Friday, May 14, 2010

Toddlers: Avoiding Disciplining While Promoting Self-Discipline

In late February and early March of 2009, when Smiley was almost a year old, I wrote about discipline and how I was training Smiley to be a safe infant.

Now that Smiley is two everything is different.  I should write about what discipline is like for him as a toddler.

For requests, make use of how toddlers think with their hands.

When it is time to leave the library, I hand him my library card and ask him to carry it to the check-out desk.  Before I change his diaper, I hand him one of the small toys that he enjoys holding while being changed so he has something to do besides wiggle.  If he is being slow to leave the house and get in the car, I hand him something to take to the car.

It's hard to focus when you're only two.  Holding something helps, and can immediately alter what you are thinking about.  It is no fun to be still or follow boringly direct orders--but it is fun to hold something or being a helper by carrying something.

Most of preschool teaching and toddler education is arranging the environment.  Giving Smiley something to hold is a small but concentrated way to manipulate his environment.

It does not help much with reminding him to follow rules, but it is awfully helpful with making him agreeable to requests.

(When nothing physical is available for the hands, a ritual song or counting up can be almost as helpful for aiding focus.  Smiley likes when I sing Itsy Bitsy Spider or count up as he climbs into his car seat.  He is not racing against the song or counting, nor am I indicating impatience with my voice if he is slow.  The routine is simply enlarging the sensory scope of event so he is less inclined to be distracted by the joy of hanging from the coat-rack-handle above the doorway or something sees in the parking lot.)

For rules, respect the toddler's autonomy by only restricting their stuff.

Smiley has never been given a time-out.  But his stuff gets time-outs fairly often.  It is our normal method of discipline when he breaks a rule.  The popular guideline of "about one minute per year of age" applies.

If a toy truck is not following the rule of No Toys in the Kitchen then I ask, "Does the truck need a time-out?"  If his mug of tea is part of a problem with the rule No Hands in Your Mug then I ask, "Does the mug need a time-out?"

Almost always the question is sufficient to cause cooperation.  When this happens, I talk to the item that was threatened with time-out and thank it for following the rules.  Then I talk to Smiley and thank him for helping the item follow the rules.

Rarely he is inappropriately rough.  If we are roughhousing and he keeps hitting my face then I might put myself in time-out (I stop playing with him, stand up, and walk around or do housework).

Every now and then there is nothing to give a time-out to, so I redirect him instead.  But redirection, although effective at his age, does not teach him to exert self-discipline.

I could declare that obeying requests is a rule, but I try to avoid using time-outs to enforce my requests.  Smiley is old enough to reason with, and he will nearly always comply with requests if I can appropriately change his focus of attention (more on that below).

Yet there is an obvious correlation between having things in hand and putting things in time-out.  Holding a special toy when his diaper is being changed not only gives him something to do besides wiggle, it also gives me something to put in time-out if he is not cooperating on the changing table.  There are other times (although few so routine) that I anticipate trouble and quickly offer him something to hold just so that if he does act up the item is in his hands, reading for me to ask if it needs a time-out.

A reminder helps to focus attention.

Smiley is bright, but still often needs to process thoughts for a while.  I can almost see little gears turning in his head.

He also has the toddler habit of fixating on what he is doing.  Even when his attitude is cooperative it often takes him about ten seconds to transition from what he is doing to what is requested.  For example, if he is looking at something and I say, "Please come this way," he usually will listen without further prompting but only after a few seconds of delay.  He is not being willful or prioritizing his desires over mine, he is just dealing with a toddler's brain.

When I need to remind him of something, I use three ways to direct his focus.  Imagine he is standing on a chair, or asking me to play with a toy while I am still eating dinner.
  • Optimal is with an open statement or question, if this is age-appropriate and he is awake enough.  This teaches the habit of self-monitoring.  "Uh oh.  Please be a listening boy."  "I would like to play with toys but I can't now.  Please look at me and tell me why."
  • Next best is a reply that points out what behavior is inappropriate while also describing an alternative.  This does not teach self-monitoring but does assure him that with different timing or method he can have what he wants.  "Please look at your feet.  Can I help you reach something?"  "I would like to play with that, and will be done with dinner soon."
  • Least helpful, but sufficient, is to only point out what is inappropriate.  "No standing on chairs, please."  "I'm still eating."
When I do not need to remind him of something, I often do so anyway when I can phrase it as a compliment.  By thanking him frequently for following rules, I help teach him to be mindful of his actions while being able to offer the kind of action-specific praise that toddlers thirve on ("thank you for helping the truck stay out of the kitchen" is better than "good listening").  Depending upon who you believe, the ratio of compliments to criticisms should be at least 3:1, probably more than 5:1, and perhaps 20:1.

A warning is an ineffective "freebie" chance.

Once he is thinking about the rule or request, the next instance of non-compliance prompts a consequence.  He never gets any warnings, since at his age they are counterproductive and primarily teach the child that he or she need not cooperate until the "free chances" are used up (after the request is repeated so many times, or a certain tone of voice is used, or counting down starts, etc.).

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