Understanding and working with toddler podcast

Understanding and working with toddlers [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are excited to welcome Heather Bernt-Santy. Heather is an Early Childhood Professor, Speaker, and Podcast Host. She has been in the early childhood education field for over 30 years. She has a special love for toddlers and we discussed how to understand them and work with them to effectively promote their growth and development.

Toddlers are underappreciated, even by those who have studied child development. Either people are afraid of toddlers and do not know what to do with them, or they do not recognize that there is anything of educational value to do with them since they are younger. Don’t get us wrong, there are many educators who love them, but it is rare to meet someone who says they are in this field specifically for 1 and 2-year-olds.

If you apply lifelong learning to toddlers, they become very fascinating with how much they are developing physically and cognitively. You have to be curious and able to look at a child and wonder what is happening rather than making an assumption. You need to understand the value of play and shift your focus away from traditional academics. You have to be willing to be on their side and not in control of them. Embrace the beautiful chaos that toddlers can bring.

When we talk about control within a classroom, we are talking about the educator that needs to lead all the activities, have circle time, table lead learning, etc. This is not achievable with toddlers because it is an inappropriate expectation. When you understand that some of what we fear in toddler behavior is developmentally typical and to be expected, we can look at our classroom and say, ‘how can I make this a better space for them with their current development levels?’

Educating toddlers can be controlled in the sense that the educator has appropriate expectiations and has set up a learning environment that meets toddlers needs. The educator must change as opposed to the toddlers changing. You can have a predictable flow to the day but still must always understand what toddlers are like.

As a director, when hiring toddler educators, look for individuals that seem teachable and ask what specifically they like about children and how they feel about learning through play. Keep your humanity at the forefront!

Listen to the full episode for free below!

Heather’s recommended resources:

Podcast Episode Transcript

Heather BERNT SANTY:

But it is controlled in the sense that the adult has appropriate expectations, is setting up and facilitating a learning environment that meets toddlers’ needs, and that we have that deep knowledge of the decades of research that tells us play is the way children learn best.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Heather, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

BERNT SANTY:

Thank you!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re delighted to have on the show with us today Heather Bernt Santy. She’s a professor, speaker and podcast host herself. And we’re going to be talking to Heather a little bit today about toddlers and working with toddlers – our favorite age group, certainly mine. Heather, welcome to the Preschool Podcast. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you and what is brought you into the world of early-childhood education.

BERNT SANTY:

Oh boy. So, I’ve been in the field for just a little over 30 years now. My first job, I was 19. I didn’t know that early-childhood education was a thing but I knew that there was a quote-unquote “daycare” down the road that was hiring. So, I didn’t know it was something you could study and take seriously. But I took the job because, like we all do, we like kids, so we go into this work.

And it took me a couple of years to be sort of introduced to other ideas that there are, developmental domains and things you can learn about to support children’s growth. And it’s not just a big parking garage for children. So, I’ve done just about every job you can since then, in the field. But what brought me in was just I’d always been comfortable around children. And I needed a job, so it seemed like a good fit.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wonderful. It’s funny, yeah, there’s been lot of folks who have kind of, for lack of a better explanation, fallen into early-childhood education. And then the more they’ve learned about it, become increasingly passionate. I’d put myself in that boat, too. And I think it just speaks to the need for us to continue to get the word out about early-childhood education and that profession and the importance of that work. Because certainly when a lot of us joined, we were very unaware of it, as you were. So, I appreciate you bringing that to our attention. And so here we are today, we’re talking about toddlers. I kind of jokingly said, “our favorite”. But tell us about your connection with toddlers and why you love chatting about toddlers.

BERNT SANTY:

Well, for one thing, I just know that they’re underappreciated, even among those of us who have studied child development. I have yet to – let me say this, as both a former childcare center director who was hiring people to work in the center, and also now as an early-childhood professor and program chair, working with folks who are just coming into the field –I’ve had one person in those roles who really knew that they wanted toddlers and they were applying specifically to be with toddlers.

