Lessons From a Toddler Classroom

PART ONE: Asking for Love in Unloving Ways

* Note: Though this story takes place in a classroom, this piece is intended for ANYONE who has ever loved a toddler *

In toddlerhood, we see a lot of limit-pushing and testing, and it’s one-hundred-percent developmentally appropriate. They’re emerging from a stage where they were completely dependent on their Carers but are now beginning to learn how to do new things on their own! They’re learning to walk, to talk, to feed themselves, to build, to explore… so naturally we should expect they will test everything they are interacting with to figure out their new skills and their burgeoning self-sufficiency!

When we put these todds in learning centers and day care settings, however, we see the developmentally appropriate limit pushing added to the testing that naturally comes with new teachers, new students, new classrooms, new routines… and all the uncertainty that naturally occurs in this type of environment.

In an environment where so much is changing and unpredictable (as is unfortunately inevitable in these care-center settings), toddlers need to ask the question, “am I still safe here?”

The Carers charged with the safety of these youngsters are also charged with proving it to them. We must be equipped to create environments which affirm their quest for physical safety—and we are always experts at that! —but, also their quest for emotional safety. And sometimes the situations when emotional safety is in jeopardy from our Little’s perspective are simultaneously the situations when physical safety seems to be in jeopardy from our Caring perspective.

Many weeks ago, I was called in to substitute for an aid in a school’s toddler classroom; these 8 children were all 30-36 months old. Their lead teacher, Mrs. Tabitha, was a wonderful, passionate educarer who was brand new to toddler-care. She informed me that several toddler friends had recently left the room to transition to the older class within the last month, and new friends were being transitioned into this room from the younger class. To make matters even more unstable, the center had been unable to find a reliable, steady assistant for the room in months, often leaving Mrs. Tabitha to work alone with a room full of toddlers, or else to constantly adjust to substitute teachers coming in and out of the room. It was immediately evident that these todds were starved for stability, but also for emotional safety.

As is to be expected, they began testing limits as soon as this new substitute (myself) walked through the door. I was prepared for this and met their testing questions with a jam-packed day’s worth of,

“I won’t let you climb on the cot cart. Put your feet on the ground like this. / I can tell you want to play with these cool cars! It’s circle time right now. We will play with these when circle time is over. / You can sit on the carpet or in my lap. Which one works best for you? / You want to get Mickey Mouse out, but Mrs. Tabitha said not until after lunch. We need to put him away. Do you want to do it by yourself, or do you want my help? / You’re having a hard time sitting on your bottom. I’m going to put this chair away so I can keep you safe. / You’re having a hard time not hitting your friends with the dinosaur. Thank you for letting me know you need help. I will put him away now.”

However, there was also an element of toddler violence present in the room. And as pre-naptime fatigue increased, so did the number of swings, shoves, and kicks. Two-and-a-half-year-old Broden was especially aggressive as his tiredness set in.

He was a child who was clearly already having a hard time using words to express himself (speech delays complicated his efforts), and the mounting frustrations from fatigue combined with weeks of constant change proved too great an adversary for him. After endless corrections from his worn-out lead teacher, one last hard shove landed him in time-out in an isolated corner of the room. Understanding the root of his misbehavior, his cries of despair were more than I could bear to idly listen to.

I scooted over to him and held him close. “Sometimes it’s just so hard, isn’t it.” He cried harder. I rubbed his back. “I hear how upset you are. You are so sad and so angry mixed together. And that is so hard. I hear you.” After a few seconds, his cries became softer and he melted into my arms with only little whimpers left.

“Mrs. Tabitha and I are going to work together to get the cots set up. Then you will be able to get under your blankets and rest.” Again his tears started to flow. “It will feel so nice to rest.” His cries softened. “I’m going to help Mrs. Tabitha. You can lay down and rest right here, or you can look at books until we find your cot. I will be right back when it’s ready.”

Feeling heard and understood, he felt safe enough to grab a book off the shelf and lay down with it. When his cot was ready, I took him by the hand, tucked him in, and asked, “Do you want me to rub your back?” He nodded. I smiled into his eyes as I rubbed his back and said, “Now you can rest. I’ll be right here.” And he fell asleep.

A quote from the Gottman Institute continued to occur to me as I interacted with Broden:

“The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.”

This was a classroom full of children BEGGING for love in the most unloving ways. BEGGING for emotional safety.

Broden wasn’t hitting and shoving and kicking because he was a “bad kid;” he was using those behaviors to send an S.O.S.:

“Show me I’m safe! Show me you can handle the worst I can dish out! Show me you’ll still love me! Show me you’ve got this! I’m scared! I feel unsteady! I don’t know if I can trust you! I don’t know if I’m really safe! Show me I am!”

Kids who are begging for safety in this way are ultimately craving connection. They want to be heard, to be understood, to be comforted, to be loved.

They need to know their Carers can handle it; that we can keep them safe through all the scary and uncertain moments of their tumultuous toddlerhood. They need to know we can love them through the experiments-gone-awry, through the meltdowns and tantrums, through the pre-naptime fatigue and pre-lunch attitudes, through the moments they want to run wildly in circles, and through the moments when they just want to snuggle. They need to know they are free to explore this big new world within the wide walls of our unconditional safety, and on our firm foundation of unconditional love.

And for Carers, this is just as enormous an undertaking as it sounds…

But it becomes easier each time we choose to see our Little’s misbehavior as the cry for help it truly is.

… To be continued…

 See if you can begin to hear the real requests hiding beneath the surface of your Little’s challenging behaviors this week. See if you can begin to shift your response to these behaviors toward Connection.

Most importantly, Carers: KEEP BREATHING. You can handle this!

Today and always, I wish you well.

Coming Soon!

Part Two: Lessons From a Toddler Classroom: setting firm limits founded on connection

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