some degree of physical finesse is appropriate.

What to Do: Break the activity down into its component steps and explain those steps to your toddler. Let your toddler attempt those steps on their own as you verbally guide them through and, whenever they seem to falter, step in to “manually guide” them to complete the step. You want the activity to be completed by your child, so make sure to continually adjust the level of guidance you are providing to the bare amount necessary.

When to Stop: This technique usually only requires the parent to step in two or three times in a session before the child gains the desired proficiency. Those gains may be fleeting, however, so keep this technique in your back pocket if your child starts to stumble again. 

#3 - Positive Social Reinforcement

Humans are social animals and so are toddlers! Teaching techniques based upon the concept of positive social reinforcement take advantage of this very human trait.

We introduced the concept of positive social reinforcement in our step-by-step potty training guide, The Potty Proud Approach, with our “Potty Pals” teaching technique. With “Potty Pals” we had parents explain how proud their child’s heroes and important life figures were of their potty training accomplishments. It didn’t matter if these figures were imagined, such as a favorite superhero, or real, such as an older sibling—what mattered was that it was an individual who the child cared about. The goal with invoking these “Potty Pals” was to reinforce the general social importance attached to being potty trained, the awareness of which is a powerful motivator.

This great teaching concept is not, however, limited to the potty training realm. It’s also a great technique for essentially any activity with a social component. This means hand washing, table manners, saying please and thank you and most hygiene-type activities.

To use this technique, first identify a set of individuals, real OR imagined, that you know your toddler cares about. Then, when you toddler successfully completes the activity you are trying to teach, explain to your toddler exactly how proud that individual is of him or her. If the person is real, such as grandma or grandpa, and the task completed is an important one, give them a call with your toddler so that everyone can explain how proud they are. It's that simple!

In a Nutshell - Manual Instruction

When to Use: Use this technique for teaching tasks with a social component, such as hand-washing, manners or potty training.

What to Do: First identify a set of individuals that you know your toddler cares about. Then, when you toddler successfully completes an activity you are trying to teach, explain to your toddler exactly how proud that individual is of him or her. The technique also works great as a reinforcement mechanism when used in a question and answer format by asking your child how those other individuals would handle a particular situation (e.g. “what does daddy / grandma / superman do before eating lunch? That’s right, they wash their hands.”)

When to Stop: This technique will work as long as what your are saying is truthful and as long as your child cares about the individual you are using as a social reference. In fact, positive social reinforcement even works on adults!

Happy Teaching!

We hope you enjoyed these teaching suggestions. We recognize that implementing them can take some time and effort, but why not make the best of being cooped up at home by grasping the opportunity to teach your toddler a set of important life skills? You’ll have to do it at some point and, like we said at the outset, there's no better time than the present!  

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