Other than that, my experience has been either people are afraid of toddlers because they don’t know what to do with them, or they just don’t recognize that there’s anything of value because of their idea of teaching, which makes their idea is school. “I have to make it look like little school and it’s hard to do that with toddlers. So, I don’t want to work with them.”

Or I’ve had people that I hired to work with toddlers and they were in my office every day, saying, “When will there be an opening in preschool? I really want to get up to preschool.” And some of them with some coaching and mentoring came to really love toddlers. So, there are folks who definitely love toddlers. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m saying no one loves them. But it’s very rare for someone to say, “I specifically am doing this work because of one- and two-year-olds.”

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and it’s interesting that you say that because that’s kind of very representative of my feeling towards my children as toddlers, which is I have this view where it is one of the most challenging ages for young children. But at the same time it is actually the age I do love. Like, I really love that age. And part of that is just there’s so much development that is very visible during that time. If you think of the progression of, call it an 18-month-old to 36 months, I mean, it’s just an amazing journey of life. So, that certainly resonates with me. I was kind of picturing in my head the classroom of toddlers sitting at desks and how completely impossible that would be.

BERNT SANTY:

Yeah, I’ve had people just come in when I was a toddler teacher, another teacher comes in maybe to give my assistant a bathroom break or something. And you can see the fear in their eyes. And I mean, one of them actually said to me, “What can you even do with them?” And so I know that, and also from the flip side, having been a college student and now a college professor, there’s not a lot of focus on that area of development in our teacher prep a lot of times. So, it makes sense to me that people come in not knowing what to do with toddlers.

But so much of our work is learning on the job anyway and post-college learning, I think being a lifelong learner. And if you apply a little of that energy to toddlers, it becomes really fascinating. Their physical development is really explicit. But all the other areas, you have to really have some understanding of what you’re looking for. They’re not going to just show you how they’re cognitively developing or what’s going on with their emotional development, unless we have a baseline of expectation that’s appropriate for the age. And then it becomes really fascinating work.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, absolutely. And you mentioned somebody once asked the question, “What do you do with toddlers?”, which would be it would be great to discuss that a little bit further. But before we do, let’s maybe start a little bit more just around the mindset. What kind of mindset do educators need to have if they’re walking into a classroom with toddlers and working with toddlers on a on a regular basis?

BERNT SANTY:

Well, you have to be curious for sure. You have to be able to look at a child and wonder what’s happening, rather than making an assumption about what’s happening. And you need to understand play and the value of play. You need to sort of shift your focus from push-down academics to be able to work with this age group. So, for some people, it is just a complete culture shift to talk about things in that way. But we have to go in being willing to be on their side and not in power over them. Because that is the most frustrating way to live, is if you think you can control a group of eight toddlers and then you go home every night having not controlled them.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

That’s an interesting point because, to your point, you’re never going to control a group of toddlers and certainly not from the perspective of pushing-down academics, sort of as you’ve framed it. And that would be extremely challenging for someone who has kind of more of the teacher mindset. That said, we do need to actually have some control over what’s happening in our classrooms. Sort of “managed chaos”, let’s call it. So, what are some of the tactics and approaches to have that curiosity in the play, while also avoiding complete anarchy in the toddler group of toddlers?

BERNT SANTY:

Well, I don’t know that I’m going to come out and say that I’m anti-toddler anarchy.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

That’s one approach, too, is just be one with the anarchy.

BERNT SANTY:

Yeah, so I think that so much of what… so when we’re talking about control, when I’m talking about control, I’m talking about the adult who feels like they need to lead all the activities; and there needs to be a sit-down group time all the time; and there needs to be table activities where everybody does the same thing at the same time; and the teacher’s leading it all. And there’s never any misbehavior. It’s unachievable because it’s an inappropriate expectation for where toddlers are developmentally. Just as an aside, I think a lot of that stuff is also an inappropriate expectation for three- to five-year-olds, but that’s a different podcast.

So, when you understand that some of the things we fear about toddler behavior is really developmentally typical and to be expected, then we can look at preventing… like if we know they don’t have the skills to navigate around each other and so they walk over each other or they just knock each other down, then we can look at our space and say, “How can I make this a better space for them with their current physical development level, to move around people without having those conflicts? How do I reduce frustration and reduce crowdedness so that they aren’t as prone to biting? What kinds of materials can I put on my shelves that they can freely choose and interact with that will meet some of those developmental or educational goals that other people expect to be seeing?”

Because a lot of that can be done, is done, is practiced, in free play. We just have to have the skill to be able to recognize that. So, it’s never going to be controlled in the sense that everybody’s doing the same thing and it’s always smooth and no one ever cries. But it is controlled in the sense that the adult has appropriate expectations, is setting up and facilitating a learning environment that meets toddlers’ needs, and that we have that deep knowledge of the decades of research that tells us play is the way children learn best. So, a lot of it’s on the adult to change, rather than expecting a group of eight or ten toddlers to change.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s a good perspective, I think, just in terms of you’re never going to be able to predict exactly what’s going to happen on any given day or point in time in a classroom with toddlers. But you can expect toddlers to be toddlers.

BERNT SANTY:

Yes, exactly. Yeah, and our job is not to teach them to be preschoolers. Our job is just to support where they are as toddlers so that they can fully develop in that sense and then move to the next stage for themselves. I’ve met people who say, “Well, toddlers put everything in their mouths. And so my job is to teach them not to do that anymore.” But really, I mean, we want it to be safe, of course.

So, our job is to make sure everything in the space can be safely put in a mouth and to understand that children at that age are gathering a lot of sensory data that leads to brain development and connections in the brain by putting that thing in their mouth. So, it’s two different kinds of understanding. It’s fully understanding what this child needs and what they’re getting from what they’re doing, or thinking it’s your job to change the child.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, so it’s almost like an element of, there’s things you can do proactively in terms of the learning environment and the way things are set up and structured for the toddlers. But then, in any given moment or on any given day, there’s certainly an element of just going with the flow, it sounds like, and being flexible and adaptive.

BERNT SANTY:

Yeah, you can have a predictable flow to the day where they get there, they play, they have breakfast, they maybe sing some songs, read some stories, go outside, come back in, have lunch. So, there’s a predictable sequence that offers the structure that people like to talk about children needing. But it’s still within each of those pieces of the structure we go in understanding what toddlers are like.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

So, here’s a bit of a curveball question for you because you mentioned [that] a lot of folks are maybe a bit scared of toddler classrooms or are uncomfortable working with that age group because certainly there are challenges. If there’s administrators or directors listening out there today who might have an opening for a position with a toddler classroom, what kinds of things would you ask candidates through an interview or hiring process to try to understand if they’re going to be a good fit for that? Because it does sound like there’s a certain profile of folks who are going to be potentially more successful there.

BERNT SANTY:

Well, for one thing, I go into any interview feeling like even if they don’t have the skills now, if they seem like they’re teachable, then I’m likely to give them a chance in trying to develop them. Because like for that, for the reasons I mentioned, the teacher prep not really going deeply into infant and toddler development. And the uneven standards to where some people can come in for the job without having any teacher prep. I know that they’re not all going to come in with this dream list of things.

But one thing I always have just the general, “Why are you interested in this job?” And the answer is almost always some variation of, ‘Well, I just really love kids.” And then I always follow up with, “What do you like about kids?” And make them get a little more specific. Or then I’ll say, “So, what about a kid who drools all the time and their shirt’s are always soaked? Or what about the kid that sometimes bites other children?” And draw them out a little bit and get them into more open-ended kinds of discussion because I want them to know what they’re coming in for, too. So, those have to be real questions.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, setting expectations.

BERNT SANTY:

Yeah, and also I ask a lot about play. “What are your attitudes about play? What do you believe about play? How do you play?” So, those questions give me an idea of whether their minds are already made up. And if their minds are already made up, is it made up in the way that I need it to be for this classroom?

But also, do they seem like they’re open to other ideas about these thing? So, they may come in saying, “Well, if he bites, he should be kicked out.” Then I have to decide, because that’s not my policy, is that their fixed mindset? Or does it seem like, from the way we’ve been talking, that they would be open to thinking differently about something?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and you know what I think is a really interesting observation about what you’re saying, is you’re saying things like “ability to learn”, “open to new and different ideas”, which really are a lot of the characteristics that are required for that toddler classroom, right? You mentioned curiosity and being able to be flexible and adapting. So, that certainly makes a ton of sense; that makes a lot of sense. And some good tips for our listeners there, too. Anything else you think would be helpful for our listeners to hear or know or to think about when working with toddlers?

BERNT SANTY:

Well, I think the number one thing is to keep their humanity at the forefront. If we’re seeing them as a group that needs to be controlled, it won’t work very often for us. And it will lead to a lot of frustration for us and for the children. If we go into it thinking, “This is Jane, and Jane has been on Earth for 22 months. And really, instead of seeing this group of two-year-olds and here’s my expectation, I look at Jane and I think about how much practice she’s had and how much she still needs to meet some of the standards that she’ll meet down the road.”

And just really thinking about humanity. “Oh, he’s a biter.” No, he’s Chad and he was very frustrated. And he doesn’t have the language skills to express that. And also, he’s tired and hungry. Just using that different lens can impact so many other areas of a day with toddlers.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, which I think really reiterates one of your earlier points, which really resonated with me, which is just going in with the expectation and the knowledge of how toddlers do behave. And knowing that that’s going to happen really can help set you up for success. And related to that, are there any development resources or sources of information that our audience might be able to check out to learn more about toddlers’ development? Or anything at all that might help them in that early-childhood education setting, that you would like to share?

BERNT SANTY:

Yeah, I don’t know that this will be news to a lot of people, but Janet Lansbury is an excellent resource for understanding toddlers and humanizing the things that are confusing to us about toddlers. And she has a blog and a podcast and books. So, she’s one of my favorites to go to, for that age group, specifically.

For just understanding children’s needs – not specific to toddlers, but certainly relevant to toddlers – there’s a podcast called Teaching With The Body In Mind. And I know that Mike Huber is one of the hosts, but there’s two or three others whose names are failing me – so sorry, guys, but there’s a couple others on that show. But if people just wanted to find Teaching With The Body In Mind, that would pop up for them. And they really talk about what we know about children’s physical development and how they need to move and experience the world through their senses to really be supported and have their needs met. So, that’s a really good podcast.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool, awesome, thanks for sharing. And what about yourself, Heather? So, you have your own podcast. So, tell us a little bit about that and how folks might be able to get in touch with you and learn more about your work.

BERNT SANTY:

Oh, sure. So the podcast is called That Early Childhood Nerd. And we’re about 250 episodes in now. So, we’ve been going for a little while. So, sometimes it’s me and authors that join me. But sometimes it’s just I have a I have a group of co-hosts that we call the Nerd Collective. And so sometimes it’s just some of them coming on with me.

But we start with a quote that one of us has found interesting, or that speaks to an issue that’s currently on our minds. And then, yeah, we just sort of unpack it and spend a lot of time digging deep to expand each other’s thinking and do the best we can for children. And it’s on Spotify and it’s on iTunes. And my website is www.ThatEarlyChildhoodNerd.com. Podcasts, blogs and speaking topics are all there on that website, too.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

 Awesome, that sounds wonderful. I love the approach to the podcast and congratulations on having so many episodes. That is no small feat. I can speak from experience. Awesome. Well, Heather, it’s been really delightful having you on the Preschool Podcast with us today to share a bit more on toddlers and all the fun things about working with toddlers. Thanks so much for joining us today!

BERNT SANTY:

My pleasure, thank you for inviting me!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

One comment

  • Crez Ariola says:

    I live listening to your podcasts! This is so heloful and its all free! Thank you and I hope more EDucators will come to your site.

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